3 years

Debut

A New Ball Game for Bhaichung Bhutia

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India’s most famous footballer runs for a perfect strike in a Trinamool jersey
When Bhaichung Bhutia arrives at Gangtok’s picturesque Paljor Stadium one crisp sunny morning, just three days after he has been nominated by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) as its candidate for the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat, pockets of the near-empty stadium burst into a frenzy of movement. The 15-odd players scattered in the field rush to the dugout, groundsmen and security staff station themselves near the entrance with cellphone cameras, and curious faces emerge from the windows of houses overlooking the stadium. Bhutia appears, dressed in a blue pullover and jeans. Carrying a brown leather case, he walks with big, calculated steps as if taking his mark for a penalty shoot, and heads straight for the dugout.

Later in the day, Bhutia will embark on a whirlwind journey, one that will take him from the plains of Siliguri in the hill constituency to the Gurkha heartland in Darjeeling town. Over the next few weeks, he will travel to villages and urban centres, making public speeches and temple visits, addressing rallies and drumming up support. Yet, here he is this morning, minutes after dropping his youngest child, a two-and-a-half-year-old girl, to her first day in school, now speaking to football players of his club, United Sikkim. As a warm sun bears down and he tells them he won’t be around for a while, he notices a player missing.

“Where is he?”

“Sir,” a player with arms folded behind his back says. “Stomach problem, sir.”

“What?”

“Sir, diarrhoea, sir.”

“You tell him, ‘If you have fever, you come to the field’,” says a stern sir, “...‘you don’t have to play but you come here and watch. If you have diarrhoea, you come. You can go to the toilet here but you come and watch.’ Do you understand?”

Since his retirement from India’s national football team in 2012, Bhutia has been attending to his businesses. He has moved from Kolkata to his hometown in Gangtok and expanded his football schools in Delhi, Mumbai, Jammu and Chandigarh. He owns a gas station in Siliguri, a high-end fitness gym in Gangtok, and there is talk that his wife, Madhuri Tipnis, a former hotelier with ITC in Kolkata, might start a hotel in the city. He is currently building a bungalow for his family in Gangtok and managing his football club. Some say that United Sikkim’s financer, a Dubai-based sports investment group, Fidelis World, is pulling out and the club’s expenses must now be borne mostly by Bhutia himself.

“I’ve been busier after retirement than my playing days. I can’t even remember the last time I worked out in a gym,” he says and checks the sides of his belly. “As you can see, I’m sure.” The former footballer’s frame is now slightly bulky. He is 7 kg heavier than his playing days, he says, although he does not disclose his exact weight. “I’ve just been running around so much for the club, for this and that. And now this,” he says, referring to the election campaign.

Bhutia lives with his wife and three children—five-year old twins, Ugen Kalzang and Keisha Dolkar, and two-and- a-half-year-old Samara Dechen—in a rented apartment in Gangtok. In this town, Bhutia is everybody’s agya (elder brother), someone who helps others out. He regularly organises local football camps and tournaments, and often takes talented youngsters under his wing. As is often said in Gangtok, Sikkim’s two most famous individuals are Danny Denzongpa and Bhaichung Bhutia. But since Danny is a villain, Bhutia is the hero that people idolise.

A few months before the TMC released its list of Lok Sabha candidates, its chief Mamata Banerjee, with whom Bhutia says he shares a close relationship, asked him what he’d make of contesting an election on a party ticket. She saw him, his friends say, as someone people look up to. “I didn’t know what to say. I just wasn’t sure and I think I said something like that. So I was made a party observer in Sikkim, which I was okay with, someone who could help out the party in the state a bit,” Bhutia says. “I did not think about what madam had said, nor did I care to consult anyone. And then some days back, it was on the news.”

“People say ‘Wow, gee, now you are a politician’, but do you know there’s a revolution underway at home? Madhuri didn’t speak with me for two days. She didn’t talk to me at home nor answered my calls. And my mother, she hardly shares anything with me now,” he says. Both appear upset about not being consulted and fearful of the violent agitations that often rock the hills. “How do I explain, ‘I had absolutely no clue I was going to be given a ticket’?”

Retirement from active sport has done little to contain Bhutia’s restless energy, which his businesses alone aren’t enough to absorb. “You see,” he says, “I don’t want to sit on a couch and watch TV. So in a way I was happy when this opportunity came along. When I retired, I moved to Sikkim to start a football academy. I am yet to receive any land. I realise you might be a football star, but without political patronage, you are never going to get ahead.”

Darjeeling, however, is a curious choice. The TMC has little presence in the hills, and though it has some support among Bengalis in Siliguri, these voters are also known to vote CPM. Banerjee’s party has been wooing non-Gorkhas such as Lepchas and Tamangs by setting up development boards for them, but the region’s best known leader is still Bimal Gurung of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), whose struggle for a separate state has won him many followers. In the 2009 polls, it was Gurung’s support for Jaswant Singh that saw the BJP leader win the seat so easily, and this time, the GJM leader has pledged his support to SS Ahluwalia of the BJP.

Will Bhutia make a fight of it? In his own style, yes. When he speaks, his voice appears rehearsed and unemotional, without an accent, but if you listen carefully, it has a youthful vigour to it. In public, he dodges all questions on his stand on statehood for Darjeeling, preferring to address issues of development in the hills. His party colleagues—such as Goutam Deb, TMC’s North Bengal head—lose no opportunity to attack Gurung, who usually returns the favour, but Bhutia likes to maintain a studied silence. It is as if he is too nice a person.

When Bhutia picks me up in Gangtok in his SUV, the town is abuzz with news of his having called up Gurung the previous night. Gurung’s flunkies have leaked this information and most newspapers here have flashed it on their front pages: ‘Did he really call him up?’ ‘Why would he do such a thing?’ ‘Is he scared?’ This morning, these questions rage in the marketplace.

I ask Bhutia, the corners of whose mouth I see curling into a smile in the rear-view mirror. “You see, I’m just about three days into politics. I don’t understand these matters,” he says by way of explanation. According to his friends, it was a set-up. They got calls asking for the former footballer to speak with Gurung. “The conversation was barely for a few minutes,” says Bhutia, lifting an imaginary phone to his ear with a sinister smile, “And after a point, it was unclear why I had even been asked to call [Gurung] in the first place.”

We zip down Gangtok’s streets trying to make it to a press conference on time. Outside, young Sikkimese girls stand in corners, waving their arms with ‘Bhaichung’ forming on their lips. In the backseat, I find myself squeezed between two TMC men, a large amiable man dressed in formals and a smaller man who identifies himself as CP. Bhutia is in the front with a Bengali driver. The vehicle’s occupants are anxious. The driver, perhaps new to these winding roads, drives hesitantly, while CP appears surly and worried about being late to the conference. Bhutia, though, is playful. He punches the driver and says in broken Hindi, “Sikkimese girls are pretty. But you, boy, you look straight.” Without turning around, he calls the frail CP his bodyguard, saying aloud,“Remember, sukeko jiu ma, lukeko kala (‘In tiny bodies lurk hidden talents,’ a playful Nepali couplet).”

We park by the road and walk up a dingy staircase to reach a small room filled with plastic chairs and a wooden table. This room—owned by the general secretary of TMC Sikkim, Tshering Lepcha, a man with glistening spiky hair and a goatee— turns out to be the party’s local headquarters. Lepcha is dressed for the occasion in a black suit and pink shirt. Pleased at the turnout, he complains to some journalists, “Other times, you people never come.”

Men after men emerge from the darkness of an adjacent room to garland and praise the party candidate. Once the press conference starts, Tshering reads out a statement he has painstakingly written by hand in a notebook. But it is far too long, the journalists are fidgety, and with people interrupting him to garland Bhutia, Tshering gives up. The former footballer, though, has them listening when he speaks. A few minutes later, I feel the tug of Tshering’s hands on my shirt sleeve. He passes me his cellphone and whispers, “Can you take my photo with agya Bhaichung. Please, me and him. And please get the crowd.”

Bhutia was born the youngest of four children in Sikkim’s remote Tinkitam village. His parents, Dorji Dorma and Sonam Topden, who are cardamom farmers, named him ‘Bhaichung’ which in Sikkimese means ‘younger brother’. His talent evident even as a pre- adolescent, he won Sports Authority of India football scholarships at the ages of nine and 14, and moved to Gangtok to pursue his education and sports dream. Here, with a distant uncle as his local guardian, he played local football.

Karma Bhutia, that uncle, was the first to spot his talent. After the youngster turned 16, his uncle got Bhaskar Ganguly, a former Indian goalkeeper, to check him out as a player. In turn, Ganguly got East Bengal officials to call the lad for a trial. As soon as his uncle learnt of the trial, he sent a wireless message to Bhutia’s parents in Tinkitam asking them to come to Gangtok for an important matter. Afraid that some harm had befallen their son, they showed up that very night. When they learnt why they’d been summoned, they were dismayed. “This boy is no good,” his uncle remembers Bhutia’s father saying, “And Bengalis will only spoil him further.” Eventually the two gave their assent, and Karma Bhutia took the teenager to Kolkata.

For Bhutia, who had played football in the pleasant climate of Sikkim, the trial, which was conducted in Kolkata’s scorching heat of May, proved extremely difficult. He would walk up to his uncle every few minutes, saying he wanted to give up. “‘Agula (paternal uncle in Sikkimese )’, he would say, ‘It’s too hot, I don’t think I can play here’. But I didn’t allow him that.” The club eventually signed him up for an advance of Rs 40,000 plus a pay of Rs 4,000 a month, with a free bed in a dorm thrown in. He played for a few minutes in the next few matches but achieved nothing remarkable.

The footballer made his name, however, later that season. In a Durand Cup semifinal versus BSF, the 16-year-old scored a match-winning goal with a back volley with just a minute or two left before the final whistle (of extra time). “From then on,” Karma Bhutia recounts, “there was no stopping him.” Bhutia went on to play for top clubs in the city, represented India for 16 years—as captain for 11 of those—and scored 42 international goals in all. He was also the first Indian to play for an English club and was the rare footballer endorsing brands in ad campaigns.

Twice in his career, he found agents of rival clubs waiting for him at Bagdogra airport to abduct him, fly him to Delhi, and force him to sign up with their teams. “The word then was ‘kidnap’ and it wasn’t uncommon,” Bhutia says. His uncle Karma, who used to negotiate his contracts in the early days, would find himself summoned to far-flung areas in Kolkata where club officials flanked with thugs would try scaring him into getting Bhaichung to play for them. And that, in short, is how Bhaichung Bhutia became the country’s first authentic football star.

On the morning he is to deliver his first public speech as a politician, Bhutia is conducting meetings with various community leaders at a resort in Siliguri. Seated inside a dark room with closed windows, the football star is surrounded by burly men who drink tea in miniature plastic cups and analyse newspapers in sunglasses. Every few minutes, one of them takes off his shades and pushes forth a news report that features a Bhutia photograph, saying, “Agya Bhaichung... too good!”

But the candidate does not seem as jolly as he did the previous day. Perhaps this is because he is nervous about speaking in Bengali, a language he isn’t too fluent in. He appears exhausted and anxious, and is unusually quiet.

Later in the evening, Bhutia is seated on a wooden dais inside an indoor stadium with other political leaders. Outside, the road leading to the stadium is choked with vehicles. Bengali and Nepali men and women come in cycle rickshaws and motorbikes, while hundreds seem to tumble out of trucks and jeeps. Within minutes, all plastic chairs are taken; latecomers must stand.

As leader after leader delivers his speech, Bhutia can be seen on the dais with his nose buried in a bunch of sheets. He scribbles and strikes, the furrows of his eyebrows deepening as he looks at what he’s written. It turns out he is writing his speech.

Bhutia’s turn to speak is last, and once it comes, he delivers an enthusiastic speech in broken Bengali. He promises transparency and clean politics. And when he tries to leave after he’s done, a gaggle of hands, cameras and notebooks reaches out for him. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the idol, whether it’s his signature, a photo or a handshake.

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