from the outside, in — one man’s journey to the heart of India
by Ashwin Warrior
I came to Calcutta on a whim. Time off from school, traveling and volunteering in India—one version of the American collegiate dream. I chose Calcutta, the sprawling metropolis of over fifteen million people, on the recommendation of a friend. He said the city was unforgettable, that no matter what I was interested in, I could find it there.
Some focus on the extreme poverty; others the vibrant people and rich culture. No matter how you see it, India’s third largest city certainly has the power to overwhelm. Every square inch of the city is thick with life. In the streets, people, animals, and machines collide. Barefoot rickshaw pullers, emaciated and sweating, lean forward with grimaced faces straining for leverage to lug their passengers along the crowded roads. Just as they get going, their knees buckle inside legs skidding on heels to a halt; the traffic prevents their flow. They jockey for space with the men guiding bullock carts piled high with hay and brash young taxi drivers who speed and brake, speed and brake, down the narrow arteries crammed with centuries of transportation technology. To watch some of them operate in the chaos, is to experience the world’s best footballers bounce from defender to defender, filling open space but for a moment until it all shuts down.
The oppressive heat bears down, soaking clothes in a sweat that never completely evaporates. Wandering damp and disoriented, the city assaults the senses: a potent combination of sewage, exhaust, spice, and savory snacks frying in deep tubs of oil fill your nose and attach to your essence, making you one with the city no matter how hard you try and avoid it.
You don’t walk down the street; you’re swept up into the mass of people jamming the road, pushing along the human current with eddy pools everywhere as commerce commences in the maddening flow. Small metal stalls line the edges of mass movement; men sit cross-legged selling everything from cigarettes to kitchenware, and any hope of a casual conversation is killed by the cacophony of honking and hawking and outright yelling. Symbolic suffocation becomes almost real in the heavy yellowing smog, which sits persistent in the sky as if the city’s ceiling. Welcome to Calcutta. Recommended by friends.
After a week cooped up in a ratty hostel, I finally made peace with the streets. In the relative cool of evening, I entered the crowd, kept my head down, and just started walking—maybe not the best travel advice in hindsight. Elbows jabbed my ribs as I passed, causing me to cough and sputter and forcing me off the main streets, away from the crowds.
Some unknown number of blocks later, when I looked up, the streets were narrow; buildings leaned in, placing me in shadow. The ground was littered with shards of broken clay, Calcutta’s innovative alternative to plastic. It’s a city fueled by chai tea: each day gallons are sold in tiny clay cups. Once drunk, the cups are shattered on the floor and ground back to dust as if a prehistoric recycling program. Discarded and scattered, the bits of pottery snapped and crunched beneath my feet as I picked my way down the lane, alone. I shivered. The culture shock of the city was gone with the commotion, but stray signs of life fluttered like background music. A back beat I knew rose up: skid thwack skid thwack—the deep contour of feet pounding compressed air; the scuff of a ball hitting pavement.
Around the block several teenagers kicked a faded and worn soccer ball back and forth in the middle of the street. The ball looked like it might cave in at any moment. The plastic patches had all fallen off, leaving the cloth interior exposed, different colored threads overlaid on seams hand-stitched over and over again.
While I struggled to jostle for even an inch of space to breathe, these boys carved out their niche square in the middle of the road, an uneven, bumpy, pot-holed-filled dirt mess. Every few seconds a taxi or rickshaw roared through, disrupting the game, but it did not bother them. Squeezed between the edges of the pavement, sport came to life. It spilled onto the sidewalks, down side alleys, and much to the annoyance of the shopkeepers, often caromed off chai stall carts, tangling with the legs of customers. It was in the simplest sense boys being boys, completely oblivious to the world, but for the ball and the competition to see who could pull of the most impressive trick, the most convincing feint. There were no goals; it was all showmanship, the score measured in how loud everyone yelled or clapped when you made a fool of your opponent.
Their game was miles removed from the 120,000 capacity Salt Lake Stadium, second largest stadium in the world and home to Calcutta’s two famous soccer teams, East Bengal FC and Mohun Bagan AC. There were no chanting crowds, no bright lights, but games like this one are what define Calcutta as India’s most soccer-crazed city.
Out of habit I stood and watched their game, hypnotized, my feet twitching each time the ball was passed like some strange sports induced phantom limb syndrome. I have been on the edge of so many games like this in my life, wanting to jump in, hesitating, and then deciding not to and walking on. That night I had no choice. An errant pass ricocheted off the fender of an idling cab and the ball came rolling toward me. As I made the motions to return the pass, one of the boy’s voices arced above the noise of the street, hurtling toward me, “Arre, maybe this guy wants to play?”
In a flash I was surrounded by a ring of folded arms and furrowed brows. Around ten boys, all high school aged, had assembled around me and were giving me the once-over, sizing me up. Finally, one guy stepped toward me. Bare-chested and sinewy, with shoulder length black hair slicked back over his head and an Arsenal jersey tucked into his belt loop, he smiled and extended his hand.
I had stumbled upon a team preparing for a six-a-side tournament that weekend. The guys all worked or went to school during the day, so practices went down in the evenings, in the middle of the street. They were young, skinny, bow-legged. They wore brightly colored shirts printed with a smattering of misspelled English words and phrases. They didn’t cut the most impressive figures, but then neither did I. Months of living out of a backpack had left me looking pretty disheveled. Gross may be the more appropriate word. But the guys were shorthanded for the weekend, needed help filling out their team, and asked if I could help. Without a second thought I said yes. There was just one stipulation: I had to be able to play.
In what stands as one of my most nerve wracking interviews to date, they rolled the ball to my feet and said, “Okay then, let’s see what kind of football you play in America.”
The test was simple enough, just juggle a little and maybe throw in something fancy, but it is exactly the sort of thing I am terrible at. I have never been that flashy sort of player, never practiced rainbows or round-the-worlds. I love watching players with true skill, but my game was mostly about kicking the ball ahead and simply outrunning the other guy. Or passing. Without a team, I wasn’t much of a player. But I knew my reputation was on the line and felt as if my country’s reputation was too.
I hooked the ball into the air and juggled it for a minute, all the while acutely aware of each guy’s bobbing head, following my every move. By the end of it, however, I could let loose a sigh of relief; they seemed satisfied. Soon it was all shaking of hands, hugs, and grand talk of positions to play and what each person would do with their share of the prize money when we won. Hands gestured wildly, as if our entire futures were hidden somewhere in the rat’s nest of telephone wires that weaved and crisscrossed above our heads, as though it were possible that our shouts of excitement would somehow shake them loose.
Two other tourists were also talked into playing. The limit was three foreigners per team, though they said that as long as I kept my mouth shut they could pass me off as a local and it would be, “No problem, no problem.” They were all incredibly friendly, treating me as if I were just one of the gang, had grown up with them, and played with them every day. Suddenly I was walking down the streets, not forcing my way, slipping between the crowds, with a swagger and confidence that only comes with feeling like you’re on the inside. I had my team. With the arms of two of the guys slung around my shoulders we talked strategy for the weekend’s games, but it felt like there was nothing we could not handle.
That is when I started getting suspicious. Foreign travel lends itself to suspicion and often it causes, or rather allows, you to assume the worst of people. Guilty as charged. There was a one hundred rupee registration fee for the tournament. The guys on the team insisted I only had to pay half, and they would cover the rest. They said I needed shoes for the games, and suddenly they were grasping me by the hand and pulling me down the road to a shop where I could get a great deal on futsal shoes. On the surface, they were being the friendliest people, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were just out to scam me. The reason for my suspicion? They were being too nice. I might be a cynic.
As the sun set, the boys dispersed amid backslaps and handshakes, but I wandered away feeling sick, thinking I had walked blindly into a scam. I emerged from the quiet of the back alleys, back into the storm of noise. I dissolved into just another face in the sea of people crowding the streets of Calcutta, back on the outside looking in.
I couldn’t even hear myself think, but I felt something wasn’t right. I woke up the same way the next day. There was something so appealing, so trustworthy about the guys, and the way they played. I recognized in them my own friends back home in California and the pickup games we played. But these weren’t those friends. I didn’t know these guys. I didn’t know what I was doing.
I skipped the game. Didn’t show. Convinced there was no game. Then the next day outside my hostel, the team of boys hobbled up to me, asking where I had been, their clothes dusty and soaked with that Calcutta essence. They fell out of the tournament after two games and had the bruises and scrapes on their knees and shins to prove it. Even worse, they were forced to play shorthanded after the other two tourists also didn’t show up. Ouch. My stomach turned over. They weren’t mad at me for not showing up, but I could tell they were disappointed; their eyes never fully met my gaze while we talked. They had been excited about that tournament for weeks. I apologized but knew it did little to set things right. I was an asshole.
A couple days later, I had begun to settle into Calcutta’s rhythms again and sat reading a book on a bench down a side alley with my tea. Men and women pushed past on their way to work. Women clad in brightly colored saris hurried by, lighting up in front of the backdrop of brown and gray buildings. Men in starched collared shirts and linen pants somehow maintained businesslike poise, oblivious to the heat that was beading sweat up and down my uncovered arms. I was parked on the bench, slotted between an overweight man sweating profusely through his shirt and a young boy in t-shirt and jeans, marinating in his headphones, rocking slowly back and forth to the latest Bollywood hit.
One of the guys from the team walked by. I tried to bury my face in my book, tried to press myself into the wall behind my back and disappear. But he made a beeline toward me anyway. Ignoring my obvious embarrassment, he said I was welcome to play at the park with them later that day. Just a few simple words, but suddenly a penance lifted from my shoulders. I leapt at the chance to redeem myself, hurried back to my room, changed, and waded my way back through the streets, to that one particular street that doubled as our field, back on the inside, part of this crazy city.
It was foreign freedom, those moments with the boys and a ball. Our bodies pressed together in a tight knot, so that even when it hit a divot in the road and spun wildly out of control it would find only a wall of dusty brown arms, legs, various appendages, and soon return back into the fold, back into the passing rhythm. We didn’t have some deep discussion about the differences between the U.S. and India, about the unique circumstances that conspired to bring us together to play a game of pick up soccer in a Calcutta side street. We talked positions, our professional idols, girls, motorcycles, all casually paced by whoever had the ball. Like some talking stick between elders, if you had the ball, you had the floor; pass it to the next guy; he would say his piece. We passed for hours. It was simple. It was life, light as the air somewhere above the lingering yellow haze.
Local business owners came out of their shops and told us to stop; we didn’t. Two overweight policemen ambled their way toward us, rattled their sticks, and yelled at us; we laughed them off. It wasn’t until a flood of goats came charging down the middle of the street, swept away our ball and left the road covered in shit that we decided to move on. Life in Calcutta doesn’t stand still, and neither did our game. Neither does our game.
Ashwin Warrior is currently a third year student at Seattle University, but spent the past six months in various locations across India. He is originally from the California Bay Area.
Banner photo by Ashwin Warrior.
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