How I Turned My Gujarati Husband Madly Bengali About Football


How I Turned My Gujarati Husband Madly Bengali About Football

Illustration: Akshita Monga

In the sultry June of 2014, I was pregnant with joy for two reasons.

First, I was actually pregnant. The stork had come visiting and the world had suddenly opened up to possibilities I hadn’t ever envisioned as an young adult —  of becoming a mother, doing motherly things like ensuring that every morsel of my food intake is healthy, and looking at sharp corners in the house with fear without even having a baby in my arms yet.

And second, it was time for the FIFA World Cup, or as Bengalis will tell you, our entire quota of sports in one glorious month. For us, it’s much like one large hit of a joint.

Most Bengalis are brought up on a generous dose of maacher jhol and football. Battle lines are drawn early in our lives when we are mandated to choose our loyalties between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, sometimes even before we learn to pronounce the team names.

In fact for my father’s side of the family, football is as much a priority as having clean air to breathe. While growing up, he spent the better part of his days regularly chasing the ball with his brothers. Naturally, the baton was passed to our generation: My cousins have kept the flag waving high by winning every neighbourhood trophy ever. One of my earliest memories of summer vacations spent in Kolkata, is of these two tall men downing huge glasses of milk and hitting the ground wearing their Brazilian jerseys every evening.

With every match, he channelled his inner nerd and ensured that his football IQ kept getting better.

Staying true to our illustrious football-loving family legacy, my father taught us the game very early on in our lives. He ensured that we sat and watched every East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan match on television yelling “goal” and “penalty” while most children were glued to Giant Robot or screamed “He-Man… And the Master of the Universe”. We were taught the significance of picking sides. “Don’t just choose Brazil or Argentina because that’s what everyone does. Swim against the tide — pick a team who is sheer joy to your eyes,” Baba would often say. In the next few years, I would zero in on Germany for their clinical teamwork as opposed to the freestyle magic of the South Americans.

Years went by and my football watching partners changed – school friends, college buddies, colleagues. They came and they went. But, last World Cup, I was looking forward to share my couch and love for football with the husband for the first time.

Back in 2010, he was the boyfriend who adeptly found some or the other excuse to make sure date night did not clash with game night. At that time, courageously flinging between the late matches and early work mornings, I couldn’t be too bothered to change his mind.

But 2014 became the year I welcomed the Gujarati man of the house to Manna Dey’s “Sob khelar sera Bangalir tumi football” (For Bengalis, football you’re our favourite sport). In a delicious case of role-reversal, I patiently explained to him the basic rules of the game – the offside rule, penalty kick, corners – and seeing how serious I was about my devotion, he meticulously read up the rest on the internet. Since Gujarat is as clueless about football as Bengal is about a “pure veg” meal, he was puzzled about which team to adopt or which player to worship. I even lent him my favourite team Germany for the occasion. “You can cheer for Joachim Low’s boys and pick a favourite among them for this year,” I told him. He grinned and declared that he might just have his own favourites soon. I obviously doubted that.

While I knew that our cross-cultural marriage was going to be one in which we  — in Bollywood speak — “celebrate our differences”, football was something I didn’t want to compromise on. To me, it was important that the man who had replaced Baba in our TV room had a basic understanding of the beautiful game.

To my surprise, my husband went much beyond his brief.

With every match, he channelled his inner nerd and ensured that his football IQ kept getting better. He promptly started memorising names of the players like some sort of a Bengali bot. Penalty shootouts had replaced Argo as his new edge-of-seat drama and he went all out in rejoicing in our collective wins. Unless Germany clashes with Portugal. Yes, he has a favourite team now, just as he had predicted.

During this time, I also started feeling tiny kicks and it was decided in the spur of the moment  — much like how a goal is scored — that the baby would be called Ochoa. A namesake of the Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa whom we both crushed on for his saving skills and luminous locks. Such was our sentimental determination that we were even prepared to call our daughter Ochoa, if it ever came to that.

But, we had a boy and the daak naam stuck as perfectly as a Bengali’s fondness for Satyajit Ray. My son’s daak naam was obviously a hit with the Mukherjees (my side of the family of course), but the Parikhs remained flummoxed about the need for a daak naam in the first place and that too, one that was dedicated to a random Mexican footballer.

Today, my husband is unstoppable. He laps up Premier League games, has a favourite club (Real Madrid), and has watched every Cristiano Ronaldo documentary ever made. He even cites trivia like the Colombian footballer Escobar’s unfortunate death while we binge on Narcos. Or how Pele’s father also cleaned toilets while we do chores on Sundays. In fact, it was my husband who sent me a link to our captain Sunil Chhetri’s ardent plea to Indian football fans and called it a “baller move”. Hell, he even planned a trip to Russia around the World Cup until we realised it was the first month of school for our little Ochoa.

I’m aware that my case isn’t new or exclusive. I know way too many families who have burdened their kids with names like Messi, Maradona, or Zidane. Take the seven-year-old Rooney who hands Maa bread and eggs from the grocery store downstairs, for instance. Even Kerala, Goa, and the North-Eastern states have their own share of Zizous, Neymars and Pogbas.

But what makes me delirious with joy is that I have created an oasis in the unlikeliest of places; in Gujarat, a city that is more than happy with its lacklustre IPL. In fact, thanks to our Ochoa, the entire Gujarati clan knows a thing or two about football and its messiahs.

Today, I am armed with a team that may not necessarily go to cafes to watch football matches on a large screen, but one that cries for the losses and wakes up tired but ecstatic about the wins with me. A team that has a three-year-old Ochoa who kicks the ball with inherent skill, thanks to lessons from his Dadu. A team that didn’t just survive our cross-cultural constraints but also defeated them. A team that has become possible only because of the love for Joga Bonito  — differences in cultures be damned.

Right now, I’m just waiting for the day Little Ochoa picks his own jersey. Wonder if it will be Portugal, Germany, or Mexico?