The Makrana marble of the imposing Victoria Memorial glowed in the rays of the afternoon sun. The lush green stretch of the Maidan geared up to welcome boisterous spectators from all corners of Calcutta. Twelve hours ago, Pandit Nehru had delivered a rousing speech heralding the birth of an independent nation, but in the erstwhile capital of British India, Bengal football was about to witness a one-of-a-kind ‘tryst with destiny’.
A young man appeared in the centre of the Maidan, holding a public address system. He looked at the sea of sweaty figures, interlaced occasionally with colourful umbrellas. His face broke into a smile. Clearing this throat, he began to address the crowd in Bengali.
“Namaskar! My dear friends, countrymen & Bengalis, lend me your ears. It gives me immense pleasure to flag off the historic football match between two legends, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting Club. Why did I use the word historic? At a time, when our country is dealing with the bitter-sweet aftermath of Partition, your rational brains must be questioning the need for conducting such an event. I request you to be patient. It will be explained in due course of time. So, dear friends! Put your hands together and give our players a rousing welcome.”
Loud cheers erupted from the crowd as eleven men in maroon and green jerseys trotted to the centre, and lined up next to each other. A diminuendo followed the cacophony, as die-hard fans of Mohun Bagan spotted Sharjeel Islam and Murtaza Rahman in the line-up. What were the players from the rival club doing here, they wondered? The black and white brigade announced their presence in a similar fashion, with Atanu Dey and Bikash Mukherjee in their midst. Whispers grew louder. Was there a mix-up?
Grinning broadly, the young man raised his loudspeaker again. “Friends! A hundred questions must be swirling in your minds. However, let me quell your doubts. Two players from Mohun Bagan have crossed over to Mohammedan Sporting Club, and vice versa. Solely for this match! Just for you! Religions might divide us, but this beautiful game of football will unite us. So, let the game begin.”
The spectators clapped enthusiastically and whistled, as the players shook hands. The referee blew his whistle, and the match commenced.
Sharjeel dribbled the ball for a minute, sending the euphoric fans into a rapturous tizzy. He passed the ball to the defender, which was however intercepted by Bikash. The crowd hooted, as the ball whizzed by different players for what seemed like an eternity. The chants reached a crescendo when Atanu, aided by a breath-taking bicycle kick, scored the first goal for Mohammedan Sporting Club.
“I don’t know whether to cheer Atanu or curse him,” an old man amidst the spectators murmured.
“Why, dadu? What a magnificent goal he scored!” the boy next to him replied.
“He is our player,” declared dadu.
“Oh! Mohun Bagan?” the boy looked up.
The boy smiled. “I support Mohammedan. But today, I am just going to enjoy this beautiful game. Even if our Murtaza scores a goal for your team, I will be happy.”
“Hmm. You are right, son.”
“Dadu! Look! It seems like your team will equalize the score now.”
Mohun Bagan’s captain Sanjib Dutta lobbed the ball, but the alert goalkeeper jumped up in the air, raising his hands.
Goal saved! The fans in black and white jerseys danced with joy, while the ones donning the maroon and green jerseys uttered expletives at their captain. But the genteel Bengali intelligentsia that they were, the roles were soon reversed, when Sanjib intercepted the ball from Shaqib, and nudged it slightly towards the goal. Mohun Bagan was back in the game!
The referee blew the whistle, signalling the end of the first half. The crowd dispersed to have tea, and puffed rice topped with thin coconut slices.
A bald man looked at his watch and shook his head wistfully. “I hope they have reached safely!”
“All fine, dada?” the bearded man inquired, with a note of concern in his voice.
“They were close to me. The Iqbal family.”
“I understand, dada. I am from Hasnabad. Hindu refugees from East Pakistan are arriving in hordes. My wife and I do whatever we can to lessen their problems. We offer them rice, sometimes cha. Don’t worry, dada. Maa Kali will take care of everything.”
The second half commenced. Tempers flared again, and players were cursed liberally by disappointed fans for failing to score a goal. Goalkeepers were put on pedestals, and a heated debate arose in the stands as to who the better goalie was. However, both the teams held their nerves for the next forty-five minutes. The match ended in a draw, and in an act which caught the fans by surprise, the clubs refused to toss a coin to decide the winner.
Dadu flashed a toothless grin and slapped the boy on his back. “So, son! Who won today?” he winked mischievously.
The boy stood on his toes, and hugged him. “Football!”
“Dada! Congratulations!” A man in maroon and green put his arm around a Mohammedan fan.
“To you too, bhai!”
The two men hugged, as people around them cheered and clapped.
The players waved at the spectators, and hugged each other. Tears streamed down their faces, which they didn’t bother to wipe away. The thunderous applause refused to subside. The different jerseys mingled with one another in a heart-warming show of solidarity. Those ninety minutes would forever be etched in their memories. For once, they could obliterate those painful scenes of partition, and revel in the marvellous game. The departing Britishers might have divided the nation, but football united her people.
This is a work of fiction, and so are the players’ names.
Before the 1970s, penalty strokes were not in use to decide the winner in case of a draw. It was done by tossing a coin.
Dadu – Grandpa (here used to address an old man respectfully)
Event Sponsored by Kasturi Patra, Published Writer, A Mother’s Goodbye
Can a woman be a mother at the cost of being herself? Can circumstances force a child to be a mother? To know the answers, do read Kasturi Patra’s A Mother’s Goodbye, a poignant tale of a woman, her children, and a mother who said did not say good bye.