Updated: July 30, 2021 6:40:50 pm
Cricket may be India’s most popular game, but nothing matches the raw emotion and passion that football stirs up in Bengal. And for the football-loving fans in the city, deserted stadiums and stands at Kolkata Maidan amid a raging pandemic have been hard to bear. But it has been harder for those who relied on these games to earn a living, and one such person is Jamuna Das.
“The pandemic took away the sweetness from my life,” said Das, an avid supporter of East Bengal, who has been selling flavoured candies at the football grounds since 1983. While many may not know her by name, just a mention of ‘Lozenge Mashi’ (candy aunty) will stir up many emotions in those who used to enjoy the game from the stands.
But for more than one year, the pandemic has not only left her jobless but also stolen one thing that made her happy. A regular at any East Bengal game, not just in Kolkata but even outside, there’s hardly any football supporter who isn’t familiar with her.
Walking carefully through the water in the alley leading up to her home, 57-year-old Das is a little hesitant to invite people over to her Agarpara home. “My world collapsed when I suddenly lost my husband two years ago in July,” Das said, wiping her tears in her unfurnished room. “It was Maidan that kept me going but I never imagined that the pandemic would even take that away.”
Since March last year, Das hasn’t been able to attend a game, which dried up her revenue streams. Even though games resumed, it continued to be hosted without spectators, meaning she too had to stay away.
Although she has had help from not just football clubs in the city but also fans and many prominent players last year, it hasn’t been enough. “Last year I received some monetary support from the East Bengal fan club. I got money from Mohammedan Sporting Club and even Ranjit Bajaj, Minerva Punjab club owner and player Nirmal Chhetri,” she said, assuring that the clubs haven’t forgotten her. “But you know, all the ration they got, money they sent, it all was exhausted soon.”
Throughout the pandemic, she says she received calls from top players and club authorities, who check on her from time-to-time, but it’s her pride that has been hurt in the given circumstances. From Bhaichung Bhutia to Sunil Chhetri, and even Leander Paes and Manoj Tiwari, she added, the list of her ‘famous brothers’ is endless. And even though many have said there’s nothing to worry about, it hasn’t kept her woes away.
“I hate to beg for alms and look for mercy, but this pandemic has left no other option for me,” Das said. “But what hurts more is that I can’t visit the place and people I love the most…and with the recent turmoil at my club, it pains me I can’t be there to support them.”
For nearly three decades, spectators and players have seen her in the aisles leading the fan chants, and handing out red and yellow confections to those who wish to buy it. While rivalry between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan goes beyond the football pitch, she is loved by all, including players and authorities. Armed with a bulging cross-body cloth bag, donning an East Bengal jersey over her the yellow-red sarees, her enthusiasm is infectious.
“East Bengal has always been the reason for my happiness. It didn’t matter whether they won or lost,” she said. “The club has always given me a true sense of belonging. It’s part of my Bangal identity,” the woman said, explaining her immigrant background as her parents were from Faridpur, Bangladesh.
Her deep devotion to the team is evident in every corner of her room, through the scruffy yellow paint on the wall that has many pictures of sporting events and club memorabilia. Adding that she cannot express her love for the club in words, she said, “For young girls liking football may seem odd, and in my generation it was unheard of. But even after my marriage my husband understood and supported it.”
After losing her parents at a very young age, she grew up supporting the team. Later in life, having no children of her own, the players, whom she has always handed candies across the barricades are the only family. And everytime, ‘her team’ scored a goal or raised the trophy — it gave her an euphoric sense of accomplishment.
But it isn’t just the lack of money that has her depressed. From the supercyclone Amphan that rampaged through Kolkata last year to Cyclone Yaas this year, heavy torrential rains kept flooding her ground-floor home, damaging her belongings.
With knee-deep water that filled the cupboard in her room, her bed is now stacked with everything — a stand fan to her valuable jerseys. Although the bed has been raised from the ground by slabs of bricks, the repeated inundation also forced her to seek shelter at a neighbours’ residence.
“People of my locality have been very kind. Though my relatives may have turned their backs, people who really love me have kept in touch,” she added.
Amid all her sadness and depression, Das continues to be passionate about football like when she was a young girl. However, there’s still one thing standing in her way, even if everything returns to normal — Covid-19 vaccination. “I am getting older and wanted to get a shot as soon as possible but as I don’t have an Aadhaar card, it hasn’t been possible”.
Staring outside the window, as clouds drift away, and the sun makes its way, even a mention of the game lights up her eyes. “I just pray and hope football will be back soon as well.”
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