Striker: Chapter 1

I had a dream last night.

A white car glided to a halt at the spot where our lane meets the main road after winding past three crossroads. As no one in our neighbourhood had ever seen so large a car, they crowded around it, though afraid to come close. A middle-aged foreigner got out, his complexion as dark as the night. Dressed in trousers and a jacket as white as his car, he had on dark glasses, with a cigar in his mouth and salt and pepper hair.

Waving his hands, the foreigner said something to the crowd in Portuguese. Our neighbours, who knew no other language besides Bengali, with a smattering of English, Hindi and Oriya thrown in, just looked at one another, perplexed. His tone suggested he was trying to find out something.

Stepping up from the crowd, Nutu-da asked in Hindi, “What do you want?” Then, having managed to translate the words mentally, he repeated the question in English.

Now the foreigner asked in unaccented Bengali, “Does someone named Prasoon Bhattacharya live here?”

Athough taken aback at hearing the foreigner speak in Bengali, everyone was reassured, a buzz of curiosity springing up. Prasoon? Prasoon! Prasoon!! What does he want with him? Why is this man here?

“You mean Anil Bhattacharya’s eldest son Prasoon?”

“Yes, I’d like to meet him,” the foreigner told Nutu-da, not looking anxious anymore. Nutu-da was another tenant in our house, our neighbour. He worked as a compositor at a press. With his wife having died two years ago, his daughter Nilima was the only other member of his family. A simple, straightforward man, he had just the one problem – he couldn’t help offering unsolicited advice. And whenever he got the opportunity, he would raise funds – be it for a local event or a community celebration. People of all ages referred to him as Nutu-da. Nilima was roughly my age. A student of Class Ten, she slaved away day and night at home and elsewhere. She was a great friend of mine.

“And what business do you have with Prasoon?” Nutu-da asked the foreigner sceptically.

His cigar had gone out. Re-lighting it with his lighter, he said, “I’ve come from Brazil. I’m sure you’ve heard of Santos Football Club. I’m the manager there. If Prasoon agrees, we want him.”

Nutu-da said, “What do you mean, want him?”

The foreigner responded quickly. “Of course, my club will pay him. We’ll also pay for his airfare to come home once a year.”

“How much will you pay?”

“I will discuss that with his father,” the foreigner answered warily. “Prasoon’s not an adult yet. We’ve done our homework about him. He’s 17 years and 4 months old.”

Nutu-da proceeded to escort the foreigner to our home, followed by a procession of local people. You had to enter our house through an unpaved path just 30 inches wide. Nutu-da and our family occupied one-and-a-half rooms each on the ground floor. The landlord, Bishwanath Dutta, occupied the first floor. He had four daughters, two of whom had been married off.

About to leave home, Bishwanath, or Bishu-babu, was flabbergasted at the sight of the entire neighbourhood trailing a foreigner into our lane. Retreating quickly, he sent his second daughter Shonamukhi out to deal with the situation. Bishu-babu was terrified of the police.

Seated on a low stool, my father was reading the morning paper. My mother was in the kitchen. I had a brother and a sister – Pintu, the brother, was the middle one and Putul, the youngest. No sooner had he entered than Nutu-da started yelling for my father. Baba’s was a taciturn personality – most days, we didn’t exchange a single word. I tended to avoid him.

“Anil-babu, the manager of Santosh Club is here.” Nutu-da was panting with excitement. “Pele plays for them.”

“Pele who?” baba asked sternly. “Where does he live?”

Nutu-da was taken aback. Smiling gently, the foreigner stepped up to speak. “Santos is a Brazilian club. Our city is a famous port, from where coffee is shipped all over the world. Our club is among the best in the world, and Pele is the world’s greatest footballer. There hasn’t been another talent like him ever.”

Running his eyes over the crowds behind the foreigner, baba said, “I don’t follow football. Tell me what you want.”

“We want your son Prasoon to play for our club.”

“Talk to him. I have nothing to say about this.” Baba disappeared into his room quickly, followed by the foreigner and Nutu-babu. Meanwhile, emboldened by the knowledge that the visitor wasn’t a policeman, Bishu-babu came up to our door too.

“Since Prasoon isn’t an adult yet, he cannot sign the contract. As his guardian, you have to do it,” said the foreigner.

“No, I will not sign anything connected with football. I do not wish to earn my son’s curses by leading him into damnation.

“Anil-babu was a footballer too,” Nutu-da whispered to the foreigner. He was a fearsome left-in for Calcutta’s top club, Juger Jatri. But he gave up the game after his left knee was injured during the Rover’s Cup in Bombay.”

“Who said I gave up the game?” baba suddenly shouted sharply, harshly. “I was forced to give up. My injury was never treated. I couldn’t afford it, and the club didn’t offer a paisa. I still have to walk around with a torn cartilage. The club forced me to play with the injury. It was the IFA Shield final, against East Bengal. With three minutes to go, the match still goal-less, there I was six yards from goal, with Taj Mohammed on the ground, Byomkesh Bose rushing towards me, Ghatak not able to make up his mind whether to give me the charge or not, the stands roaring in unison for a goal – and from that distance I shot wide.”

Looking embarrassed after that passionate diatribe, baba lowered his head and limped off to the bed, dragging his left foot. Smiling wanly, he said, “I’d told them I wouldn’t be able to play. They gave me an injection and forced me to play, promising a job if I did. I did try, I tried very hard, to score that goal.” He continued almost unintelligibly, “They spat all over me, accusing me of having tanked the game for a bribe. My forehead split under their blows.” Distractedly, he rubbed the scar exactly in the centre of his forehead.

“Footballers meet the same fate all over the world,” the foreigner said sympathetically.

“Why should they?” Baba’s eyes blazed, reflecting his anger and hatred. “When I was rolling on the pitch in agony, they all said I was pretending. They didn’t stop to consider that the man they were vilifying had scored at ease from twenty-five to thirty yards out, had been the top-scorer in the Calcutta league for two years. They humiliated me cruelly, cruelly, not knowing how much I had dreamt of wearing the shield-winners’ medal, of scoring the winning goal for my club…”

Baba stopped.

“We’ll pay well. The first season we’ll pay the equivalent of two thousand rupees every month. That’s the standard for our second team. If his performance can get him into the first team and he plays well, between salary, bonus and endorsements he’ll make at least two lakhs a year.”

“What?” said Bishu-babu and walked into the room. Nutu-da stared at the foreigner, robbed of speech. The crowd murmured.

“Imagine Prasoon having it in him! You can’t tell from looking at him, can you?”

Baba worked as a timekeeper at the Aruna Glass factory, where there had been a lock-out for over three years. Still, he had not defaulted on our house-rent of thirty-five rupees. His self-respect was so strong that it was intolerable for him to even imagine being insulted by the landlord. Ma said he worked at a chemist’s, leaving home every afternoon and returning late, well after I’d fallen asleep.

“You should talk to Prasoon directly. I haven’t been to watch a game for the past twenty years. I don’t even look at the sports page of newspapers. I’m not going to say yes or no on this subject.”

“Anil-babu!” Nutu-da pleaded in a low voice. “Prasoon will earn up to a lakh. You can live like a king!”

“Unbelievable. Imagine earning so much just for kicking a ball! You should accept the deal,” said Bishu-babu.

“Footballers have their pride, Bishu-babu. Prasoon plays football because he wants to, not because I’ve asked him to. I have never watched him play. I don’t want to hear anything more about foortball. I’ve said all I had to.”

Although the foreigner as well as Nutu-da and Bishu-babu, tried to persuade baba, he just shook his head obdurately. Eventually the Brazilian gave his visiting card to baba, saying, “Please think it over and let me know. Since Pele plans to retire soon, we want to prepare Prasoon immediately so that he can replace him later.”

The foreigner left, and so did the crowd. Alone in the room, the card still in his hand, baba walked up to the window, shred the card into little strips and flung them out. As they floated around like a shower of flowers, ma ran out of the kitchen to pick them up, Nilima behind her. Chasing the strips, Nilima came up to my window and whispered, “Wake up, Prasoon. It’s five o’ clock!”

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