I still remember it was a day shimmering with excitement for an Indian fan. A World Cup match between India and Pakistan.
It was the morning of June 8, 1999. I was a devoted fan of the Indian cricket team led by Mohammad Azharuddin. The match was scheduled for later that day.
I pedalled 3 km as usual in the morning to catch the bus to my school, 20 km away. The bus was the only transport from my village. Office goers and a few students like us used to take the bus to the nearby town. We would spend the half-hour journey discussing everything from cricket to price rise, from a runaway bride to the election. Mobile phones were an alien thing, and so were headphones. So these were very involved, intense discussions. The day any match was to be played, the discussion was mostly about cricket.
Everyone was excited. The match was scheduled for the afternoon.
I was excited too. After ensuring that the antenna of the single black and white TV was working, we – all the fans – were finally sure that there would be no glitch.
An India-Pakistan match was not a litmus test for Indian Muslims then even though Indian soldiers were fighting against Pakistani soldiers in Kargil. Unlike now, it was more about the speed of Shoaib Akhtar to the solid batting of Rahul Dravid to the technique of the master Sachin Tendulkar. I was rooting for Ajay Jadeja and Azharuddin.
The world-changing horrific 9/11 tragedy had not been taken place yet. Words like terrorism, jihad, and islamophobia were quite alien to me. Sixes and fours were also not as abundant as we now see in T-20 cricket. We lived in the famous on-field battle between bat and ball. But on that odd day in 1999, suddenly the discussion took a turn to an off-field battle. It was only much later that I realised it was Islamophobia.
While the discussion was on the fight between India’s batting against Pakistan’s bowling, out of nowhere, an aunt who was a very dear friend of my mom and my friend’s mother, told me,
“তুই তো আজকে পাকিস্তানকে সাপোর্ট করবি। আজহার(মোহাম্মদ আজহারউদ্দিন, তখনকার ভারতীয় ক্রিকেট টিমের ক্যাপ্টেন) আজ ইচ্ছে করেই কম রান করে ভারতকে হারাবে।”(You will support the Pakistan cricket team today. And Azharuddin will sabotage the match!”
I was shocked, dumbfounded and bewildered. I didn’t know what to say. I was like a devotee and my gods were the Indian cricket team. I used to pray for them, and I used to promise to light five candles and incense sticks (the number varies, according to the importance of the matches) in dargahs.
How could she say I would support Pakistan! I was the one who the Imam sahib of our mosque thought of as a truant girl and my Nani was always worried that the Imam Sahib would curse me and hell would befall me as I used to argue with him as he was a Pakistan supporter. I literally hated him for that. Later in 2001, after 9/11, I had a heated debate with Imam Sahib. I was only in Class 9 then.
But the words of my aunt haunted me the rest of the day. I prayed hard, and even promised Allah that I would keep a roza if India wins! I was so desperate.
I couldn’t watch the match due to a power cut. But India won that match and Venkatesh Prasad was the man of the match. Azharuddin scored the highest runs.
But those words of the aunt cut a deep wound in my teenage psyche. I cried and cried that night. Something in me changed. I then decided to become a supporter of the Australian cricket team.
Yes! When Sachin Tendulkar was trapped by Shane Warne or Mitchell Johnson, I clapped. When Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden were raining sixes and fours, I screamed. Though by then I didn’t have that Imam Sahib sitting by me, watching the matches. Those days of a single TV in a whole village were gone! Economic liberalisation and the marketisation of a game were a reality.
Until the day, I had an interest in cricket. I was a devoted Australian fan and I changed my god from time to time, from Steve Waugh to Steve Smith. My aunt’s words that day robbed me of my choice.
Now I can hear people cheering every six and four. But I see the worried faces of mothers. They can’t stop their sons from watching cricket matches, and neither can they stop the system that demonises a community and puts young boys in jail for supporting – or alleged supporting – the Pakistan cricket team.
Thank god we are saved this time. This final is not between India and Pakistan. Or else we would have had to put a banner outside my house, reading:
I am an Alam and I am not a fan of the Pakistan cricket team.
Moumita Alam is a poet from West Bengal. Her poetry collection The Musings of the Dark is available on Amazon.
Featured image: Reuters