What keeps East Bengal going
It is an eternal flame. How else could the flaming torch — the symbol of East Bengal, one of Calcutta’s iconic football clubs, now in its centennial year — be burning for one hundred years? It is this light that still guides people like Ranjit Kumar Chowdhury to the club premises every day. When asked about the meaning of East Bengal’s totem, Chowdhury, a regular at the tent since the days of Jyotish Chandra Guha, one of the legendary officials at the club, answers quietly, “Divine purity.” As he uttered these words, it seemed as if this old man’s eyes were on fire, for one brief, flickering moment.
This lighthouse — East Bengal fans, the old and the young, have no other word to describe the club — has drawn people, like a moth to a flame, from all walks of life. Debabrata Sarkar, one of the senior officials, ever ready to share Maidan’s lores, recounted one such tale during a recent interview inside the club’s trendy coffee shop. “During the 1970s, Surajit Sengupta told me that one of the regular faces in the gallery had not been spotted for a few days. During a league game, we saw the man rushing to take his seat. When asked what the matter was, he said, matter-of-factly, “Pola taire daho koirya elam (I have come after cremating my son).”
Rajib Roy, who belongs to a different time, is also bound to East Bengal by such an umbilical cord. “I was based in Dubai but I never missed an opportunity to drop in at the club when I was in the city. East Bengal, for me, serves as a metaphorical root of what I have left behind.”
Roots and rootlessness are, Sarkar insisted, key to understanding the spirit that keeps the torch burning. “My father, a migrant, found himself on Nimtala Ghat Street when he came to Calcutta and he would walk to the club during his student days or even when he had started working to savour the sense of refuge that the club provided to thousands like him.”
The rootlessness of the refugee had intensified his search for roots.
“One must not ignore the history of cultural and institutional discrimination that confronted the displaced community. Their zeal to survive, to belong, was transferred to football to form an immutable bond with the club,” said Sarkar. Two immortal slogans that still ring in and around the gallery when East Bengal takes on its arch-rival, Mohun Bagan, testify to this zest to master the odds: “Ogo ke mairai zamu”, or even more menacingly, “Ogo ke kaityai phelum (We will kill/slaughter them today)”.
Sarkar is aware of the conflicting role that identity plays in politics and sports. In rajneeti, identity — New India would vouch for this — is a classic tool of division. “But in sport, ethnicity or identity can be a form of capital to bring together a broken people.”
East Bengal, Sarkar assured, knows how to reciprocate the love of its fans. It has undertaken several endeavours to express its gratitude to not just needy fans but also workers occupying the lower rungs of Maidan’s ecosystem. Sarkar pointed out that the club organises a diverse range of philanthropic activities — from free blood donation and medical camps to the distribution of sport and educational kits — in the course of its yearly calendar.
What a club stands on is not just concrete — East Bengal sports a mint-new tent now — or its players. Stories — legends — are the beating heart of football clubs, and East Bengal is no exception. There is, for instance, Sarkar said, the apocryphal tale of a reserve goalkeeper who had suffered the heebie-jeebies — he was more often found inside the loo than outside it — when the regular custodian, Bhaskar Ganguly, picked up an injury before a crunch tie in the Calcutta league. Ganguly returned, putting his teammate out of his misery, and, along with the mercurial Krishanu Dey, played memorably, winning the match.
Then there was Vijay Mallya, the businessman with, in Sarkar’s opinion, a golden heart. When Kingfisher became associated with the club, Mallya, apparently, had confided that during his student days, he used to cycle to the Maidan in the hope of catching a glimpse of the club since it had always been his “dream” to support it.
One hundred years have brought many changes. Ranjit Chowdhury, that loyal fan, can still remember the ramshackle old tent clearly. East Bengal today is also known as Quess East Bengal. The winds of change have brought a number of challenges too. The cosmopolitan character of the modern game — the Indian Super League, which allegedly has the All India Football Federation’s blessings, is a prime example — threatens to neuter the identity-based rivalry that has, for years, kept football alive in Calcutta.
The rivalry can survive, but it has to be nursed carefully,” said Bhaichung Bhutia, who acknowledges East Bengal’s massive contribution to his career. “The key is to find a balance between corporate sponsorship and public sentiment,” added Bhutia.
And therein lies the problem, admitted Sarkar. “Even though corporate sponsorship is important to meet staggering financial needs, it may not always appreciate the role of emotion or public sentiment,” rued Sarkar. Incidentally, the current coach and his squad were notable absentees at the inauguration of the centennial rally. It is the investor that takes a call on such matters as per the arrangement.
A temperamental investor is not the only problem. Sarkar is also concerned about the lack of quality second-generation administrators and fans who can take the legacy forward. One reason for this fraying bond could be that the relationship between the club and the fans is now increasingly mediated by social media and other technological platforms.
Sarkar, however, is unfazed by the gathering clouds. For he knows that the torch — that eternal flame — has guided the faithful on many a stormy night.