Published:  10:09 AM, 06 July 2018

Of football and brotherhood

Of football and brotherhood

World cup football is a fever; this fever visits us once in four years; it does not let us sleep for a month.  This time world cup came to us with extra bit of fun; I am talking about the timing-- the curtain was lifted only days before Eid. The feeling of festivity was everywhere; but it was difficult for one to say which one, Eid or world cup, people are more festive about.

On very rare occasions, these two great events come together for our Bengali life; and when they do, the result is pure happiness; after all, we badly need such happy moments for ourselves considering what we do, round the year, to ourselves and others. Just think of it.

For me, the last few days before Eid reached the 'crescendo' in terms of excitement. I desperately waited for the evening to come and for the fasting to be broken. Then I would feel free as I would go downstairs, have a cup of tea and meet buddies who would be unmistakably there at some corner of the streets or about.

Football inevitably was the topic. We were a boisterous group of Brazilian supporters and we braved the cold stares of men who thought we were going too far with our loud chatter bordering on (our critics thought so) pure gibberish.

As the tournament is still going on (and my team not doing very bad), I am savoring the impetuosity of our group's body language and the fact that we do not care at all about what others think about us.

There is one more thing that is very remarkable about us-- it is our bonding with each other; even though it is the world cup which has inspired it, it is enviably strong and tenacious . In fact I would like to argue that the constitutional strength of such bonding can be the model for some great things we are yet to achieve in our national life.

Two buildings away from where I live is the place of Soumen Saha. In the evening just two days before Eid, I was wearing my favorite punjabi  preparing to while away next two hours in a hearty adda with local friends when I got a call from Soumen- "Come down quickly; I have something to show you."

In the next couple of minutes, I was out on the street, walking briskly to the probable spot where I might meet him."Gotcha", he came upon me from behind grinning. "What the  ...", I could not finish the sentence when he slipped his hand into mine and held it affectionately. "I simply couldn't resist the temptation of showing it to you before I allow others to see it. You do have a pair of critic's eye. You know how much I value them."
"But what is it?"

I hated the surprise he sprang on me; and he understood it; he stopped me on the way, placed his hands on my shoulder and looked me in the eye; he was looking at me as my brother would.

I used the word brother for a reason; during the Diwali days when I use to roam around Dhaka from one temple to another, he lends himself to be my guide.

He hires a rickshaw for half of the day and visits with me all the temples from the old Dhaka to Dhanmondi. It is just incredible to see what he does for me--he holds my hand fast and pulls me through crowd to some place very close to the altar where I usually listen to priests chant mantras as they solemnly perform their elaborate rituals. I never forget to take selfies.

Sometimes, he goes very far for doing things for my sake; last year, he took me to the inner chamber of the Dhakeswari temple- a thing he was not supposed to do; pretty soon, he picked a row with the security personnel who wanted to be absolutely sure about the identity of the intruders and their motives; throughout the interrogation, I stood aside helpless, watching him do all the explaining to the security men. As he spoke to the officers, his face contracted in pain and veins on his forehead stood out in bold relief.

In the evenings of the Diwali days, foods and drinks literally flow in his small but beautifully kept apartment. His mother is the kindest woman at seventy; my love for khichuri and hilsha fishes reach an epic proportion every time I visit his home in those days of the festival; and that widowed woman doesn't know how to say no; where hospitality is concerned, Soumen's mother is the most active seventy year old I have seen.

Sometimes I wonder whether it is justifiable for a Saha to be so endearing to an Ahmad. It is perhaps mean of me to think this way; but the idea occurred to me more than once.

"How long do I have to keep walking like this?" "Not very long". We were approaching the site where Soumen said he had the surprise in store for me. It was the big community park of our locality; at the centre of it is the lush green field where people in the evening, especially in hot summer days like now, come out and squat on its velvety surface. On all four sides of the field, there are old-fashioned buildings for the government employees.

As we were entering the park, the silhouetted darkness of something big and square to the far end of the park caught my attention; we quickened our steps till the thing materialized right in front of our eyes-- a giant billboard covered from end to end in yellow, supported on two eight feet long poles; that had to be the biggest Brazilian flag I have ever seen! "The real surprise is at the top-right of the billboard". "Where?" ; I squinted in the darkness to get as clear a view as possible of it in the hazy glow of the lamppost- " what have you done Soum! you crazy.." . I couldn't believe my eyes- at the top right of the billboard is the king size picture of mine!

From somewhere in the evening darkness, I heard loud clapping; my other friends- Toufiq, Binoy, Raisul and Shohel all came out now beaming out broad smiles; their pictures were also there below mine in the pecking order; they all now said in chorus "gotcha". How could I object to that now; they are all my very good friends; but Soumen outdid them all; it was all along his idea to put me up on the billboard and make me famous.

Nothing but pure love for Soumen filled my heart; the billboard will stay there for more than a month; and as long as the billboard stays, I will be there in my dashing pose looking down at people as they come and go; that gave me a feeling close to immortality!

Shohel brought out tables and chairs from his nearby residence; we all sat down to drink soda waters quietly for some time, our mood being extremely effervescent with happiness for the way things turned out that evening. "Across the park, there is another billboard of Argentina supporters; Dilu made it for them; ours is the bigger one", Soumen spoke up. "We have to stay in the contest and keep the mood on. What do you think?". I did not think anything, I actually felt; something bestirred within me. I felt goose bumps all over.

The real football is being played thousands of miles away; but in the gathering gloom of that evening made surreal by the mysterious illumination of the neon lights, the words of Soumen pervaded, like an invisible ether, the whole of our being; an urge, perhaps, no less intensely felt than that by the actual players on the pitch made players of ourselves too. We vowed to win the world cup for Brazil!

As you can see, it is silly the way we felt, but there is nothing silly about the brotherly bond among ourselves; it was a bond beyond the barriers of origin, class, caste and gods. We were not godless souls, not by any means, but our gods, whatever they are, were not allowed to mar the pure joy that emerges from the union of souls not marinated in the dark and fetid waters of communal prejudices.

Yes, the world cup is a great occasion for people like me and Soumen to come together and wear our hearts on our sleeves frequently; once it is over, our meeting will get rarer; perhaps we will again start keeping our emotions to ourselves and doing those things that pull us apart and force us to be identified with peculiar religious configuration. I utter the word 'religion' with utmost shame at this point- when everything between me and Soumen is fraternally common, religion must be last thing in the world to play it's meddlesome hand between brothers.

Football is a language that we all understand and speak; we need no interpreters, no rigid grammar; think of other languages we speak but don't understand--languages that obscure, obfuscate and use communal vocabularies to keep us divided against ourselves, to make us forget that our heritage, ancestry and origin took nourishment from the same soil and were watered by a rich seminal tradition of pluralism. We need to disown languages that only beget riots of confusion; we need to disown them who speak those languages. Can we do that?

"We must", Soumen ended his speech stressing on our commitment to keep our spirit high even if our team loses to our arch-rival.
I would rather have Brazil lose but I can't afford to lose Soumen, my brother, I thought...

--Yasif Ahmad Faysal

Yasif Ahmad Faysal teaches English
at the University of Barisal



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