By: Rajeeb Mukherjee
Dhritiprasad Mahato was eagerly waiting for the final of the football tournament to begin that summer afternoon.
A 10-day trip to Germany awaited the player of the tournament, organised by West Bengal Police to reach out to residents of the Maoist-hit Junglemahal area. And, it was Dhriti’s heroics under the bar that had brought his team this far. But then came the twist.
The Lalgarh Ramakrishna Vidyapith swept to glory, but without its star goalie. It was not injury that kept him out that Sunday afternoon in 2011, Dhriti says, it was his surname.
Dhriti is the eldest son of Chhatradhar Mahato, who was sentenced to life imprisonment on Tuesday by a court in Midnapore for his role in the Maoist agitation in Lalgarh eight years ago.
Fearing crowd trouble during the final that Sunday — Mahato was in jail then — Dhriti’s school simply pulled him out of the match.
Today, this 20-year-old college student says that’s just one of the many blips that he has faced in life. Like being left out of the West Midnapore district team last year after making the cut in the selection trials. “None had an answer to why I was dropped,” Dhriti said.
For many others, it would have been the end. But Dhriti says he’s got his father’s “undying love” for the game.
“Had football not been there, we don’t know where we would have been,” Dhriti said, adding that he is only following the advice his father gave before being whisked away ? “keep practising hard, keep playing football”.
Football is everything, Dhriti says, for him and his younger brother Debiprasad, starting from early memories of their father taking them to the village playground.
Dhriti adds that his father was a “good footballer” and would teach his sons the game’s nuances “whenever he got time in between farming and looking after people’s welfare”.
After Mahato was arrested in 2009 for his role in the Lalgarh agitation, Dhriti says he has met his father only intermittently, for short durations.
And growing up without him in Lalgarh’s Amlia village, one of the most impoverished areas of West Bengal, has not been easy, he adds. “On one side was the Maoist movement and on the other, the strong police presence,” he said.
What made things worse for the brothers was the fact that their uncle, Sasadhar Mahato, was a well-known Maoist who was killed in a police encounter in 2011.
“It was football that kept us alive during immense hardship, poverty and the constant watch of security forces,” Dhriti said.
“Dhriti is very talented, but somehow he is under tremendous pressure all the time, and that affects his game,” said Jayanta Chaudhuri, a former club player who has been running football camps in Junglemahal and was one of the first to spot Dhriti’s talent.
”Being the eldest in the family, with his father in jail, means there are a lot of expectations on him. He realises he has to earn a living, keep the family together, but at the same time can’t stop playing football, because that is his life,” Chaudhuri, a health department employee, said.
The dilemma is evident when Dhriti says he dreams of becoming a professional footballer one day, but realises he “needs to start earning soon”.
In his father’s absence, it is his mother Niyati who looks after the family which owns a small patch of farm land.
“Their father wanted them to become footballers. That’s my wish as well. We don’t have much resources, but we want our sons to keep trying. I am there to look after the family,” Niyati said.
But that’s little consolation for Dhriti, a first-year graduation student at Lalgarh College, who has now enrolled himself for a computer course, hoping for a job as soon as possible. But whatever happens, he says, his heart will always be in football. “If only I could get some trials in Kolkata.”