Days in Eden

Soumya Bhattacharya
In Kolkata everyone's a cricket watcher, and what better place to watch it than at the stadium that has come to be an emblem of the city?

People gather at Eden Gardens to watch England at the nets © Getty Images

One of my most thrilling cricketing memories from boyhood comes not from what I witnessed on the pitch, nor from a game I'd seen on TV, nor from an account of one I'd heard on the radio. It concerns what happened in the south Kolkata home in which I spent several years as a boy.

It was a sticky summer's evening in 1984. My father, having just returned from his clinic, called me and, with a smile, handed me a small, glossy card.

On the top left-hand corner was the crest of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), and across the middle, in block capitals, were the words "LIFE MEMBER". On the reverse, in blue ink, were my name and a number.

For a Kolkata boy, this was a gift of monumental significance. What it meant was that, by virtue of being a member of the CAB, I was assured of a place at the Eden Gardens whenever a game was played there. I wouldn't have been happier had I been given the moon no sooner than I'd asked for it.

For several years before that, my father had called in favours to get me tickets. On occasions my mother's side of the family - almost all of them members of the CAB - had offered me tickets. But this gift of his was putting an end to all that scrounging and begging. I now had the right to be at the Eden whenever I chose.

Even before I watched a single game there as a LIFE MEMBER (yes, I think of the phrase capitalised) - even before the evening was over - I had begun to place myself at the heart of the mythology of the life member at the Eden Gardens. We and Eden have a history, these members think. We are family. We are inseparable. And therefore we become card-carrying members and representatives of Kolkata's cricket cognoscenti. (What a word. What a lie.)

It is the truth, though, that the Eden Gardens - that vast amphitheatre hemmed in by huge stands, so unlovely and yet so full of allure - is central to Kolkata's overriding passion for the game. Unlike in, say, Mumbai, the local cricket league in Kolkata doesn't assume much significance. Local football some people still have time for. But local cricket? Oh, no. In Kolkata it is the Eden - and one being there on match day - that is a true reflection of fandom. (Of which more in a minute.)

A lot of this has to do, I suspect, with the fact that Bengal has produced so few international cricketers of real class that you won't need even a single finger to tot them up. In Kolkata, as in all Indian cities, little boys with stardust in their eyes dutifully practise with expensive kits on the city's maidans. But perhaps their interest dwindles after a while; perhaps they give up because they find out they are not good enough; perhaps they just become investment bankers or poets.

And that is where Bengal's - and Kolkata's - fanaticism about Sourav Ganguly comes in. Sport is an inescapable part of our popular culture, and Kolkata, despite being big on culture (if you don't have much else to show for yourself - like, say, top industrialists or a lot of money, culture is your badge of distinction), has no culture of producing top players.

In Kolkata, you have a lot of people who will talk intelligently about a lot of players. But where are our own? Ganguly fired Kolkata's imagination because he was the talisman the people of the city had been looking for. In Ganguly came the answer to years of prayer for a hometown boy who had made good. And how good he made.

For Kolkata, when it comes to cricket there is Ganguly and the Eden Gardens. But long before there was Ganguly, there was the Eden.

Sport is an inescapable part of our popular culture, and Kolkata, despite being big on culture has no culture of producing top players

The English poet and critic Ian Hamilton once said: "I don't play much football, but you should watch me watch it." That's just as true for Kolkata and cricket. We don't have world-class players, but we are world-class spectators. We take the watching very seriously indeed. And if the venue where one can do the watching, live, is called the Eden Gardens, well, where else would one rather be?

The answer, of course, is nowhere. Everyone would rather be at the Eden than anywhere else. A lot of people would do anything at all do be there on the day of a cricket game. (Which is why, that present from my father, the CAB membership that allowed me to be there without having to do anything at all, was so decisive.) When in 1978 I first went there to watch India play Alvin Kallicharran's West Indies, 90,000 people packed the stands on the final day of a dead Test match. Half the ground fills up for a Test match these days, but I suppose it's still like how I first remember it for an IPL game - especially if Ganguly is leading the Kolkata Knight Riders.

Going to the Eden is Kolkata's annual picnic; it is a secular festival (as feverishly anticipated, as wide in its reach and as rich in its enjoyment) as huge as the city's other festival, Durga Puja.

The first time I walked through the crowd heading towards the ground - the first time I walked along with this crowd - I was frightened. I had never seen so many people together. The tight columns made me feel claustrophobic; I feared a stampede. In the years that followed, once I had got used to it, I would get off the bus and plunge right in, taking my place behind the last person in the long queue. It was a good couple of kilometres to the ground. Hard work when there's no place to put your feet, when all you see in front of you is a sweat-stained shirt and all you can feel is the guy behind you steadying himself in the crush. Just occasionally, to your right you can see the vacant road. There are so many policemen - on foot, on motorbikes, in jeeps, chattering agitatedly into their walkie-talkies. The emptiness of the road only draws attention to how packed tight you are.

I no longer live in Kolkata. I remembered all this - vividly, with the sort of sharpness that the recollection of something so crucial to our days and ways is supposed to bring - while having lunch in a Mumbai restaurant with the British High Commissioner to India, Sir Richard Stagg, and his deputy in Mumbai, Peter Beckingham.

Both men are ardent cricket fans. And the moment they knew that I had spent many of my growing-up years in Kolkata, they started talking about the Eden Gardens. They said their time in India would not be complete till they watched a game there. I could sense that they found the image of Kolkata inseparable from the image of the stadium that lies at its heart. (No stereotype is without a core of truth.) And I smiled to myself, and felt again that sudden, keen stab of desire: the wish to be there, to sit in those stands, Block L or B, one on either side of the Club House, behind the bowler's arm if he was coming in to bowl from the Club House end, and to see on the other side of the ground the flag fluttering on top of the High Court from which the other end derives its name.

I know it's something that hundreds of thousands of people in Kolkata and from Kolkata will feel. For us, the notion of cricket has been bound up with the Eden.

I know something else, too. I know how I shall anticipate - and once it occurs, be fulfilled by - a particular moment. That is the instant I first see the ground. I'd be past the police and I'd be walking through the long, wide, musty corridor beneath, and then, between the stands. And then, in one unforgettable moment, I'd see the field. I'd see its shimmering, immense expanse of smooth green, framed by the stands, beneath a patch of open sky.

I'd feel inordinately thrilled - as, I know, did thousands of others. And I'd feel blessed. Because I know that as long as I care to turn up, the Eden will always have place for me.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of Hindustan Times, Mumbai. He is the author of two volumes of cricketing memoirs - You Must Like Cricket? and All That You Can't Leave Behind - and a novel, If I Could Tell You