New venue, same menu for Kolkata derby

One of the charms of the Kolkata derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal is the seemingly coincidental effect their match has on the prices of the chingri (prawns) and the hilsa, two of the favourite fish consumed by people in and from Bengal.

The prawn is synonymous with Mohun Bagan, and the hilsa is a symbol of the East Bengal club, possibly as homage to its best variety coming from the Padma river in present-day Bangladesh, where a majority of East Bengal supporters are originally from. When their favourite team wins, the price of that specific fish skyrockets, while the other one plummets; and fish retailers keep these permutations in mind on the eve of the derby.

The prawn-hilsa matchup is more of a Kolkata-specific phenomenon, though. Sunday's will only be the second I-League derby at the Kanchenjunga Stadium in Siliguri and the third ever match here overall since an Airlines Gold Cup match in 1988. From the time the fixtures were announced, there was some discussion about this clash and whether East Bengal will actually experience any home advantage here.

The logic behind shifting this marquee clash of the league to this city -- best known as the nearest stopover from Kolkata on the way to tourist destinations like Darjeeling and Kalimpong -- was that the Salt Lake Stadium is still unavailable until the FIFA Under-17 World Cup later this year. The Kanchenjunga Stadium can fit in 35,000 and apparently 27,000 tickets have already been sold for the match this time around. But what of the city itself -- does it merit a match of this magnitude on capacity alone?

The first thing that struck one this time was the clutch of supporters that welcomed East Bengal at the Bagdogra Airport. There were flags, banners and about 40-50 fans chanting away as they led the East Bengal motorcade out into the city.

Silguri itself is an unremarkable town, with busy markets and fairly narrow roads where the only constants are several modes of transport and a constant buzz from the honking that results from the slow-moving traffic. The hotel I found was in such a narrow lane that it escaped the notice of mapping technology, and the cab hailed from the airport overshot the location and then the driver had to apologetically drop me by the side of the road.

The two most common types of shops here are wholesale drugs and pharmaceuticals, and loads of tea traders. There are big pan-Indian brands along the way, and the first sign that there's a big match around the corner comes when you run into Sushanto Sarkar, who is selling East Bengal flags at 40 rupees a piece, and bandanas for just 10. Sarkar reckons the Sunday crowd will be about 30,000 and with more East Bengal supporters than not, he expects to sell all of his wares within the next two or three days.

There's a smattering of Mohun Bagan fans who are here to witness their team practice. Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen has made it clear none of his players will be available to speak to the press ahead of the game, but the press has access to the pre-practice warmups. The fans are not meant to be down at the ground, but half a dozen of them are standing by, chanting their favourite players' names -- instructively Sony Norde features before anybody else in their pecking order -- and posing with a Mohun Bagan flag for the press. The ground is a bit bumpy, as East Bengal's Mehtab Hossain had observed, but you can forgive the stadium authorities when you consider that the last thing the ground was used for was a flowerpot exhibition that only finished on February 6.

Bagan may be the away team on Sunday, but they have a good luck charm in the shape of a Gostho Pal statue that sits proudly just at the end of the lane along the stadium looking over them. Pal, nicknamed the 'Indian Wall', was one of India's most prominent footballers before independence, and stood in the Mohun Bagan defence between 1912 and 1936, captaining the club for a majority of those years.

There's another quirky reminder that even though we are not in Kolkata -- two major differences here are that the locals speak extremely fluent Hindi and the whole of the area around the stadium has fewer sweetmeat shops than perhaps one lane in Kolkata might -- we are not far removed from another major passion of the average Bengali.

The TV switches on with an opening billboard of the cable operators, complete with their postal address. The first thing that strikes you is 'Sachin Sourav Apartments' in the first line of the address.

Who knows, perhaps there is a buzzing fish market waiting in anticipation in some part of the city for Sunday evening, when one of the two specific fish varieties will earn the sellers a financial windfall. If they're lucky, we could have a scored draw, and both sets could go home happy.

The venue may be an odd one, but the passion will be just the same.