Saurabh Meher fondly patted the slight bulge in his pocket as he happily walked home one warm summer’s night in 2012. Just a while ago he had neatly folded a small roll of bank notes and stashed it in his trousers. It had been a fruitful outing at sea that day, with the forces of nature seemingly working in favour of Saurabh and his teenaged cronies. A sizable catch of fish had kept the boys in high spirits. Saurabh especially.
It had been a year since he’d started sailing the few kilometres off the Mumbai coastline, Cuffe Parade dock, on his friend’s fishing boat – his fisher-folk parents oblivious to his little sorties. For Saurabh, it was the only way he could collect money to fuel his footballing career. But that was long before he would make his way into the national team that will play the U-17 World Cup next year.
On this occasion, Saurabh returned home with a pre-determined cover up – he was playing football in a park. The usual excuse. Only this time, his parents knew. “When Saurabh was getting onto his boat, his father was returning from sea in his own fishing trawler and he saw him,” explains Harshad Meher, Saurabh’s cousin. “He got a sound hiding that night.”
From a young age, Saurabh’s father Manish had made it a point to ensure that his son was kept away from fishing activities. It wasn’t just for safety concerns however. “This is a hard life. If he got into fishing from a young age, he might grow up knowing only that. I wanted him to be something else, something bigger,” explains Manish. His occupation however, didn’t do much to help his cause. Manish would be on board his trawler, sailing from Mumbai down towards the coast of Kerala to return in a fortnight with a catch of fish that his wife would sell near their home in the Machchimar Nagar slum of Cuffe Parade. In turn, Saurabh would be free to roam the sea and cast the fishing nets he himself would knot together.
That night, the 15-year-old was made to come clean. He had collected around Rs 6,000 over the year he had spent sneaking away towards the Arabian Sea. The money itself was stashed in his pencil case, further stored in his school bag. “The irony is that he hates studying and hates school, but he put all his savings in his school bag. Kuch toh kaam aaya usko,” Harshad says, laughing.
Short-tempered and stubborn, Saurabh refused to let go of a footballing dream. He had been inspired by Harshad leading the Air India team to the Durand Cup title in 2011, followed by I-League spells at Sporting Club de Goa and Kalyani Bharat FC. And so if there was anyone who could convince Saurabh of something, it was Harshad. “But I told his parents to let him play. He wasn’t any good at school anyway. So even if he stopped playing and failed in school, then his football would’ve been over too. Na yahan ka na wahan ka,” he explained.
Playing at a municipal ground for a club including close friends and cousins, pegged the ‘Dhamaal Boys,’ Saurabh unintentionally started attracting scouts from local professional clubs. “He’d score goals for fun. He had a powerful long range shot and decent passing abilities,” Harshad mentions.
But Saurabh had some serious disciplinary issues. “He was a rowdy boy. Full tapori style, he’d fight with boys. Gaali galoch all the time,” he recalls. Till one day the elder brother sat the teenager down. “I told him that if I get another complaint, I will never help you. Your football career is over.”
The threat worked. Saurabh turned more respectful and sporting on the field. But his ‘tapori’ streak still lingered. Saurabh had convinced his parents to buy him a pair of branded football shoes using the money he had saved. In style, he’d stroll onto the pitch with his teammates admiring the sparkling black boots. “Wah yaar, Nike ke joote?” Harshad remembers hearing. Yet within the six month warranty period, the right boot tore at the toe. “He didn’t have any other boots, so he wore these for practice and matches. So they wore off quickly,” Harshad says.
Dutifully, the two brothers marched to the store and eventually got a replacement. “Khudh ke haath se phaad do, aur naya joota milega. Accha hai,” he recalls Saurabh’s reaction.
He prized those boots, managing to make them last for the trials of the U-17 World Cup team in Mumbai as well. He’d go through several more pairs eventually before the U-16 AFC Cup kicked off.
Soccer mom, and dad
His parents watched the first two games from home itself. Manish though was struggling with the temptation to travel to Goa to watch his son play, against the restart of the fishing season.
The closed monsoon season can be punishing for the fishing community – given the rough waters and it being the breeding season for marine life. The Meher family lives off savings during this period. Plans however were being made to get back to sea since the weather had started letting up. “Usko dekhna ek cheez hai. Lekin dhande ke bare mein nahi sochenge toh kuch khayenge nahi (It’s one thing to want to watch him play. But if business stops then what will we eat?),” Manish says.
The temptation was a bit too strong eventually, as Manish made arrangements to set his trawler in charge of his deputy, while he and his wife travelled to watch their son play.
On any other occasion, Saurabh’s mother would have picked one of the freshest of her husband’s catch, cooked it up and garnished it with her carefully concocted masalas to take for her son. But not this time. She’s been warned that he now follows a strict diet. “No more masalas for him,” Harshad says. There were often complaints from her about Saurabh’s already skinny frame not being well-fed at the camp. That is until she saw him on television. “She said he looked much more muscular in the uniform,” Harshad says.
Meanwhile, Harshad waits patiently at home for when Saurabh next returns. There’s always been banter between the two during practice sessions – Harshad standing in goal while Saurabh taking shots from range. “‘Tum se save nahi hoga’ he told me when we last met,” Harshad recalls. “I’ll show him when he gets here.” A fisherman’s son is hitting the back of nets with confidence now, rather than casting them into the sea hopefully.