You've seen those movies, right? Love happens...
So it is with East Bengal. And Mohun Bagan, I imagine, not that I care. That is just how it is with people and their football clubs - a bit of no-logic, a lot of heart. But nowhere is such unconditional love bestowed upon so unworthy a club as East Bengal or Mohun Bagan. But what do you do, it's a deal for life.
How did it start? Was it the hurt? But what hurt? It's true I grew up in the 1980s in (as it was then) Calcutta, in a family originally from across the eastern Radcliffe Line. Mine was one with no real tales of Partition trauma to stitch a script with. But I suppose there was, and remains, a phantom bond with East Bengal. Whatever the reason, it just happened - the parents, who rarely watched sport (cricket - no, correct that to Kapil Dev - was an exception), supported the club. I did too. In the early 1980s, there was quality international football in Calcutta, at least once every year. By the mid-1980s, European football and the World Cups were on TV. But East Bengal, in the red-and-gold (red-and-yellow in Bangla) jerseys, mattered. I had a set that sagged in several places after just two washes, but it was a treasured thing.
By 1985, it was easy to add logic to the love. Krishanu Dey and Bikash Panji to begin with. Manoranjan Bhattacharya and Tarun Dey. Jamshid Nasiri. Bhaskar Ganguly. And Sudip Chatterjee, perhaps the greatest of them all. By 1987, there was Chima Okorie too. It was magical. To the untrained eye, as good as anything at the World Cup. More crucially, better than Mohun Bagan, by far. That's what really mattered.
Then I found out that, in 1948, East Bengal had beaten the Chinese Olympic team 2-0; that, in 1949, they had won the treble (Calcutta League, IFA Shield and Rovers Cup); then the win over Iran's PAS Club in 1970 and over Pyongyang City in 1973; and the six straight Calcutta League titles from 1970 to 1975. The best club in Asia honour (by the English FA) in 1952. And the most important win: 5-0 over Mohun Bagan in 1975. More recently, in 1997, East Bengal won 4-1 in front of over 130,000 people. Then 4-0 in 2015. The best Mohun Bagan have ever managed is, whatever... and the referee helped them anyway.
Somewhere between the eras of Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar, it had come to be some sort of branding: "East Bengal na Mohun Bagan?" Old-timers would scoff with the usual "Oh, but this is nothing compared to..." and "Bhaskar is good, but he isn't Thongoraaj (Peter Thangaraj)". Not to forget the "Arre, nowadays there are no Bangals [the name given to those from East Bengal] in the team, all these foreigners..." But then they would get the small matter of the derby-day lunch out of the way and get to the stadium or park themselves before the TV. It may not have been the same thing, but it continued to matter.
Off topic - let's take a hypothetical situation, no one I know or anything... Say you're a Bengali man, and you're seeing a woman from Kerala. She might not care much about football, but she does know her Vijayan from her Sathyan. You throw in a Chacko and a Pappachan, and it helps. But then we come to her father. It starts with a bit of this and a bit of that, and you don't really want to say Bengal is better than Kerala, not just yet. But you're falling behind, very quickly. What so you do? "PAS Club, sir", "Erm, best club in Asia", "Oh, did you know Bhaichung Bhutia started out at East Bengal..." And since we are not trying to please each other anymore at this stage, can we stop talking about karimeen and get some ilish going please!
East Bengal matters in strange ways -- it builds, and breaks, bridges and relationships.
The Kolkata derby on Sunday got political pic.twitter.com/CI9evhLHhw
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) January 20, 2020
Now, all these years on, there is so much top-class football on TV and streaming platforms. Still, some of us watch the derbies - there could be up to three or four a year because of the number of tournaments. Without much enthusiasm, to be honest. Fondness, yes, but not enthusiasm. But we do. At the very least, we follow the match updates live online.
Before the game, we get on Facebook, and mock the green-and-maroons for being football-cluelesses and, generally, a burden on the world; some of us post oohs and aahs, and occasionally jeer at the referee and the opposition players. All the while, maybe, being really rather irritated by the latest mis-pass or mindless bit of dribbling or directionless shot at goal. You know it's not worth it. But you can't say that. It's like your husband is a bit of a jackass, but you feel the need to stand by him at a get-together. If it ends well, there's also the "Jotobaar daarbi, totobaar haarbi (you'll lose each derby)" to post. It's tremendously enjoyable and satisfying, that.
Yes, loving East Bengal, now, is really keeping up the charade and not much else. But sometimes, charades are everything. You see, love just happens (have I said that already?). And, sometimes, it lasts forever, even if you can't remember how it all came to be. Or why. Supporting Mohun Bagan, of course, must be infinitely worse.