Festball Fever – Bend it like the Gods!

What happens when the schedules of a heavenly football tournament and an earthly cultural festival clash? Do they share a mutually exclusive existence or do they cross paths? Alankar Smithee sews visual postcards together to seek the answers through this play by God-Players

It is that time of the year again when the interplanetary football tournament is scheduled to be held. Gods and goddesses from all corners of the universe will be representing their planets in the heavenly showdown. And can planet Earth be far behind? But hey, suddenly a mail reaches the office of the organisers that the divine souls from Earth cannot participate right now. The organisers are baffled and furious at the same time. But they dare not say a word against them because the gods from Earth hold a lot of clout in the celestial organisation and bring in a lot of sponsors. So the permission was granted to postpone the tournament by a month!

Now cut to the scene where various gods and goddesses from Earth are sitting together in their office. At the centre of the group sat Ganesha, the elephant-headed Indian god of beginnings and good luck. Surrounding him were the other chief technical directors: Loki (the Norse god of mischief), Nike (the Greek goddess of victory), Anubis (the jackal-headed Egyptian god of mummification) and Pele (the Hawaiian goddess of volcano). All of them, except Ganesha, looked a bit down on the mood, perhaps due to the fact that the football tournament had to be rescheduled.

Loki: “Ganesha, I am the expert divine trickster out here, but you are the one who actually scored the goal! What huge gameplan do you have in mind that prevented us from participating in our favourite sport, the ‘jogo bonito’ as of now?

Ganesha: “It was all on mom’s orders, you see!

Nike: “You mean, goddess Durga?

Ganesha: “Yes, mom gave me marching orders to go to planet Earth.

Pele: “Oh! Just when I was all set to top-score in the tournament again, your mom had to give us this free kick! But what is this all about?

Ganesha: “Well, every year, in the months of September-October, the people of Bengal celebrate Durga Puja for five days, which is basically a ‘puja’ or a cultural and religious festival where they pay obeisance to my mom, goddess Durga. And each year, mom sends someone from our family, to oversee whether the celebrations are being held in the right spirit. And this year, it’s my turn. So I had to give this tournament a miss, but then I decided to throw my elephantine weight around and at first managed to convince you guys to back out and subsequently forced the organisers to postpone the sport showdown as well. Yippee!

Anubis: “Well, that’s a nice penalty we have been subjected to then! And what are we exactly supposed to do then for this period?

Ganesha: “Simple. I shall visit Kolkata, the city in Bengal, where Durga Puja ceremonies are held in plenty. And I invite you guys to come along with me, because everyone ought to experience Durga Puja atleast once in their lifetimes, err…sorry, we don’t have a lifetime! But it doesn’t matter. Ladies and gentlemen, let our journey begin!

*****

Location: Kolkata, the City of Joy.

The five gods and goddesses decide to remain invisible while savouring the flavour of the Puja season. Quite visibly, Ganesha is the only one who is pretty excited while the other four divine entities try to give him company while silently missing the Beautiful Game all the time.

Ganesha seemed to tackle the situation well


Ganesha
: “Well, here’s the plan, fellas! We’ll be visiting the ‘pandals’, which are temporary temples made of bamboo poles and cloths, where I’ll be carrying out my routine check. In the meantime, I’ll also tell you a lot about the culture and the customs of this land.

 

Loki: “I guess it’s already half-time now. So can we take some rest?

 

Ganesha: “Oh Loki, you and your mischief!

 

Pele: “Okay, let us start scoring with the number of pandals we visit.”

 

Nike: “Pele, you and your phenomenal scoring! Madam, will you ever sit on the reserve bench for a while!

Pele takes this quite as a compliment and looks content.

 

Anubis: “We can also become Galloping Majors and skip pandals at random, in our mission of pandal-hopping.”

While roaming across the pandals, the visiting gods and goddesses experience the exotic local culture and their host, Ganesha, explains to them the significance of the various intricacies.

Anubis: “I suddenly noticed from their conversations that the local Bengali people seem to like two Brazilian footballers very much – Didi and Kaka.”

Ganesha: “Oh, those are just endearing pet-names for one’s elder sister and one’s paternal uncle, respectively, in a very generic sense. You got fooled, didn’t you, Anubis!

Anubis did not seem to enjoy the own-goal.

Throngs of people have lined up to catch a glimpse of the pandals, the clay sculpture of the goddess Durga, who is shown to be accompanied by her four children, including Ganesha, and who is slaying the meek defence of the demon Mahishasura, like a champion centre-forward.

Pele: “It’s pretty evident that Durga is the captain leading from the front, in the set of idols that we get to see here. She has ten arms. But alas, she doesn’t wear an armband!

Nike: “I agree with you on that, Pele. Like me, the goddess of victory, Durga too seems to win this demon-slaying match by a big margin.”

 

Anubis: “Yes, Durga is getting referred to by the name ‘Ma Durga’ by all the devotees. I guess moms and mummies are very popular and respected in this part of the globe. Just like me, the god of mummification!

 

Loki: “You all are up to mischief by indulging in ambush-marketing yourselves like rival brands in a tournament having an official sponsor. Remember, I am the god of mischief out here!

Ganesha seemed to be engrossed deeply in something. When asked what the object of his fixation was, he replied, “Well, my own idol seems pretty funny. I agree that my belly is huge, but the artisan here has made it more huge! It, in fact, seems like a perfect hybrid of the official matchballs: Fevernova, Teamgeist, Jabulani and Tango12!

The other gods and goddesses all have a good laugh at this.

Loki: “See Ganesha, so we are not the only ones missing participating in our celestial tournament. You also seem to see everything in the light of football, just like us!

Ganesha smiles back.

*****

The pandal-trotting continues. The divine group visit as many Pujas as possible, deeply analysing the bigger ones and not giving the smaller ones a miss. While many of the idols are traditional in style, a lot of the Pujas are thematically improvised. One such pandal had been made out of 442 football jerseys of various clubs and countries.

Our divine visitors were obviously very excited at seeing this. One question, though, came to their minds. Was 442 just a random number or was there any particular reason behind it?

Experiencing Durga Puja in the backdrop of football

Then they read the theme description provided by the organising club. Apparently, the number 442 was chosen in reference to the 4-4-2 formation commonly used while spreading out the footballers on the field.

Loki: “Wow, this tribute surely floored me!

Ganesha: “Yes, the people here often pay such tributes. And there are instances of them taking digs at players too, resulting from indignation. Like, in the World Cup years, we often see the demon idol’s face being a replica of that of the footballer portrayed in the media as a villain due to his team’s debacle during the finals. Brazilian star Ronaldo and French star Zinedine Zidane have both been the subject of this dubious tribute in recent years.”

After pandal-hopping for some more time, the gods and the goddesses decide to take some stoppage time. They start looking for some local food. Ganesha immediately suggests phuchka, a crispy snack having mashed potato and spicy water inside. And the reason? Because it was the next best thing to a football, in shape, that is!

Ganesha silently recited some mantras and suddenly there were these platefuls of phuchkas before them! While the spherical snack was doing the rounds, Nike took just a couple of them. When the other gods poked fun at her for her probable dieting practices, she told the actual reason. Nike was conscious of her Greek goddess looks and hence did not want to spoil her classy persona by binging on local street food.

To this her friend Pele scoffed: “Darling, you should take more interest in Fussball and not Football!

Nike retorted: “Whatever! I’m not that much of a snob. I have my ‘both feet on the ground’ – irrespective of whether that sounds like a Beckhamish autobiography or not.”

Pele could not bend Nike’s defence with a further offensive remark. She mellowed down.

Pele: “Well, Nike, lemme tell you that you are beautiful. So maybe you are right in limiting your gastronomical tastes to just ambrosia, the food of the gods.”

Nike: “Thanks Pele. I know that. In fact, perhaps that’s the reason why I won the celestial beauty contest after which I was portrayed on the Jules Rimet Trophy, the trophy earlier handed out to the World Cup winners.”

Pele: “Wow! Is that so? Can I have a look at it, I mean the trophy?

Loki: “There’s mischief involved there. For the trophy has been stolen. And for good.

 

Nike: “Doesn’t matter, Pele. You can always look at the 3D hologram version. Here it is.”

Nike uttered some secret phrases which sounded Greek to the others. And the Jules Rimet Trophy was there for everyone to see.

Pele: “Let me see, let me see!

Pele gets (to see) the Jules Rimet Trophy

Nike was happy enough to hand over the hologram to Pele who clasped it like a custodian with a safe pair of hands, and admired the trophy and Nike’s representation on it, for a long time, maybe even for extra-time.

*****

More edutainment followed for the divine group as they continued their discovery of Bengal’s favourite festival. Soon enough, they admired the patience and the enthusiasm of the common masses around (who were but oblivious to the presence of the invisible football fanatic deities).

Loki: “All the hustle and bustle around seem pretty exciting. But the speed of the game, I mean the traffic, is not exactly very encouraging. The traffic signal flashes the red-light just like a strict referee would have red-carded an offending defender after a major foul.”

Anubis: “Maybe the pedestrians are too tied to each other, to let everyone rush forward.”

Loki: “In that case, they should rather use the tie-breaker for faster solutions.”

Ganesha: “I would love all these local people standing in the long queues, to do a Mexican wave. Just saying!

Loki: “We find that the local Bengali people are quite passionate about their football. But do they at all play the sport?

Ganesha: “Yes, very much so. The two local teams out here to watch out for are definitely, ‘East Bengal’ and ‘Mohun Bagan’. Their derby matches attract large crowds to the football grounds even to this day. Sometimes mishaps happen too. Like on August 16, 1980, sixteen people were killed in a stampede which followed in a frenzy over the derby match.”

Anubis: “Wow! Then this city footballically creates this Group of Death sometimes, doesn’t it? I love dead people, after all, my job of mummification thrives on it.

Ganesha: “You could say that the people here simply love their football. They perform this ‘Bar Puja’ which is worshipping of the goal-post on a football field on their New Year’s Day. They would love to celebrate achieving their goals in life, in dancing styles similar to that of the Cameroonian footballer, Roger Milla and the Brazilian hero, Bebeto. Bengalis know their Diego Maradona, Peter Shilton, Ruud Gullit, Roberto Baggio, Oliver Kahn, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in and out. They can’t live without their storm in a teacup over who is the best coach and which could have been a better club.

Anubis: “I see a lot of divide between the rich and the poor classes here. For every wealthy spoilt brat you also have fifty slumdogs who hopelessly aspire to win millions one day.

 

Ganesha: “Now, why do you say that?

 

Anubis: “Well, that’s because I sometimes wonder whether it is the passion for the sport which is more important or the recognition that it brings that reigns supreme.

Loki: “But Anubis, how will you measure the two against each other? Both are important.”

Anubis: “Okay, let’s see then. I weigh dead people’s souls, so I am an expert with the scales.”

Anubis, by his magical wish produces a common balance, a football and the current World Cup trophy and goes on to weigh the latter two against each other.

After much tilting and counter-tilting, the weights of both the football and the World Cup trophy were found to be equal. It was the divine common balance, so it cannot possibly furnish false readings, unlike earthly scales, which may be doctored.

Measure for measure

Loki: “Exactly like I said – both are crucial. Without passion you cannot get recognition and without recognition you won’t be able to let your passion survive! Football is and has always been about tremendous enthusiasm, planning, camaraderie, tension, failures and victories. That is why it is the greatest game ever in the universe!!!

Ganesha: “You said it!

*****

Before long, the five days of festivities of the people were over. Ganesha, Loki, Nike, Anubis and Pele enjoyed themselves to the hilt all the while. Football freely flowed into their discussions and the festive spirit all around made every second a prized moment.

Loki, Nike, Anubis, Pele (in unison): “Thanks Ganesha!

Ganesha: “But why?

The other four: “We gods are omniscient. So you do know the answer, don’t you?

Ganesha smiles back and blows the final whistle.

But wait, before the whistle even faints, someone appears before them and says, “How could you do this to me?? I’ll complain to your mother!

Ganesha’s chubby smile disappears at once and his vuvuzela-like powerful voice turns mute. He, in fact, becomes unnerved just like a rookie at the receiving end of Sir Alex Ferguson. His face turns pale, like a goalkeeper who has failed to read a banana kick correctly, that resulted in the rival team’s goal in the World Cup final. Because it is none other than his Bengali wife, Kola-bou (or the Banana-wife) who is miffed at him. Ganesha knew that during his time on Earth, he had to keep atleast one evening aside for doting on his Bengali wife. Incidentally, his wife is the personification of the banana tree and a member of the DWAGs (divine wives and girlfriends) club and in front of her, Ganesha always looks as if he has just goofingly stepped on a banana skin.

Ganesha: “Darling, please don’t go bananas…err, you see…well, how do I put it…I know I’ve just been yellow-carded by my beautiful yellow-skinned wife, but actually my friends were on a guided tour of Kolkata in this festive season sacrificing our favourite game. So how could I leave their company? You do know that I love you so much, don’t you, melove?

Kola-bou hardly looks convinced. Actually, she is having immense fun in flustering her husband. All Indian men, gods not spared, are tremendously afraid of their wives and mothers. And Kola-bou always has this unconditional support from her mother-in-law, goddess Durga and she knows it!

Ganesha (turning to his four pals): “My dear friends, I guess you can understand that I’ll be further delayed by a couple of days! I’ll have to restart my play by a throw-in.” Ganesha winks.

The other four wink back and decide to stay behind the touch-line, letting the conjugal couple do all the mutual dribbling.

Loki: “Wishing you good luck brother, in your ensuing session of Bollywood-style singing and dancing!

Pele (turning to Kola-bou): “Don’t spare him! Rip his pocket and do as much shopping as possible!

Kola-bou (all smiles): “You bet!

Ganesha and Kola-bou say farewell to the rest of the gods and the goddesses. Ganesha promises that his escapade will not result in a hangover during the celestial football tournament.

The rest four football-fanatic divine entities go back to their heavenly abode, thoroughly appreciating the cultural significance of this festive season and feeling that it was worth spending their time out in India on planet Earth, the postponement of the celestial tournament notwithstanding!

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Illustrations: Srinwantu Dey

A Piece of Land

What happens when life binds us and weighs us down with mundane responsibilities? Do we put our little birds of joy in a cage? What if those birds open the cage themselves and carry us with them to fly again? Neena Majumdar shares a story of the joy of football and how a common man turns back in his race of life to see that joy chasing him when he least expects it to

It was 2 a.m. and he was making the last adjustments to the baggage for his flight next morning to India, his home country. He carefully weighed the suitcase. It was well within the allowed baggage range. He did not have much stuff of his own; only gifts for his mother, the two neighbourhood boys and his cousins. Relieved, he turned off the lamp and tried to sleep. But sleep was in a long-distance relationship with him. Outside his window on the 30th floor, street lights were patiently doing their job for an occasional car passing by the road. “The city never sleeps”, he thought, but so didn’t he in the last five years. Life brushed by so quickly that he could never

remember himself again. It was going to be a surprise visit to his home, so he started thinking how his mother will react to see him after so many years. Her smiling face was flashing in his mind and he was thinking if she still looks the same. He was surprised how he used to throw tantrums on her! Was she going to be as gentle and forgiving as before? But now he was not even sure if he will be still throwing tantrums. He wondered, “This is the first time I am visiting home since I left my country. It is going to be the most important journey of my life. I hope I can get our lost treasures back. I toiled all these years for it.”

The morning alarm screamed to wake him up. He shut the alarm in his usual way, opening one eye. Light from the window was piercing and his eyes were still burning with sleep. In the next couple of hours, he managed to reach the airport, pass the gruesome security line and find an empty seat near the flight gate. There was still an hour left for boarding. He found it really strange having nothing to do. The last time when he felt that was during his childhood.

The daytime scorching heat during school summer vacations did not let him go out and play his favourite game, football. He had to wait until the evening not because of the sun, but because of his mother who would not let him sunburn himself in the sheer love of football. The moment the sun’s wrath started mellowing down, he would ask, “Ma, can I go now?” By the time his mother would answer anything, he was in the field in front of his house, wearing his favourite blue jersey with about twenty other kids, all beaming with joy. The soiled football would roll and fly amongst tension and laughter, losses and victory. Life was not enough for this game. Mother kept calling for dinner, “Son, it’s dark now. Time for dinner!” But only the unfocused mind could pay attention. His never did. When kids would get thirsty and exhausted, they would return home. He was welcomed with a reprimand from his parents. The days were no less similar to each other.

By the time he was a tall and lanky adolescent boy his love for football turned into a passion. He knew what he wanted, even though to the world it seemed wrong. His room walls turned into the walls of a temple where football players were worshipped like Gods. And a certain Diego Maradona became ‘God of Gods’ for him. As theirs was a joint family, his uncles, aunts, mother and father used to get together in their large living room during the evening time for tea and snacks. With passing days, casual mundane talks were turning into loud discussions, audible from his football temple. He least cared about the intention and the topic of discussion. He did not belong to the happenings of the house beyond his room and the world beyond his football field. The only days he felt one with the family was during the festivals. Everyone in the house used to tease him, “He sleeps, drinks, breathes and eats football. So why don’t we just give him a jersey or a new ball on this festival?” So when other cousins used to get elated with a new dress or toy, he used to be on cloud nine even by a mere poster for his wall.

As he was immersed in the days of his past, the flight attendant started announcing about the next flight in a muffled electronic voice. It was time to board the flight. The aircraft seating seemed to take forever. The confident and stylish air hostesses were demonstrating everyone the guidelines for a safe flight. He buckled his seat belt and thought, “I waited so long for this. And now no one can stop me from getting the precious things we lost.” As the aircraft took off and started gliding in air, his mind started wandering again to the times he had left behind.

He faintly remembered that cruel evening in his old house, when the loud discussions amongst his uncles and parents suddenly started sounding like a dispute. He opened the door of his room slightly and saw his mother walking out of the living room with tears in her eyes. His dad looked pensive and all he could hear him say to his brothers was, “You cannot do that to our house! This house meant a lot to our father, and so it does to all of us.” For the first time he felt that things around him were not right.

In the next few years, his uncles’ family moved out of their ancestral house. The house was sold against their wishes to get a monetary share out of a structure built on the foundation of love and compassion. His family had to painfully move out to a busy city apartment. Till then he used to think that all things in his little world are permanent but they were not anymore. His football field was farther now, so were the mundane days and evenings filled with the joy of loved ones. His temple found a new abode. Soon life became more demanding for him. He passed out of college and was desperately looking for jobs. One of which landed him in the US. Five years of sitting in a cubicle in a corporate building, working on ‘issues’ and never looking back did pay him enough to move forward.

Amidst these thoughts, he fell asleep and did not perceive when his flight landed. It was a dusty evening outside the airport. Taxi drivers started hovering around him like bees on a newly blossomed flower, each one cajoling to use their services. The city seemed to have changed a little, as in, it was dirtier, and the crowd was more aggressive. Many new roads and buildings had emerged. The cab ride was ten times more expensive than what it used to be earlier. He paid the driver duly and soon reached the door of his old apartment. After three knocks,

his mother opened the door with a confused look. She had become a little plump and the lines of age had started traversing her lovely cheeks. It took her no time to realize that the moment was special as her child was standing in front of her after so many years. She hugged him dearly. He discovered that she was laughing and crying at the same time. During dinner, she said regretfully, “If I had known you are coming, I would have cooked all your favourite dishes, son!”  He replied, “But ma, if I had told you earlier of my visit, I would have missed that priceless expression of joy on your face!

He woke up the next morning with the chirping of birds and the hawkers’ calls. It was so different from getting woken up by that screeching alarm in silence. His mother was already in the kitchen preparing his favourite breakfast. The flavours of cooked food were titillating his nostrils. Hungrily, he gorged on the food after a refreshing cold shower. He wore a casual red check shirt and denim and was leaving the house when his mother interrupted, “Where are you going on this scorching day? Wait until the sun sets otherwise it will burn you.” He replied, “Ma, I need to get a few things straight. I will be back by lunch time.

He was walking with quick steps on the noisy old lanes of the city. In all these years, he worked incessantly for one goal. He wanted to buy back the sold ancestral property for that was the least he thought he could do for his parents. They could never fight for it as they were peace-loving people who believe in crushing themselves from the inside so that the outsiders remain undisturbed. But today he was in a position to get back the land where it belonged, where he was born and raised in love which imbibed in him the strength to fight back.

But suddenly a thought started killing him inside, “What if the land was bought by a multiplex?” The sight of a busy multiplex, where a handful of rich people buy expensive merchandise and the common people wander in envy, crossed his mind. He could not imagine something so concrete and hollow built on the land which fostered countless emotions and memories, howsoever big or small they were. Although barricades in the form of new construction had bordered the old roads, he was drawn to the path of his old home spontaneously. He walked up to the place where once his childhood home stood, prepared to expect the unexpected!

To his amazement, there was not a single tall structure to block the view of the clear blue sky. Instead there was a sprawling green field surrounded by trees and sweet sounds of little children playing football. He could see himself in that field, the little blue jerseyed boy who used to worship football in his untarnished times. A faint smile spread on his face and he thought, “By buying this land and building another pile of bricks I will snatch away more things than gain. This piece of land belongs to football and football itself will take care of it.” He turned back feeling light just like the leaf falling down the tree on the pavement, walked a few steps and kicked an imaginary football in the air.