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March 23, 2016

For cricket, with love


March 23, 2016


Sometimes one must follow the heart. So despite being told it was pointless to go to Eden Gardens only to witness us lose to India, I set off for Kolkata. Why let the team be alone, I told myself.

The hype at Eden Gardens was unmistakable. “High voltage match ho ga, madam”, said a smiling duo. Unsurprisingly, tickets sold at triple the price. In live transmissions of dozens of vernacular Indian channels the word heard most often was ‘win’. Yet India’s sober and serious commentators like Gavaskar and Master Sachin Tendulkar warned of Team India being under pressure.

With hardly any other women around, many people walked up to chat. Young Afaq had acknowledged supported Pakistan’s team. ‘I love your team’, said he. An innocent but authentic sentiment. We all live with several identities...and that should be okay. Bangladesh’s exiled writer Tasleema Nasreen had equated Pakistan supporting Muslim Bengalis with Muslim Bengalis supporting the 1971 massacre!

Heading back to the hotel I got lost – the curse of cars means navigation of circuitous roads isn’t easy. I walked up to an elderly man. He was helpful and chatty. Telling me he had never been to Pakistan, he said he did meet many Pakistanis when he went for Haj or Umrah. Like Afaq he too told me Kolkata’s cricket supporters were split into pro-India and pro-Pakistan sides. When asked why, he said – unconvincingly – because both teams play well.

‘We also love Shahid Afridi’, he added. He also incorrectly recalled Pakistan had recently defeated India. Hafiz Sahib (the old man) worked in the local courts and everyone in his office had been distributed free tickets. He said we would be at the match because “humara tou yeh hee final hai”. I didn’t ask him which team he supported.

The streets were buzzing with activity and full of festivity. Enterprising men screamed their hearts out urging people to support their team in the imminent clash by buying Indian flags being sold in all sizes and forms. Smiling, I just nodded. Mine I carried in my heart. The ambiance was wonderful – energy, action and a nicely feisty nationalism that competitive popular games invoke, always and everywhere. Pakistan clashing with India is also a pretty big deal.

For me there was not even a peppering of touristy stuff in this historically rich city. Only my momentary guide Hafiz Sahib pointed to Subhas Chander Bose’s statue placed in the nearby rotary and behind it the white Shaheed Manzil minaret named after those who fought the British in 1857.

After some anxious moments the weather was a settled affair, the pitch and outfield heavily secured against the rains. By early evening our women’s cricket team had beat the Indians.

Getting to Eden Gardens was an ordeal, with thousands blocking the roads. Security was efficient. I decided to be in the open stands for the real action, but the security personnel were against us loitering. When I said to the smartly turned-out officer Chatterjee that, with thousands of Indians in these stands cheering their team, at least two Pakistanis could be allowed to sit there, she smiled and relented – in fact even gave me her seat. Another enthusiastic Pakistani woman, armed with a Pakistani flag, also came to the stands. Our two-person cheering squad settled down.

India won the toss and decided to ball. The wicket was going to viciously turn. We were now prepared to cheer every run! The power of a hundred thousand in the jam-packed stadium was phenomenal. The sight of the rain-washed atmosphere, rich colours, smiles in abundance – I was where I really wanted to be.

To be one of just two Pakistanis in the super-packed stand of thousands of Indians was a grand feeling. My newly-made friend and I bonded instantly. She had a huge Pakistani flag that was to become our victory symbol every time our batsmen were to score. The flag was without a pole and a bit crumpled. That didn’t matter. Both of us would rise and holler in the stadium ‘Jeetay ga Pakistan jeetay ga’. At least that was the plan!

And then the moment arrived... the teams arrived to our deafening applause. From one end of the stands began a slogan: ‘ Jeetay Ga, India Jeetay Ga’. And that was our cue – two women hollering: ‘Pakistan jeetey ga!’ The sound of our own slogan was reassuring. There is this great power of positive nationalism. Suddenly there was activity in the field.

From the speakers first blared ‘Pak sar zameen shaad abaad’ – tears welled up as I rose to sing the national anthem... proudly and forcefully in front of the hundred thousand Indians in the historic Eden Gardens. My father’s words of decades ago came back to me: ‘Your home isn’t where the four walls of your house end, home is from where you get your identity’. I sang the anthem of my identity! It was a beautiful moment – a rare high indeed. There was palpable deference to our anthem around the stadium…no cat calls, no disruptions. Some Indians even tried to hum along. Then the Indian anthem played. With confidence and great pride as a Pakistani I was happy to sing the only two words I knew ‘Jai Hind’, I felt not a shred of hatred or insecurity. Mutual respect and reciprocity can be bonding traits.

And then it all began – Pakistan’s batting restricted to a mere 118. Not a winning score. Indian pacers and spinners initially appeared unplayable. Wickets intact and the runs only trickling in...we still proudly held our magical flag, whisked around clumsily in the stand. Indians were ecstatic over the brilliant fielding and bowling by Dhoni’s team. Surrounded mostly by young Indian supporters, our applause was drowned in their screaming and chanting: ‘Jai Hind, Bharat mata ki jai’ – and so on.

Our batsmen hardly settled down and the overs kept slipping by. For the very few boundaries Pakistani batsmen hit some popular Indian song blared from the speakers across Eden Gardens. And only once was our very own Dil Dil Pakistan played – briefly.

Dhoni’s boys played like their lives depended on the game, not letting a run go easily. Our two-person Pakistan cheering squad was in a difficult spot. The deafening Indians slogans were laced with lethal sarcasm: ‘zabardast shot’ for no score by Pakistanis. Naively, we asked the youngsters to appreciate at least our boundaries, but they were already in a winner’s trance. They, of course, offered us water and snacks etc. ‘We have never won from Pakistan at Eden Gardens’, one of them reassured me. They were polite. Some took our photographs when we were at our most tense. Of course, our innings were no winning affair.

However, we left the stadium with our enthusiasm to win still intact. But for that to happen, the PCB needs to wake up instead of remaining dedicated to repeating old mistakes.

The writer is a national security strategist, visiting faculty at NUST and fellow at Harvard University’s Asia Centre.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nasimzehra



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