Meet Bapi Maji, Kolkata's ultimate football fan
The story ideally should have gone like this: turn up at a teashop in Paikpara, North Kolkata, one evening, watch owner Bapi Maji serve tea under a yellow glow and hear football stories into the night. Except it had bucketed down that evening, diverting planes, knocking traffic out of gear, ripping out advertising hoardings. But under the flat light of a normal tomorrow, with the tea shop shut, the story of one of the most implausible lives in Indian football remained. Two lives actually, a man and his wife whose devotion to a football club transcends reality - even sanity, you could argue.
Bapi, 45, and Sipra Maji's club is Mohun Bagan and on Sunday, December 3 the two will turn up in the Salt Lake Stadium for the Kolkata Derby. It is Indian football's oldest rivalry. No football rite of passage in this country is complete, it's said, without attending one of those. The Majis tell you the rivalry and the fandom behind it will never die. ISL or no ISL.
The Kolkata Derby brand of Indian football fandom is being overrun at high speed: first by the increasing numbers of hipsters, millennials and others following Premier League and Barcelona. Then, the ISL's determined march towards the reinvention of India's club football, which threatens - at least in theory - to dilute what 'legacy' clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal mean to their fans.
In polite Bengali, that means Rubbish. Maji doesn't even bother with the word. Mohun Bagan's official mascot, as he says, he has been given free membership by the club (but buys his own away tickets) and is respected on the terraces, even by the rival East Bengal fans who don't sledge him. He is the MahaFan, whose worship of his club dictates how life must be lived. Ever since he was five and watched Subrata Bhattacharjee, legendary defender and father-in-law-to-be of Sunil Chhetri, play "in the mud." For most fans, club loyalties are lifelong; for Maji, Bagan are that entire life - whole, sole and complete, with the teashop keeping it together.
He has two degrees - a BCom and a BA in history but chose to remain self-employed at his shop, his seasons and schedules dictated by club fixtures. "I thought about a job, but I knew if I did I couldn't follow the team, go to a match or do anything of the sort."
The shop - a small room about 10x6 feet - is where Bapi earns his living, on average Rs 200 a day. Six days a week, off on Sundays and for Bagan fixtures. On the far wall, there are photos of the goddess Kali and next to them a different brand of divinity: the Mohun Bagan team after winning the 2007 Super Cup in Gurgaon, and their two Brazilians Jose Bareto and Amauri D'Silva, with Maji's daughter Sanchita, six months old at the time.
Mohun Bagan has fueled Maji's life. It formed the core of his six-year courtship with Sipra, seven years his junior, and their 19-year-long marriage. We are sitting in the Maji home - deep in Mohun Bagan territory, while East Bengal territory is further north-east, around Dum Dum. It's round the corner from his teashop, accessed by a narrow lane with an apartment building on one side and small tin-roofed structures on the other. A narrow staircase takes you up to a room with a bed, a cupboard, a fridge and a television on the wall and a slice of bathroom behind it. Next to the foot of the staircase is a stone slab that is the kitchen. Opposite that slab, as the stairs rise, is another room. The Majis owned that room but, tired of borrowing money for their football expeditions, they sold that too.
The room they have retained is small, flooded with light, dotted with mementos everywhere, their Bagan-centric world breathing around them. At one point, Maji had signed up for the Bengal state government's 100 Days Work scheme and earned Rs 2700. Sipra's current assignment is cutting up sheets of sticker-labels - it's Rs 1 per sheet cut into the tiny stickers you see tacked onto bottles and boxes in grocery stores offering you so many percent 'extra' or "one plus one free". On a good day, she can cut up 400 sheets into thousands of little stickers.
Their lack of anxiety over money and a regular source of income is unnerving. Sipra laughs. The khela, she says, is the real stuff - ho jaata hai. Jyaada paisa le ke kya karega? (We get by. What you will do with more money?).
The outside world's panic over their meagre resources amuses the Majis because they know the man above has always looked after them. Maji has only just survived colon cancer, and its painful burden of six chemo sessions and 18 rounds of radiation, with the help of Kolkata's footballing community and its energetic philanthropists. It began with a stomach cramp at a Bagan game two years ago. Maji put the diagnosis up on his Facebook page, someone replied - post your bank details - and the first of the donations arrived. When Bagan received the emergency call, they contributed Rs1 lakh. East Bengal too stepped in with Rs 50,000.
In June 2016, an auction of sporting memorabilia by a Kolkata-based sports media company raised money for rival fans - Maji of Mohun Bagan received 60 percent of the proceeds (between Rs 12-14 lakhs) and the family of East Bengal fan Alip Chakraborty, who had died of cancer in May, the remaining amount.
The erosion of tribal boundaries leaves me open-mouthed but Maji and Sipra see no contradictions there - but for game day or thereabouts, they separate the club that is East Bengal from the people who are its fans. Maji says he had nursed a childhood "gussa" (anger) against the old enemy. "They are Mohun Bagan's No.1 competition... Losing against any team in India doesn't hurt as much as losing against them."
As a teenager was he ever part of the legendary fisticuffs? "We don't fight, they're the ones that make the noise and abuse, not me so much but our fans." Of course. He remembers the wild days of the Kolkata rivalry, with fans (East Bengal, naturally) throwing stones at the Matador vans carrying Mohun Bagan fans on game days.
Outside of game days, they are sanguine. Maji says, "Their people as a whole - I love them but it's their team I'm against. First we must win against them, then we'll look at the rest." Sipra says. "Yes we know they are like us, good people, but we are each other's competitors, that's the way it has always been."
East Bengal have won the Calcutta League for the last eight seasons and Sipra scoffs at the "chhota-mota" (small, insignificant) league because of course, Bagan have been serious contenders for the I-League title over the three four seasons, winning it in 2014-15.
In the I-League, the clubs share a common 'home' ground at the Salt Lake Stadium, and at the moment appear to share a perilous future. The ISL's one-city, one-team rule and the high franchise fee required has succeeded in edging out what are Kolkata's true blue community clubs. It has created the city's pre-fab football entity, the enigmatically-renamed ATK.
The Majis have attended a few ISL matches at Salt Lake watching ATK play and returned without feeling anything. "They are like masala matches. Timepass." But the rocketing rise of Bengaluru FC within four years of its creation has given fans on both sides of the Kolkata derby an awareness of what a modern professional football club can and must look like. And how and why the people who run their beloved clubs have played a part in the quagmire they find themselves in.
East Bengal's first home match in the I league was very poorly attended and ended in a 2-2 draw with defending champions Aizawl; Sunday's derby is expected to fill Salt Lake to the rafters. The Majis will be there, among tens of thousands, high on the cocktail of hope and rumour. That their club will be inducted into the ISL "next year" along their great rivals. That - borrowing snatches from a Springsteen song - their dreams will not be thwarted, that their faith will be rewarded. It is not how the football business usually works, but it is what every football fan everywhere believes.