Fighting for Air

Two novellas about the poetry of the ball and the attendant “hunger, heat, humiliation and hopelessness” of the footballer’s life

Striker, Stopper Moti Nandy translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha Hachette India Rs 250, 200 pages
01 August, 2010

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:

I had a dream last night… A middle-aged foreigner got out, his complexion as dark as night…said something to the crowd in Portuguese… “I’ve come from Brazil. I’m sure you’ve heard of Santos Football club. I’m the manager there. And if Prasoon agrees to join us, we want him.”… “Pele plays for them.”… “Since Pele plans to retire soon, we want to prepare Prasoon immediately so that he can replace him later.”… Wake up, Prasoon. It’s five o’clock!

Pele, Santos, Brazil—that was the scaffolding of the colonised Bengali imagination in post-Independent India just as England and its daffodils had colonised the Bengali imagination a hundred years ago. Apart from the indulgent pity one feels for such a football-worshipping teenager’s dream, there is also the elbow-nudging political humour of the night-dark complexion of the ‘foreigner’ (ah, the milky whiteness of the sahebs and their mems in Bengali colonial fiction!) and his words in ‘Portuguese.’ This is followed by a series of four-letter words that drive the machinery of the Bengali’s football fantasy—Goal, Foul, Pain...and Pele!

The young Prasoon receives no support from his father, a footballer of considerable merit who once played for Juger Jatri, one of the better-known clubs in Calcutta (and what a comfort that old spelling is!). A school dropout, he begins his career with a second-rung team; he is the striker in the novella, and by the time we’ve arrived at the last page, Prasoon has overcome all odds—poverty, discrimination, match-fixing, corruption, even his own demons—to achieve success. Anyone who’s played any sport knows that there’s only one possible result that will please, for sports is structured in the tightest of binaries—you win or you lose, there’s no in-between. So Nandy ends his novella in the afterglow of a goal: “I raised my eyes and saw the most amazing of sights—the Rangoon United goalkeeper retrieving my black and white world from his goal… Spotting me in the glow of the fireworks, a crowd rushed towards me, chanting, ‘Prasoon, Prasoon!’”

Here are the secretive joys of provinciality—“Mohun Bagan was my favourite team, and I had cut out dozens of photos of their striker, Chuni Goswami, from the newspapers and pasted them in my old school notebooks. I couldn’t think of the Mohun Bagan club as anything other than the Taj Mahal”; and also provinciality’s ennobling emotions and rich disappointments—“I had tried to copy them from photographs of Pele, only to realize later on that you couldn’t perfect techniques like that without some natural gymnastic ability and a coach to guide you.” Shailen Manna, Gostho Pal, Syed Abdus Samad, PK and Chuni, the Rome Olympics, Hungary and Alberto—Nandy interlaces his narrative with names and events so that one leaves the book with the feeling of actually having watched a game at the Calcutta Maidan and overheard snatches of conversation about the greats in the stands!


The striker’s great counterpoint is the stopper, in name, in function, in metaphor, and here in Nandy’s novella, in age. If Prasoon’s story is about the caterpillar turning into a butterfly, the ageing Kamal-da’s story is a Yeatsian love affair between the game and the footballer, and about a man who is always playing his last game—“Like a rampaging god, Kamal danced and swayed all over the room with the ball at his feet, lost in his own world, dodging past his imaginary opponents one by one.” Ah, a rampaging god who says that “dates do not make your age—your physical prowess does” and who is asked, “Stanley Matthews did play first division football till about fifty, didn’t he? Why, he played for England for twenty-three years.” Kamal’s story is, like Prasoon’s, about the beautiful game (Arunava Sinha’s translation captures the poetry of the ball and the attendant “hunger, heat, humiliation and hopelessness” of the footballer’s life with an amorous fierceness that can come only from a translator’s love of two things, the language and the game), but it is also about age and grace, about the limits of the body and the seam-tearing expansiveness of dreams; and, finally, also a fine portrait of a dying tradition, of the grateful disciple and his guru. Nandy makes Kamal-da a solitary figure—his wife is dead, he having been away kicking a football while she lay dying, his son feels no emotion for him, his colleagues despise him, his rivals hate him; one can almost justify his emotional numbness and yet the gratitude he feels for Poltu-da, the guru who dies watching his student play mock football for him, is the stuff of a deep love story.

What is common to Prasoon and Kamal-da’s stories is this: “The only place I would be able to earn money was on the football field. If I couldn’t become a great footballer, the only thing I’d be good for was to enlarge the ranks of the unemployed.” For the story of football and poverty is a bit like the story of poetry and penury. There’s a cheap romanticism involved in relating one to the other (though ‘rich poet,’ alas, is an oxymoron while ‘rich footballer’ clearly isn’t!). The story of football is the story of slums, of school dropouts, of hunger and illiteracy, and much of its charm comes from there—perhaps that is why Nandy names his protagonist ‘Kamal,’ the lotus which proverbially blooms amidst filth. “Footballers need a lot of protein—if you cannot get meat, milk and eggs, you’ll be in deep trouble. I was afraid. What if my body gave way? But where could I find the money for meat?”

There is football’s arithmetic in these novellas—18 by 44; 1-4-3-2; 1-4-1-3-1—and there is the beautiful juxtaposition of Prasoon’s first game and goal with Kamal-da’s last. One footballer’s son turns out to be a poet and another’s a footballer; match-fixing’s gross arithmetic laces the temperament of matches; and through it all, there is the awareness of what Albert Camus once said—“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” There is also, for me, a private joy in the discovery of Arunava Sinha’s dedication —“To East Bengal Club”; for the story of East Bengal Club is the story of Bangladeshi refugees and immigrants in Bengal, of 1947 and ’71 and of men like my father who survived on the relationship of proxy between a ball and a homeland, and the deep mythology of hilsa-eating that dictated the mood of a Sunday afternoon meal in a house like ours.

But Bengalis have become Argentineans now—Maradona and Messi, broad blue stripes on white—and Latin America a football conglomerate in its own deep way. What Moti Nandy would have made of the Bengali supporter’s transfer of affectionate patronage from Brazil to Argentina, the sociology of affiliation that marks the temperament of a generation, will remain unknown. As I read about the young Prasoon and the ageing Kamal, it was not just of the football clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, Shovabajar and Juger Jatri that I thought. I thought about my father and uncles, refugees from Bangladesh whose only toy and joy had been an airbag of perfect geometry on a wet green field, whose favourite music had been the sound of a stadium erupting into a cacophonous chorus after a poor goalkeeper had missed the ball. “G-o-a-l”—on the radio: a masculine chorus on a never-ending monosyllable; now we only lip-sync to Ricky Martin, ‘Go, Go, Goal…’ Football here’s gone thin; the vuvuzela exasperates with its deafening roar.

To read Striker, Stopper is to shiver alive with nostalgia for vanishing fields and playgrounds in small towns and big cities, for tournaments in nameless localities, and then emerge from that shaded cool space into the afternoon light of life where childish rivalries and adult affiliations, salted peanuts in cupped fists and cheap rings of Charminar smoke, short Bengali fish-eating owners and thin rice-hungry footballers have given way to flamboyant ‘non-Bengali’ (that quintessential Bengali word for othering) owners who trade in beer and airlines with the same ledger-flaunting suavity as they do in horses and footballers. In that passing of the ball-baton from Bengal to Goa, in the shift of football capital from the once British city of Calcutta to an ex-Portuguese colony by the sea is a story that Moti Nandy would have told well. Then striker, now stopper. He might have called his book Goalkeeper. Or perhaps, Offside!