The Kolkata sports fan: a portrait
In November 2014 I went to the Salt Lake Stadium to watch a match in the newly launched Indian Super League football tournament. It was the slick, loud, much-hyped alternative to the older, organic national football league. It featured a host of ageing global stars playing for franchises owned or fronted by celebrities - including Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly.
I thought it would be awful, another of the ersatz made-for-TV sports leagues spun off by the IPL. It turned out to be quite fun, a reasonably good crowd, and even though it was a goalless draw, there was enough entertainment on the pitch.
And, crucially, off it too. The Kolkata sports fan has always been known for humour, though mostly of the subtle Bengali variety that doesn't translate too well. I did wonder, before the game, whether the identikit of the ISL fan, supporting Atletico de Kolkata (ATK), would affect the cultural quotient so important to watching live sport (ref: Roy Keane and the prawn-sandwich culture of the new-age Manchester United fan). I needn't have worried; early on into the game came this comment from the man behind me: "Oder acchey Mendoz, amader acchhey Sandoz." [They have Mendoz, we have Sandoz]. The wit in the remark, tying in an opposition player, Mendoza, with Sandoz, referencing trademark Bengali hypochondria, assured me the Bengali sports fan was alive and well.
I left Kolkata more than 20 years ago, when it was still Calcutta, when Jyoti Basu was chief minister, and when Mohammad Azharuddin was still the Indian cricket captain. Following football still meant, largely, following the Indian teams; the TV revolution hadn't yet brought us the English Premier League, and of course, the IPL was more than a decade away. The Calcutta I grew up in was a multi-sport city; cricket in the winter, hockey in spring, football in the summer and monsoons, with tennis, table-tennis, chess, horse-racing, rugby and even cycle-polo all drawing crowds.
I was lucky enough to grow up next to a sports club, and for me the seasons were defined aurally: the crack of cricket ball on bat, the thwack of hockey stick on ball, the ragged shouts of the rugby packs and the raucous cheers of the fans. Singing "We had joy, we had fun, we had Wilson on the run" when the Calcutta team I supported played Bombay's Wilson College in the All-India (and South-East Asia) rugby tournament. The height of corporatisation was the Merchants' Cup, a series of sport-specific tournaments through the year, where we would be lucky enough to see Vece Paes, barely out of his prime, winning matches on his own, or flashes of what made Keshav Datt an Olympic hockey gold medallist.
Of course it wasn't all sweetness and light. This was Calcutta, where emotions were forever on edge, one refereeing (or umpiring) decision away from full-fledged bloodlust. The West Indies cricket team faced the fury in 1967 because of ticket allocation issues; Sunil Gavaskar was the target in 1985 because he was captain when Kapil Dev, the crowd favourite, was dropped for a Test against England. And I remember watching the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match on TV in 1980, when, with the camera resolutely looking away, a riot in the stands led to 16 deaths.
Indeed, within months of leaving Calcutta for Ahmedabad, almost the first references to my home town were bad news all over again. The crowd trouble during the 1996 World Cup that led to the match being abandoned and Sri Lanka being awarded the win. Three years later Eden Gardens was cleared of all spectators after Tendulkar was controversially run out by Shoaib Akhtar - who then had objects thrown at him while fielding on the boundary and was subjected to shouts of "cheat".
Fifteen years later Shoaib was at that football match I attended and was greeted with huge cheers. He'd been part of the Kolkata Knight Riders team in its first season, and though he huffed and puffed his way through those four overs each match, the crowd loved him then, as they did now.
That's what had happened to Calcutta in those two decades: not just a change of name, but a discernible, if slight, shift away from the traditional and gritty to the new, the glitzy - and perhaps the more inclusive. ATK, playing in the match I watched, are a team created specifically for this tournament, with no real organic links to Kolkata other than Ganguly. This in a city that already had the country's two most famous football clubs, founded on distinct identities and with clear fan bases. Who would support this team built purely for commercial reasons?
Many, as it turned out. ATK's average attendance for the first two seasons would be more than 40,000. And as I saw that night, it was a mixed crowd, including several families out for the evening, women - now, there's definitely a first - munching on their muri (puffed rice) and grumbling about the ten-rupee charge for a microscopic cup of tea.
They could have been at an IPL game or, indeed, at the Pro Kabaddi League, supporting Bengal Warriors (who play to packed houses at the Netaji Indoor Stadium). The city's sheer population makes it easy for clubs and franchises to put bums on seats - and it's not merely about the numbers. Crowd support has played an integral role in KKR's success, whether they are cheering from the stands during a match or turning out in their thousands for the victory parade when the team won the league in 2012.
The one time Kolkata was divided, though, was when Ganguly played for Pune Warriors against KKR. A rough estimate was that the older generation supported Ganguly and the younger supported KKR (or the team's owner, Shah Rukh Khan).
Football matches over the past couple of seasons have been relatively low-key - with Salt Lake Stadium being readied for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup later this year, matches are being played at smaller venues or even outside the city - but those who play for the city's big clubs will still vouch for the fans' loyalty (and, in equal measure, for their demands).
So much has changed about Kolkata and yet so little. What remains, as my friend Joy Bhattacharjya, who has seen the city as a student, as a sports fan and now as a sports administrator, says, is the innate Kolkata curiosity - the curiosity that made the city India's quizzing capital. The curiosity that saw thousands flock to the World Table Tennis championships in 1975 and ensured that, 40 years later, the same venue was packed for kabaddi matches. IPL, EPL, ISL, PKL… if there's a sport in town, Kolkata will embrace it for a roller-coaster ride.