When my grandfather met the man who would become his daughter’s husband for the first time, he, it is said, quickly dispensed with the courtesies and came straight to the point.
“So, you must be a Mohun Bagan guy…”
My father was at a loss for words, but he tried to be diplomatic.
“No, I mean yes, but no, even East Bengal plays well.”
My grandfather raised his hand. My mother took a sharp intake of breath.
“No, that was not a question,” my grandfather said, his voice menacingly low. “You are a Ghoti. You are a Mohun Bagan guy.” He then turned towards my mother and gave her a look that, according to her, meant: Why would a good Bangal girl like you choose a Mohun Bagan guy?
He. Is. The. Enemy.
Three decades have passed since that first meeting, but time has not melted the frostiness that characterises their relationship. My grandfather hails from east Bengal, while my father is from the west of the state. West Bengalis, or Ghotis, are supposed to be lazy lovers of art and culture, passionate about tiger prawn, lobsters and sugar. East Bengalis are the hard-working Bangals, who love fiery gravies and swear by hilsa from the Padma River. The Ghotis are supporters of Mohun Bagan, the East Bengalis, naturally, can’t see beyond East Bengal. Generations of Bengalis have spent more time arguing which of the two Calcutta clubs is the better football team than actually playing the sport, and, not surprisingly, both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal today have just three Bengalis in each of their teams. (Both the teams’ best players are either from Brazil or Africa, and Mohun Bagan is coached by a Moroccan.) The rivalry between the Ghotis and the Bangals, and, by extension, between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal is the stuff urban Bengali legends are made of. Filial relationships have been ruptured, matrimonial alliances have broken down and many men, it is said, have set out on their final journey wearing their team jersey.
Our neighbours in Calcutta used to be East Bengal fanatics. Their oldest son, DD, ten years older than me, slept with his football and stole money from his mother to buy match tickets. If he wasn’t kicking the ball around in the narrow alleys of our north Calcutta neighbourhood, he would be sitting with his friends in front of our house, discussing recent matches. Often, my uncles would poke their heads out and ask him to shut up. The persistent admonishments would often lead to minor quarrels. My uncles would be louder and aggressively condescending if Mohun Bagan were playing well. Otherwise, DD would have the last laugh.
I remember one evening when DD’s mother rushed over to our place. DD and his two friends had gone over to watch a league match and found themselves surrounded by, mostly, Mohun Bagan fans. When East Bengal scored the first goal, DD and his friends spontaneously, and foolhardily, if I may add, started dancing on their seats. The score was 2-0 in favour of East Bengal when the referee whistled half-time. Mohun Bagan came back strongly and equalised in the second half. Then, in the dying minutes of the game, East Bengal scored its third goal. DD celebrated the victory with yet another jig. What followed was a bloodbath. DD was brought back home by two good Samaritans. His ribs, nose and teeth were broken. But, before he was taken to the hospital, DD managed to flash a crooked smile at my uncles and wave the Bengali equivalent of the middle finger in their faces.
The Bhattacharjees had the fanciest house in our neighbourhood. They had a big Mercedes-Benz, holidayed abroad and wore swanky clothes. Mr. Bhattacharjee was a potbellied man, whose stubby, hairy fingers were embellished with gold rings. He rarely smiled, but, when he did, you could catch a couple of his gold teeth winking in the sun. He smoked a pipe, drank scotch, spoke mostly in English and rarely hobnobbed with the other para (neighbourhood) folks. Mr. Bhattacharjee was a die-hard Mohun Bagan fan. Every match day, he would drive his massive Merc through our neighbourhood’s narrow alleyways and head straight for the Salt Lake stadium. At one of those matches, two of my uncles were seated right behind him. Within minutes of the match, Mr. Bhattacharjee was mocking East Bengal and screaming obscenities that would make your ears bleed. My uncles were horrified. When Mohun Bagan scored the first goal, the bespoke jacket came off. Mr. B’s hair was in disarray, and he was hugging random strangers and vigorously proposing that the East Bengal boys go and fornicate with their mothers and sisters in the most imaginative of ways. That night, when we saw Mr. Bhattacharjee walk by our home, he was his usual self again: prim and proper and aloof.
Things were exciting enough within our house, too. I was not a football fanatic back in my school days, but did enjoy sitting down with everyone for late afternoon league matches on weekends. During one such match, when East Bengal was leading by three goals to nil just after half time, I remember getting up for a piece of cake. Within seconds, Mohun Bagan had scored a goal. Two more followed in the next half hour. The winning goal came a minute before the final whistle. My dad cradled me in his arms like I was a demigod, as if my getting up to grab a snack was the most auspicious thing to have happened for Mohun Bagan. That incident gave birth to a cardinal rule in my home: I had to be fed cake at least once during every Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match. I did not mind that at all. But, when cake could not save Mohun Bagan from an embarrassing loss in one league final, the superstition was, unfortunately, discontinued.
Then, there was the mandatory family traitor. My youngest uncle, a pathological devil’s advocate, was an East Bengal supporter. I always believed he was secretly a Mohun Bagan fan himself, but just enjoyed ticking his brothers off. Every time Mohun Bagan lost a match, he’d bring home the juiciest belly pieces of hilsa. Dinner on such nights would be disorienting: everyone enjoyed the fish, but not the occasion. The TV droned on. No one spoke a word. The sullen silence would only be interrupted by the faint cheering from East Bengal supporters heading home on their bicycles and motorbikes.