Professors Partha Chatterjee and Ashutosh Varshney, already seated with several graduate students in an isolated corner of the Brown Faculty Club when I arrived, were deeply engaged in a debate about the Indian Penal Code. My presence temporarily jolting them out of their discussion, Varshney quickly turned and asked what department I was with. I hesitated, nervous and unsure of what to say, before offering a squeamish “undergraduate.” Luckily, he recognized me as “Vazira’s student” and I introduced myself as a history and anthropology concentrator who had studied in India for two years. It was the only thing other than my order that I said during the entire two-hour lunch.
There was little space for any student to talk while Varshney and Chatterjee debated minute details of South Asian history and current events, exchanging views on everything from the Aga Khan to Tanjore Brahmins and the recent communal riots in Assam. I was impressed by how many names of forgotten people and places the scholars could call forth almost effortlessly.
Alternately sipping black coffee and clam chowder, Chatterjee’s casual conversation painted immensely detailed historical landscapes. Apparently I wasn’t the only who had this impression of him. After his lecture, I overheard Bharka Dutt, the famed Indian journalist currently in residence at Brown, raving to Chatterjee that she could see his presentation unfold like a movie in her mind.
Chatterjee’s status as one of the founders of Subaltern Studies and the title of his afternoon lecture — “Soccer and Collective Identity in Colonial Calcutta” — drew a crowd to the Watson Institute, an array of grad students, professors and a few diehard football fans. Chatterjee took the stage and immediately began reading verbatim from the chapter “Football as a Manly Sport” from his latest book, The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power.
Football, as Chatterjee noted, was first introduced in India by the British to inculcate a greater sense of “manliness” and obedience to authority. Yet, Chatterjee’s main thesis asserts that, in spite of British intentions, football matches between white European and native Bengali teams in Calcutta became staging grounds where, on the occasion of a Bengali victory, the legitimacy of colonial rule was seriously put into question. As he recounted the travails of the Mohan Bhagan football club (the most famous Bengali team at the turn of the 20th century), effortlessly linking ethnographic detail with high theory, my mind drifted to the many spontaneous, late afternoon football matches I’ve played in India.
The Mahindra United World College of India, where I spent the last two years of high school, is situated in the center of a chain of mountains known as the Western Ghats. Our field was encircled by immense, thickly forested hills with a small, quaint river valley below. The river’s winding path was surrounded on both sides by a large number of clustered villages, each billowing plumes of smoke from firewood stoves. My mind was wont to wander from practically every game, and I would often give up a goal while my eyes fixated on a grazing cow or the perfect-circle sun setting across the horizon.
One time we played a match with kids from local villages. With mixed teams and a ball that needed to be re-inflated every 15 minutes, our bout wasn’t laden with the racialized, colonial discourse that characterized football during the British era. Chatterjee points again and again to the distinction enforced by the booted British and barefoot Bengali players, but all of us played without shoes. The football field was one place where the stark socioeconomic differences so present in India fell away and we were equal, if only for a moment.
Several of my classmates from Mahindra United World College are also students at Brown. I met up with one of them, a sophomore named Supriya from Calcutta after Chatterjee’s lecture. She couldn’t believe how accurate Chatterjee was in his portrayal of Bengali football. As it turns out, her dad, still a Calcutta native, used to play for the Mohan Bhagan football club. It was surprising that the same clubs founded over a century ago still exist. I’ve also personally seen plenty of informal matches being played by kids in the dusty byways and gullies of India’s massive, chaotic cities. Yet, as Supriya reminded me, most middle-class Indian teenagers don’t follow Indian teams — they’re fans of distant British mega-clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. Football, it seems, is one province where India hasn’t fully recovered from the colonial hangover. Then again, according to Chatterjee, the game once lit the flames of revolutionary fervor while India was still under the foot of the British Raj.