THIS IS ABOUT A TIME when Bengalis were still Brazilians, yellow and happily dirty fellas, bare feet and thatched roofs, poor fathers and illiterate mothers; when there were only two Americas in the world—Columbus’s accidental discovery, now superpower, and the other America like the scrawl of a footnote below it, with a prefix that seemed as distant in space as it was in time, ‘Latin.’ For Bengalis, Latin America was only one country—the kingdom of Brazil. Pele was King, he had ten ministers, the most useless of whom was a man who stood near a net like a fisherman. And every Bengali, lazy by temperament, greedy for travel without hardship, wanted to be the Brazilian goalkeeper. This was not only because the Brazilian goalkeeper was the most underworked player on the football field; it was also because the Bengali, with his quotidian use of arithmetic, had calculated that the goalkeeper’s was the one position in the entire world from where the game could be seen best, and one could actually be paid to stand and watch while 20 grown men fought over the possession of what was actually hawa, air trapped in a ball, kicking it, claiming it, sharing it, until, arriving at a moment of great abandon that is perhaps available only to the holy men who have chosen renunciation, giving up all claims to it and kicking it, one last time, towards an empty square, a space where a lonely man stands guard, like Pluto at the gates of hell.
Moti Nandy wrote these two novellas, Striker and Stopper, in the mid-1970s, around the time I was born. There is a certain charm in relating that the age of a book is almost equal to that of its reader. But books (and writers, by that proxy antioxidant reaction) don’t age—so though I might measure out my childhood with my Moti Nandys in their original Bengali, the book has remained young while I’ve touched middle age. Reading the novellas now, in English, in Arunava Sinha’s masterful translation, is, at first, a double alienation—the language in which they first came to me, and the time I first read them acted, quite expectedly, as invisible trails that guided my reading. And then there were, of course, the many football novels I’d read meanwhile. What was it about football that had so appealed to my father’s generation, the game in the time of Naxalism?
Striker is about the young footballer Prasoon Bhattacharya, talented and ambitious, poor and deprived. It is not surprising that Nandy chooses to begin Prasoon’s story with a dream. Here it is: