Monday, March 26, 2012

Blood, Sweat and a Disallowed Goal

(As part of my quest to experience the sights, sounds and smells of Kolkata, I went to something that has been on numerous lists of sporting events to watch before you die: East Bengal v Mohun Bagan. The experience was overwhelming enough for me to have to write about it, though the scourge of Bengal - lyadh - meant it took me almost two months to finish writing it. Nevertheless, I sent it to the good peeps at Tehelka, who went ahead and published an edited version here.)

A derby’s no fun if you don’t pick a side. So when an elderly gentleman – who I assume isn’t a scalper – offers me an extra ticket he has to the VIP stand for East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan, I don’t even have to ask him how much. Thanks but no thanks; I’ll go buy a general ticket from the counter for the East Bengal end. Not that I have much choice in picking sides. Within seconds of my arrival at the stadium – two and a half hours before kick-off, to avoid the crush of tens of thousands of fans entering together – I have been assaulted by a face-painter and a guy selling flags, and am covered in red and gold. If I decide to sit in the Mohun Bagan end, I will be lynched.

I exaggerate, but not by much. This isn’t a football match; this is war by proxy, and sometimes just war. The bitter rivalry is as well-documented as it is fierce. Personally, I have largely stayed aloof of the conflict through a lifetime of not watching Indian football. It helped that the two teams consistently underperformed over so many years and football followed quizzing out of Kolkata to greener pastures. My first team in the derby was Bagan. Bhaichung Bhutia played there at the time, and he was the only Indian footballer I recognised, so it was a simple choice. When I told my parents my choice, mom threatened to not feed me. I promptly became an East Bengal fan.

I buy my ticket. It comes with a printed appeal from the club not to get violent and a long list of things prohibited inside the stadium. As I struggle to read the Bangla document, another man bedecked in red and gold says, “They should give these pamphlets to the Mohun Bagan people. Those drunks are the violent ones, not us.” I join their group as they talk about the season so far, cursing opposition teams, referees, their own players and other fans, such as the ones who besieged the team after their loss to Aryan Club in January. “Doesn’t Manchester United lose matches? Doesn’t Messi miss goals? You have to be calm when these things happen,” says one fan, not very calmly. I am welcomed into the group because I have something important to contribute: today’s newspaper that has a preview of the big match. Alas, newspapers are on the list of prohibited items, due to the fans’ propensity to use them to replicate the East Bengal symbol, a flaming torch. I commit the sacrilege of throwing away the day’s paper before noon.


The almost empty stadium already has an aura. Its size reminds me of the Coliseum. So do the facilities. There’s no scoreboard or giant screen or post-Roman seating. The playing field seems tiny by comparison. There are policemen everywhere. Walking. Inspecting. Instructing other policemen. A canine unit sniffs a goalpost. If ever you wanted to rob a bank, today’s the day. The sun’s behind the Bagan end, making sitting in the first thirty rows of our stands a pain. My neighbour mutters something about a conspiracy. Just like how they disabled the floodlights in November. We early birds take shelter from the February sun in the shade of the upper rows. A group of vendors sit together with their wares, waiting for more people to show up. A young fan braves the sun and puts up his banner on the railing. He asks me to watch his flag while he goes and pees.

Fans enter the arena with primal screams and whoops. They echo in the silent stadium and are met with similar screams from the other end. Fan clubs from different areas come in with drums and banners. The Bagan fan clubs seem more organised: a large banner supporting the Mariners and another proclaiming 'Green and Maroon Dreams' were up already when I entered the stadium.

One fan enters my section chanting what is evidently a common chant for the red and gold: “Cha chini doodh hai, Mohun Bagan chut hai!” The others join in and this goes on for a while. A vendor sells popcorn, advertising that it is a great way to pass the time. He is largely ignored; the fans are already absorbed in discussing the relative merits of the potential starting line-ups.

The players come out to warm up to standing ovations. Wisely, both teams practise at their respective ends. The East Bengal ’keeper – a De Gea-esque weak link, my neighbour tells me; little does he know that he will be the hero of the IFA Shield winning team less than two months later – makes an excellent save, leading to loud cheers. The crowd seems to energise him as he starts vigorously diving left and right.

Tolgay Ozbey – East Bengal’s Great White Hope from Turkey via Australia – punts a ball up the field into the Bagan half. As a flunky goes to fetch it, he is greeted by loud jeering from the Green and Maroon. Thankfully, one of the Bagan players kicks the ball back, and practice carries on.

The match begins at a frenetic pace. Unfortunately, as is the wont of most Indian football sides, the quality does not nearly match the pace. East Bengal is playing badly. Thankfully, Bagan is playing worse. Win the ball, pass, run down the flank, wait for the rest of the team to catch up, pass, be tackled, lose the ball, appeal for a free kick, be rejected, listen to crowd abuse the poor ref, get up and run back to defend. Lather, rinse, repeat. As is usual in games where both teams play this badly, it’s terribly exciting. Every East Bengal attack, every successful tackle by its rock of a central defender, Uga Okpara, and every referee’s decision in our favour is met with a standing ovation. The bhadralok behind me does not approve: he keeps tugging at my shirt to make me sit every time. Poor guy can’t see.

A Bagan hand ball wins us a free kick. The red and gold faithful shout for a red card, though few have seen the incident. Doesn’t matter. The ref has already committed the cardinal sin of booking an East Bengal player two minutes in. He must compensate by sending off at least three of those violent drunks. Ozbey walks up to take it. “Tolgay! Tolgay!” The chant is electric. He comes close. The man behind me tugs my shirt. He can’t see.

And then we score. And all hell breaks loose.


It’s half time. 1-0. Bagan have looked toothless. But the fans are not convinced. “We need at least six goals before I’ll be convinced we won’t fuck this up,” says one veteran of many a derby. People nod in agreement. Others walk to stretch their legs and relieve their bladders. Joints are being rolled by deft fingers. The vendors vend their wares. Their customers complain about the prices. 10 bucks for jhaalmuri. Outrageous. One section of the crowd is dancing to fervent drumbeats. Across the field, they’re also complaining about the prices. No dancing, though. I feel sorry for them. A derby is not worth having if there’s no dancing.

I walk out of the shade. It’s fun and all, but I want to be where the action is. I regret my choice; the sun doesn’t seem to know it is February. The match restarts. And Bagan score. The dancing stops. One fan walks to the front of the stands and dispassionately throws a firecracker at the Bagan goal, catching the ’keeper by surprise. He silently walks back.

The goal wakes the green and maroon. All of a sudden, they think they’re Man Utd. Wave after wave attacks the hapless East Bengal defence, who look shell-shocked. You can hear a pin drop. The Bagan fans are delirious. I find myself hating their guts. The feeling jolts me. I’m supposed to be neutral, aren’t I? But here I am, wishing violent deaths on thousands of people I have never met before. Is this what happens in communal riots?

East Bengal finally finds its bearings and the game resumes the end-to-end flow it started with. The crowd finds its voice, and the atmosphere is now electric. Barreto comes on, adding to the noise. One fan asks him to do something unprintable with a goalpost. Another asks the Bagan coach to wear a condom. I don’t get it, though many people laugh.

Mehtab Hussain – one of many players to have played for both sides – makes a crunching tackle on former teammate Barreto. The Brazilian goes down holding his groin. Hussain looks pleased with himself. The stretcher comes out. “Take him to the burning ghat!” one fan cries out. “Hori Bol! Bolo Hori!” chants the faithful, less than a decade after Cristiano Junior’s tragic on-field death.

And then Tolgay scores. Pandemonium. The referee disallows it for offside. More pandemonium. More firecrackers. More abuse. The police spring into action and surround the pitch. They’ve seen this before.

The outrage spurs East Bengal, who play like a team possessed. Penn Orji, hitherto marked out of the game, tackles Hudson Lima. The stretcher comes back out. “Hori Bol! Bolo Hori!” I find myself joining in. Bagan have run out of substitutions, so they play with ten men.

The attacks are relentless. Raju Gaikwad seems to be a throw-in specialist, running in from ten yards and launching the ball into the Bagan penalty box. Khabra comes close, then Tolgay, then Tolgay again, and again. The Bagan defenders look dead on their feet. But it isn’t enough. The ref gives five minutes of injury time, even that’s not enough. The game ends in a draw.


We peter out of the stadium. There’s a lot of frustration among the red and gold. Somebody gets a phone call from a friend watching at home. Apparently, the replays showed that was no offside. More outrage. An old man rants for ten minutes to no one in particular. The cops are nervous.

There’s no hope of getting a bus or taxi. I’m going to have to walk home. I follow the herd out onto the EM Bypass, as trucks full of supporters from both teams cross each other, hurling abuse. I seem to be the only happy spectator. My hatred is dissipating rapidly as the awesomeness of what I have just witnessed sinks in.

But there’s a problem. The Beleghata crossing is a sea of green and maroon. At least a hundred of them are in the middle of the road, debating the finer points of the offside rule with bemused policemen. My red and gold face paint isn’t going to do me any favours. I’m the only East Bengal fan in sight, other than a boy who can’t be older than eight. Shit. My cousin’s warnings echo in my ears. They wouldn’t beat me up with cops around, would they?

As I approach the crossing, the crowd notices me. Much abuse flows my way. Menacing looks all around. If they riot, I’ll save the child, I resolve. Poor kid, he must be terrified.

“Put that flag away or I’ll stick it up your arse!” one of them shouts.

“I’ll fuck your mother,” says the eight-year-old.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Charulata 2011: A Review

I should probably rephrase that. This is not a review. A review requires objectivity. A review requires a calm head. And I am not calm.

I am pissed. Pissed because I spent the better part of a beautiful Saturday afternoon in a room with a thousand other people watching one of my favourite films – probably the greatest film made by one of the greatest directors the world will ever see – butchered by a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual hack who would not know subtlety if it kicked him in the balls. I am pissed that I paid good money to put myself through this torture, and in doing so, contributed to the box office success of this affront to human intelligence. I am pissed that I watched this movie at Nandan, a building inaugurated by Satyajit Ray himself. I apologised to the plaque at the entrance, which was ironically hidden behind a giant poster for the film. I am pissed because I knew this would be bad, but allowed a deadly cocktail of masochism and schadenfreude to guide me to the cinema.

This isn’t a review because a review requires subtlety and tact. In a review, I would not be able to say that Dibyendu Mukherjee plays Sanjay/Amal with the expressions of a pornstar on coke who traded in his brain for a couple of inches of cock (Some people would say that in a review, but I am not some people). In a review, I would not be able to say that the only thing graceful about Rituparna Sengupta’s Chaiti/Charulata2011 (yes, her Facebook profile is called Charulata2011) is the giant wart on her nose. I like that wart. I call it Fred. If she ever wants to get it surgically removed, I will pay more than I did for this movie to keep it as a pet. Bikramjit/Bhupati is played by Arjun Chakraborty, who looks as if he just came out of an LIC commercial. The image of him humping Chaiti is going to haunt me for a few weeks. Thankfully for the Trinamool Congress’s future electoral prospects, Bratya Basu rejected the role after initially accepting it.

Oh yes, the story. Chaiti is the lonely wife of busy newspaper editor Bikramjit. Of course, she has two close friends, Arnobi (played by the actor known only as Rii) and gay BFF Pushpo (played to near perfection by Priya Pal) with whom she frequently hangs out, so she’s not really lonely lonely, but, you know, lonely. Fuck it, why am I being coy, she’s horny. She says as much in the first five minutes. Instead of using a bedpost as a phallic symbol (there is a disappointing lack of bedposts in the film), she masturbates before being interrupted by her awkward husband. She’s suffered a miscarriage (the synopsis on the film’s website says two miscarriages, but I might have missed that while hammering myself on the head), and believes God is punishing her for having a cyber-affair with a stranger on Facebook, the redoubtable Amal (yes, he’s a stranger on Facebook who just happened to use the alias Amal, knowing that in the future, some Bong female called Charulata2011 was going to be lonely and want to chat with him). All she knows about him is that he lives in London and has a beard. No, they’re not having hot, kinky Facebook chat sex, it’s mostly her whining about being lonely and him philosophising, scratch that, babbling faux existentialism and quoting Tagore and the Bee Gees. Because she has a bizarre dream sequence which we know is a dream sequence because Pushpo’s doing a ballet and everyone is speaking in slow motion, she stops chatting with Amal. So he decides to come to Kolkata and she starts talking to him again and decides to meet him. Some humour about beards follows, and then she humps him before feeling bad about it and telling him not to talk to her again.

Meanwhile, Bikramjit has invited Chaiti’s bro and sis-in-law (played excellently by Kaushik Sen and Dolon Roy) from Mumbai to keep her company and said bro begins to con Mr B out of 10 lakh rupees. There is one conversation about values and morals that has all the nuance and coherence of a Baba Ramdev lecture on corruption, through which we are told that the B-Man does not like disloyalty. Then his cousin Sanjay shows up, and surprise! It’s Amal. The rest follows Charulata/Nashtanirh’s plot for a while; just replace all that about Charu’s liberation, her attempts at writing, the swing scene, the part about Charu being unsure of her feelings and the ethics of falling in love with Amal and the beautiful silences that speak so eloquently with average guitar playing and lots of humping. And replace the ending where Bhupati sees Charu break down at the news of Amal’s impending wedding with the clichéd laptop switcheroo and the reading of love emails (even though they mention specific incidents and refer to Bikramjit as Dada, the learned editor who claims to dictate what Bengal thinks is stumped by the use of an alias). Throw in a nicely shot heart attack and another pregnancy.

Like the name suggests, this is a modern take on Tagore’s novella. Its idea of showing modernity is filling a room with as many Apple products as possible (two iPhones, an iPad, two Mac laptops and a Mac desktop at last count), some slick editing with switching between five or six different timelines (fun at first, then confusing, then frustrating, then blah), the animal humping, the Facebook affair (which, intriguingly, takes place on Gmail) and the gay BFF. The direction is average: not one frame does anything to add to the story. Chandril Bhattacharya of Chandrabindoo often bemoans the prudishness of old Bangla culture and how modern Bong pop culture talks about real people and their concerns with no coyness. A bunch of directors in Tollywood claim to be pushing the envelope with ground-breaking films. If this film is representative of this new movement (I haven’t seen the other, better films like Gandu, Bedroom and Baishey Srabon, to be honest), you can keep your revolution. I like some story with my porno, thank you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch the original Charulata. That way, I won’t kill anyone.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tamse, you little bugger

My heart pines for Goa. Not in the uber-emo way I whined about hating engineering in the last post (any military dirge jokes will be met with the contempt they deserve), but in more of a there's-no-place-like-home sort of way. And unlike a certain homesick Konkani civil engineer in English, August, I'm not reacting through horrible paintings of boatmen in Vietnamese hats. But I do miss Goa. Even the humidity and the rude bus conductors. Come to think of it, I probably would give my appendix to be pushed to the back of a tiny Goa bus with 45 others, while laughing at the sign saying '11 Standing'. Then again, I'd probably give my appendix for the chicken rolls at the shop behind the Indian Coffee House in Jamnipalli (Tara has promised to treat me to one for carrying her bag today, so I think that the vermiform one is safe for a few days yet). It is an organ I don't put too much of a price on.

I've always looked at myself as intrepid. I pride myself on being able to live anywhere, with anybody. I am a Bengali (a rather proud one at that) who grew up in Chandigarh, with parents who took me to most of the states in the country. I often styled myself in the image of the rootless outsider, with no real native place. Of course, I wasn't an Army kid with a father who got transferred every month. I lived in one place. But home to me wasn't Chandigarh, or Kolkata, or Kumarhatti or Timbuktu. Home was wherever my family was. It still is, but ever since I moved to Goa, it seems more often a home away from home.

There are a lot of things I love about Chandigarh. It's clean. It's organised. It's where I grew up. But it has no soul. It's lost in a sea of Jats in pimped out BMWs stalking girls with blaring rap music (the depressing part is that it works), and mega-sales and "Ooh, I want a Guchhi bag!" Culture is restricted to Shiamak Dawar dance workshops and housefulls for, well, Housefull. Again, as I said in the last post, there's nothing wrong with it, but it's not me.

In Goa, I finally found what I had always been telling myself I never got: acceptance. Not just in college, but everywhere from Porvorim to Palolem (okay, I haven't been there, but the only other alliterative place I could come up with was Panaji, which restricts my geographical acceptance radius to less than 10 kilometres). Forgive the cliche, but Goa is not a state, it's a state of mind. It wasn't just acceptance; in Goa I found a place that moves at my pace. At the risk of sounding like a neurotic foreign tourist discovering myself, I fell in love with the food, the language, the music, and the people. I found heaven at Ronnie's in Cortalim, and I found Bogmalo, which is somewhere between where I want to be put out for the vultures when I die (I'm still torn between whether to use coconut chutney and beef vindaloo as stuffing) and where I'm going to open a shack with my retirement fund. I saw the stunning beauty of the Vasco-Panaji bus route in the rains, and the exhilaration of Carnaval. Ultimately, I guess, I fell in love with Goa because of all the friends that I made.

I love Goa. And I want to go back.

(I guess I knew this post was coming the moment I wrote the last one. Over the last few months, every time I think about how much I despise engineering, I remember that without it, I would never have come to Goa. And I really need to stop clicking on New Post without thinking of what to write. I must sleep now; I need to report in the Bake Oven tomorrow morning)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Soul Searching at 4 AM: Never a good idea

There is something mesmerising about watching molten aluminium flow. Those few seconds between ladle and furnace were one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. As I stood transfixed on the cast-house floor, a crane passed overhead, and the shouts of my fellow students shook me out of my reverie. If that thing fell on you, your hard hat couldn't save your ass. After a considerably pissed Sreedhar - who I suspect is scared of me - gave me a lecture on safety, I thought that for the first time in my life, it all meant something. That being an engineer wasn't just memorising Reynold's Transport Theorem. The sheer brilliance of that pink liquid drew me to a life spent in factories like this. And then, the BLC tour guide ruined it all by rattling off figures and capacities and temperatures and procedures.

I was never meant to be an engineer. Well, I was, but only in the life planned out for me by my parents. In the larger, dare I say cosmic, sense, I was always meant for greater things. Or so I said to myself on numerous occasions. The seminal novel in Anglo-Indian literature, the Pather Panchali of the twenty-first century, the celebrated role in breaking the deadlock in multinational trade talks, the daily dispatches from the latest African war zone... these were all, and - I'm not ashamed to say it - still are, roles that I saw myself playing in my eventful life. A bestselling biography, starting with, "To everyone else he was an enigma. To his sister, he was just a pig," would be written by the Roman Rolland of the day.

But, life's a bitch that way. Through some bad decisions, quick capitulations and great expectations, I find myself at the end of two years of engineering. I'll make a bad engineer, I know that much. Why? Because I do not, can not, love engineering. Because I will always be drawn to the poetic splashing of rapidly cooling aluminium, or the redness of the furnace, rather than the beauty of the elegant Hall-Heroult process or the complexity of an Integrated Circuit. Because when someone tells me about how the unions are ruining their industry, I retort by saying that the unsafe conditions at the plant are a good reason for the latest strike. Because I recoil at the amount of pollution spewed out by the massive chimneys more than I am impressed with the 13 Thermal Power Plants in Korba.

I'm not taking the high ground here. I know how important aluminium smelting is for our economy. It's just that I could not live with myself if this became my life. Not because it's inhuman, but because it's not me. I couldn't take the pressure that the engineers I've talked to live with. Not because I can't take pressure, but because my heart wouldn't be in it. Of course, it'll be extremely hard to walk away from engineering, considering all my formal education is centered on it. And I'll be turning my back on a comfortable lifestyle, the kind I've been brought up on (let's face it, for all the leftism I claim to possess, I am but an upper middle class kid who can't use an Indian style toilet).

The dilemma depresses me. And it troubles my parents. But it exists. And it must be resolved. The thing is, I've been digging myself a deep hole for the better part of twenty years. And the prospects of getting out of it, and living the life I alway wanted to live, and signing copies of the biography I always wanted written about me, are looking bleaker every day.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why I don't have too many friends

Yesterday evening, I watched a couple breaking up. A stray gust of the coolest breeze had drawn me away from the library into the inviting darkness of my favourite riverside path for a solitary walk, and I couldn't resist sitting in on an argument between two people I don't know. (A welcome change from couples sitting silently, leading me to think that all they do do is sit silently for hours on end, and make others believe that they do actually have a life.) I don't know why I did it: I don't usually like watching arguments, even though I have consciously started more than my fair share. It was probably the refrain that the guy kept up, in his efforts to show indignation:

"What have I been doing these two years?!"

A fair question.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The mind is restless, O Krishna!

"I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

Mrs Frost probably agreed, as she gave poor Robert the business end of her umbrella for getting them infernally lost.

Turns out poor Robert actually led a generally fucked up life, with a dad who left the family $8 when he died, him, his mother and his wife suffering from depression, a daughter he had to commit to an asylum, and all but two of his children dying before him. Ouch.

In other news, it has now been 16 days since my laptop died, and the days of hand wringing, verbal diarrhoea and crying myself to sleep are finally behind me, and I have successfully negotiated the five stages of the Kübler-Ross model. (Yes, I get the callousness of grieving over a lost laptop, while poor Robert wrote abominable poems after the loss of his children.) On the bright side, I've taken recourse in books, finally getting around to reading 'Mother' by Maxim Gorky.

One book that I recently reread is Upamanyu Chatterjee's 'English, August' (This would be the time to get scandalised, Mom). A brilliant book and one of my perennial favourites, it struck a peculiar chord this time, with its theme of dislocation and culture shock. Once you get past the brilliant satire and often adolescent humour, you get a profoundly sad story of a permanent outsider as he struggles to define his ambitions. I know it's terribly bourgeois, but there's been many a night when the question has given me sleepless nights. As for the culture shock, I am going to spend the next two months getting hazaar fucked in Korba, Chhattisgarh. Oh, and the characters of Prashant, the ample-bosomed childhood friend and Sathe the cartoonist are just plain creepy.

P.S. Meta-fiction is fun at first, but trust me, a hundred pages of it makes you want to do horribly unspeakable things with a certain Signor Calvino.

Monday, March 29, 2010

I love this so much, I think I'll post this again.

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