Inside Milan Mandir, a 'cultural and sporting club' a stone's throw away from the sprawling Ma Mangal Chandi Bhavan that is home to Pune Warriors India skipper Sourav Ganguly in South Kolkata, everyone wants Kolkata Knight Riders to lose on Saturday at the Eden Gardens.
Except the 46-year-old club treasurer, Dilip Majumdar. "I don't care, but I'm a KKR supporter. I'll support my city. So what if I like Dada?"
The four others in the room are aghast, but they put Majumdar's 'treachery' down to ignorance. As the self-described cricketing know-it-all Tapan Sarkar, the 63-year-old resident of Behala, puts it, "I can confidently say that 70% [people of Kolkata] will support Sourav and the Pune Warriors on Saturday. Sourav is a Kolkata institution. KKR is just a business entity!"
Club member Robin Bhattacharya, 41, is more reasoned in his support for Dada before the May 5 IPL fixture that seems to be causing serious rifts within families and between friends, colleagues and lovers across Kolkata. "Shah Rukh, o haruk (Shah Rukh, let him lose)," he says calmly, referring to the owner of the KKR team. "Dada was humiliated last year by the KKR management. He wasn't dropped for cricketing reasons. He was dropped for reasons that have to do with business and other things. The offer of mentorship by KKR was like giving a dog a bone."
Bhattacharya points out that on Monday, there were quite a few members watching the KKR-Chennai Super Kings IPL match in the club who were cheering for Chennai. "A defeat, they reckoned, would put pressure on KKR when they went in to play Pune on Saturday," he explains, quickly adding that he wasn't one of them as KKR is his 'second team' after Ganguly's Pune Warriors.
It is this intense identification of Sourav Ganguly as 'our own' that is making many Kolkatans, especially Bengalis, turn their backs on the IPL team that bears their city's name. Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha finds a recurring theme in such a reaction. "I don't want to sound hyperbolic, but Sourav Ganguly, for many Bengalis, has been without question the most popular icon after Subhas Bose. His being dropped from KKR last season was seen by many as a kind of repeat of Bose being driven out of the Congress by Gandhi." Guha also sees the perceived 'victimisation' of Ganguly by a 'Bollywood upstart' as a continued narrative that goes back to the change of capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.
For Bengalis, there have been popular icons few and far between. Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray and, to an extent, Amartya Sen may be the pride of Bengalis, but their appeal has been filtered through an elite appreciation. Ganguly, on the other hand, comes across as a cross between the 60s-70s Bengali film superstar Uttam Kumar -- whose immense popularity was, however, restricted among Bengalis -- and Subhas Bose, whose appeal goes way beyond Kolkata or Bengal.
But this rift in loyalty for 'Kolkata' and for Ganguly goes beyond sporting matters and throws light on the social, cultural and political dynamics of the contemporary Kolkatan and his relationship with the rest of India. Sports writer and author of Sourav, a biography of Ganguly, Gulu Ezekiel, finds the "undying loyalty of the Bengal masses to their beloved Dada" both admirable and disturbing.
"It is admirable in the context of the IPL as Ganguly was treated very poorly by the KKR management. That is because the owner being a superstar in his own right, there was place for just one giant ego in the KKR setup," says Ezekiel, who keeps going back to his 'favourite city' Kolkata even as he's been a resident of Delhi since 1991. He asks a tantalising question: if Pune and Kolkata were to play in the final at Eden, whom would Kolkatans support?"
Ezekiel points to what he calls a "disturbing aspect" of such fanatic loyalty: "When in November 2005 Ganguly was out of the Indian team after his spat with coach Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid replaced him as captain, the Eden crowd roundly abused the Indian team and backed South Africa when they played a one-dayer there. The next day when the team landed in Mumbai the captain allegedly said, 'It's nice to be back in India.'"
So at the core of the rift between the Kolkatan loyal to KKR and the Kolkatan loyal to Ganguly lies a parochialism that stems from a strong persecution complex where the perpetrator is 'India' and the Kolkatan/Bengali is the constant victim.
Advertising legend, chairman of Response Group and founder member of Concern for Calcutta, Ram Ray is less severe of the Ganguly obsession. "Calcuttans remain the quintessential Sourav-lovers. They want him to do well in whatever he does. But they realise that the pride of their city lies not in his hands, but with the Kolkata Knight Riders." Ray feels that most Kolkatans would want Dada to do well on May 5 "in an afternoon where the Knights and Warriors will be locked in an ‘epic' battle culminating with the last delivery of the match... with the Knights winning by the skin of their teeth." This way, KKR wins with Dada's 'invincibility' intact. Guha agrees on this count and cites the famous prayer of English journalist -- and admirer of Australian batsman Victor Trumper -- Neville Cardus: "Please God, let Victor Trumper score a century today for Australia against England -- out of a total of 137 all out."
Ray's reasoning seems to be borne out by others. At the Barisha Blue Star club near Ganguly's house, a senior member who wishes not to be named says, "Well, of course we all like Sourav. But we won't support his team at the cost of KKR. Why would anyone want one's own city to be considered a 'haero' (loser)?" he says with impeccable logic that defies the reasoning used by Ganguly's wife, Dona, when telling a news channel a few days ago that all Kolkatans will support her husband on Super Saturday.
Ray, someone who has worked with brands all his working life, thinks the IPL's city branding instils city pride, "especially when the celebs aligning with their own or adopted cities, making the citizens' pride swell even more". He believes that with merchandise sales, brimming stadiums, joyous fans, "IPL could be heading the EPL [English Premier League] way".
Another person who understands brand-building is Suhel Seth, the managing partner of the strategic image management firm, Counselage. But he disagrees with his mentor Ray, saying that the IPL franchisees have failed in their duty as "it is critical for local teams to have local icons or else there will never be any loyalty-building. So to that extent it is a travesty that Ganguly now plays for Pune, or for that matter Dravid for Rajasthan."
The non-Bengali ex-Calcuttan Seth also underlines the difference between the Bengali and the Calcuttan supporter. "The Bengali is far more loyal to his icons and what we are seeing regarding Ganguly is the usual rearing of Bengali nationalism, as it were." Bengalis, according to Seth, got a bit of their aggressive streak back inspired by Ganguly. "He is not just a Dada who is a brother but equally a Dada who is akin to a paraa mastaan (local goon). Which is why you see the reactions you do. There is palpable ownership of not just Dada but of all that he stands for. So any disrespect to Dada is a disrespect to Bengal and Bengali pride," says Seth adding that it also doesn't help very much that with Mamata Banerjee maurauding everywhere, the few vestiges of hope for the average Bengali are being mauled by perceived 'rank outsiders'.
Ezekiel is somewhat sympathetic to the outrage felt by many Kolkatans that Ganguly is not playing for the 'home side'. Mumbaikars, he believes, would have felt equally aghast if Sachin Tendulkar played against the Mumbai Indians for another team. Guha doesn't agree. "Sachin is important for Marathis and Mumbaikars. But Shivaji is an overpowering presence for them. Bengalis and Kolkatans don't have a similar icon as a buffer. They just have Sourav," he says.
So what does a Pune resident and Pune Warriors India supporter make of all this ruckus in faraway Kolkata? Ajit Paranjape, a 40-year-old software professional who has spent all his life in Pune except for the 13 years he was in the United States, finds the KKR-Sourav conundrum a sign of a professional league system that is yet to mature. "The United States with a population of some 300 million has professional football and basketball leagues with some 32 teams each. There are some 5-7 stars in each team. Here we're running after a handful of stars. There's a supply side crunch," says Paranjpe.
He also uses the NBA (basketball) model to drive home a crucial point. "Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks is a star basketballer from Germany. But Dallas has embraced him since the last 12 years. Regional affinities and where a player comes from matters less and less. What matters is the team winning." And in that respect, Paranjape thinks that Ganguly has been, despite the results, great as a captain for the Pune Warriors this season. For him, and he says for most supporters of Pune Warriors, a team bereft of any local or Marathi player, what matters is the team's performance. Not where the players come from.
A younger generation in Kolkata also seems to be innoculated against the parochial bug. It is a surprise to hear 17-year-old Sourav Das, member of the Borisha Akotha Shongho, yet another club in Behala, say without hesitation that 'his' team in this IPL is the Mumbai Indians. Ask him why and his reply is straight and simple, "Because Sachin is there." Nine-year-old Isha Sinha, following the KKR-Royal Challengers Bangalore match last Saturday cheered her team Kolkata Knight Riders to victory "because Bret Lee is the best".
All this, as the elders at Milan Mandir go on about Dada avenging the 'humiliation' meted out to him by KKR and how the Eden crowd will be there on Saturday "because of Sourav and not Shah Rukh". One leaves them fighting over the crucial matter of whether Sourav's father, Chandi Ganguly, ever undertook official umpiring duties or not, and regaling libelous stories about how Sachchitananda 'Kelo' Chatterjee, Sourav's maternal grandfather, would apparently get false tickets for matches at Eden Gardens printed and have them sold in black at the Behala crossing.