Friday, November 14, 2008

Salaam Stanley Matthews

‘Brain Drain’ is a term that I have not heard used too often this first decade of the millennium. Instead ‘global economy’,’ world citizen’, ‘cross-cultural’ and ‘international exposure’ are doing the rounds. Wherever you travel to, Indians are found in abundance. From Hunslow or Slough around London to La Chapelle in Paris, you walk into areas that feel like Delhi or Coimbatore. You may be far away from home, but you are rarely an alien.

I guess it must have been different in the 1950s…very, very different. This is the time when Subrata Dasgupta’s father, a doctor from Kolkata (then Calcutta) set sail to practice in the Blighty. Reaching the shores a few months after his father as a six year old, Subrata Dasgupta spent the next seven years of his life in various parts of England and until the elders decided that the call of the motherland was too strong to resist anymore, he grew up quite like an English lad.
“Salaam Stanley Mathews” is Dasgupta’s recollection of those days and the time he spent in England. But with a name like that, of course there’s more to it. The book is a tribute to the legendary footballer, it is an insight into the middle class life of the fifties in England, it is a guide on English football of that period and though it is not really “Oliver Twist”, it is a gripping read about the adventures and times of a schoolboy.

The book begins with the story of a little Bengali boy with little grasp of English trying to find his feet in a world which views him as a novelty. Towards the end, the little boy is old enough to understand that in many ways he is indeed a stranger and touchingly describes the realization that he, even on returning to his parents’ home, would be a stranger.In between the beginning and the end, is the life that the small Dasgupta family of three led through those seven years and young Poupee’s journey through neighbors, schools, friends, crushes and football.

A goal-keeper’s polo neck jersey and a description of the ’53 FA Cup final was what made the author fall in love with football, before he had seen or played too much of it. The pictures in a book of Stanley Mathews and Mortensen captured the nine-year old’s imagination and Mathews and Blackpool became ‘his’ in the manner of any passionate football fan. And it is the football that lords over Poupee’s childhood.

There are uprooted unhappy Indian dadas, there are neighbours - stiff upper-lipped and the more friendly type, friends who like a good fight, a father who loves creating models and is obsessed with Everest and a mother who could have been a professional singer but pines for her large joint family back home. Then there are the bigger issues that he sees with his child-eyes – If England is home, why do all the ‘dadas’ celebrate when they lose in cricket? Why do they force catechism at school? How can the English schooling system be so unfair as to decide a child’s future at the age of eleven?

Yet, for a boy obsessed with football and living his childhood, all bigger issues of life and world take a back seat on Cup Final day. Having the ability to hold a conversation about the League and who the best players are, are a prerequisite to making friends. The pain of seeing an idol fail to light up the stadium is far greater than any caused by displaced roots. The joy of seeing the idol win a cherished prize is equal to any personal success.

For Poupee, football became a religion and Mathews its God. When his family moved to Derby he grappled for a bit with the problem of being a Blackpool supporter while living in Derby, but he solved it amicably by adopting his new home town’s team as his second team and loyally followed them till his days in England came to an end. A doting father took him to his first game and till the very end he regularly went to the Baseball Ground (then Derby’s home ground) to cheer on is team. He lived the victories and suffered the defeats. He stood waiting in the cold with adults for the Saturday evening paper to arrive at the stores, so he could know all the results. He spent hours discussing and debating football with his friends. He spent hours at neighbours’ homes in front of the TV watching all live football that he possibly could. And one day, when on a summer vacation in Blackpool, he got the chance to meet (and get a picture taken with) Sir Stanley Mathews!

Exhibiting child like curiosity, Dasgupta peppers the book with questions racing through Poupee’s mind. With years of wisdom added to his childhood experiences, he provides thought provoking answers to some of them. Here’s one - Why does cricket writing have Neville Cardus while football is written like pulp fiction?

You may have your opinions on whether you found the book fluidly written or not and if there were points where you lost interest, but if you are a football fan living in India, trying to construct a picture of what it would be like to be there cheering your team on, you are bound to love this. True, fifty years have passed and a lot has changed in England, in India and in what it means to be supporting a club, yet the game remains as beautiful now, as it was then.

A number of Premier League fans from England, write all over the Internet about how fans in foreign countries are fair weather supporters who choose the flavor of the season as the team they support. Having seen a number of friends pledge loyalty to clubs and remain with them through thick and thin, I find Poupee’s love for Blackpool beginning with a match report and pictures, not very different from the circumstances in which we in India have chosen our favorite clubs. True, a lot of us did not live Poupee’s life, but in our imaginations, we do.

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