Sport, interrupted: For Lozenge Didi, no football is a bitter pill to swallow

Jamuna Das travelled to Margao when Churchill Brothers hosted East Bengal in January 2020. AIFF Media

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN looks across the country's sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

The ticker on the evening news had Jamuna Das jumping up on her bed. The Indian football domestic season, it said, would resume on August 1. Jamuna, also known as Lozenge Didi (elder sister), hasn't been to a football game in over 90 days. That match -- ATK v Bengaluru in the ISL semi-final on March 8 -- is also when she last earned her daily bread selling the hard skin sweets, or lozenges, at Kolkata football grounds.

There's barely a stadium regular or a casual fan in the city who hasn't caught sight of Jamuna in the stand aisles -- hair combed back in a neat bun, her yellow-red East Bengal jersey blending into the yellow-red tones of her sari, a cross-body bag with the club logo resting at her waist, offering fistfuls of the bright sweets to those who stop to buy. It has been her life and livelihood for three decades. Now, she finds herself struggling to hold on to one without the other.

"Khela na hole toh amra na khete peye more jaabo (If matches don't happen, we'll die without food to eat)," says Jamuna. Selling sweets has been her mainstay since her husband died last July after a long struggle with a neurological disorder. His medical condition prevented him from taking up a regular job and it fell to Jamuna to manage the household and her husband's medical expenses.

But she has had help. "Selling sweets alone wouldn't have seen me through all these years," says Jamuna. "East Bengal's support and all other clubs, players, well-wishers, even spectators, have always pitched in without even me asking." She sells a small pack of four lozenges for Rs 5 and, depending on whether it's a tepid matchup or a fiery Kolkata derby, she picks up lozenge stocks worth Rs 500-1,000 (approx. US$ 7-13).

Jamuna's lozenges are sought out even beyond the football field. Every time Leander Paes visits the city, Jamuna receives a call from him. The jhaal lozenges, or tamarind-flavoured ridged candies with a slightly spiced, sticky jelly at the core, have been his staple request. "Oh, he loves them," says Jamuna. "He'll tell me, 'Didi, mera wala lozenge bhijwa dena (please send my lozenge)' and I know what he's talking about."

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Sadly, the sweets she picked up for the March 14 ISL final between ATK and Chennaiyin, held in Goa, are still in her fridge. ATK's owner Sanjiv Goenka had sent her round-trip flight tickets for the match and Jamuna had neatly packed her saris into her travel bag before it was announced that, because of Covid-19, the match would be played behind closed doors.

The ISL final was only one break to the football season; the I-League was to run until April but was also cut short, with at least six matches still to be played in Kolkata. That's a hefty hit to her income but her club has stood by her. In April, East Bengal handed her Rs 12,000 as cash support, and have also helped her with essential grocery supplies. She has also been helped by individual contributions from former Minerva Punjab club owner Ranjit Bajaj and player Nirmal Chhetri.

"Since I don't own a smartphone, some of them [players, club officials] video call on a neighbour or club member's phone to check if I'm doing OK during the lockdown," says Jamuna. "More than the money, players calling to ask how I'm doing makes me feel that I've touched their lives even if in a small way. I don't have children of my own so they're my family. I haven't heard from the Bengaluru boys in a while. Especially Sunil [Chhetri]."

She has had other worries of late: The supercyclone Amphan that rampaged through Kolkata last month flooded Jamuna's Agarpara home and destroyed many of her belongings. Wading through knee-deep water that filled the cupboard inside her house, she made sure to lay out her valuables -- her jerseys -- on the bed, raised from the ground by slabs of bricks. "My husband always told me to keep the jerseys safe and never give them away to anyone. He used to say it's what will see me through the days I'm too old to work anymore," says Jamuna. "The evening the cyclone struck, I felt lonely for the first time. I sobbed as I pulled my trunks out of the water by myself and tried to keep them dry. After my husband's death, football had kept me busy. I even travelled outside the city for a few matches. Now, without the two things I've loved the most in my life -- my husband and East Bengal matches -- every day is a long, difficult drag."

Jamuna's East Bengal affiliation stems from her roots in Faridpur, in Bangladesh; her husband was from Dhaka. "From the time I started watching football, I knew I could love no team but East Bengal. It's part of my Bangal [Bangladeshi immigrant] identity and runs in my veins."

Unschooled and without a settled job, Jamuna took up selling sweets as a way of engaging with her biggest passion: football. Her lozenges -- in four flavours: mango, orange, pineapple and ginger -- soon became popular among match-goers at the Salt Lake Stadium along with tiny mini cups of tea. If there was a match in Kolkata -- I-League, Calcutta Football League, Santosh Trophy, anything with quick feet on the field and a ball tossed in -- Lozenge Didi would be there.

ISL's entry into the Indian football landscape six years ago, she was told, could shake things up for her. A giant, commercial league festooned with top brands, couldn't possibly have room for a local candy-seller. On the eve of the ATK-Mumbai City opening match in Kolkata, Jamuna decided to push her luck, brave the steady evening drizzle and visit the Salt Lake Stadium. She caught a glimpse of ATK co-owner and current BCCI president Sourav Ganguly at the gate. She raced up to him with a request to allow her to carry on her tiny business at ATK's games. "He told me, 'Didi, you have my word,' before driving away," says Jamuna. Since then, she receives a season pass free of charge annually, offering her unhindered entry to all ATK games no matter which part of the country they're held.

Last week, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced that it had gained clearance from FIFA to run its domestic season between August 1, 2020 and May 21, 2021. It's good news but Jamuna is aware matches will be played without spectators for a long time. It means she will still be out of business and robbed of being able to watch her club play. "It would be a worse feeling than now," she says. "To know matches are happening and yet to not be in the stands will be a lot more painful."

Over the past few weeks, to compensate for the absence of live football, Jamuna has been making daily late afternoon trips to watch a bunch of young neighbourhood boys kick about in the playground near her house.

"I sit there for hours," she says. "It's the only part of the day I look forward to. It gives me hope that football will soon be back."