Objectively speaking, the world has produced some pretty good football writers. Some of their work is listed here. But one name among them shines. It’s that of a working Bengali sports journalist who wrote slightly pulpy football fiction in his spare time. His name was Moti Nandy, and we just got our hands on a book called Kick-Off, which newly brings together all his football-based short stories for the first time, translated to English by Arunava Sinha.
If you’re thinking of Eduardo Galeano, don’t; Nandy was no football philosopher. Not for him the dry, sardonic wit of JL Carr, or the poetic eye of Pasolini (yes, that one). Nandy doesn’t write about real-life football in Calcutta, although the names of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal float through these pages. (The dedication of these stories to East Bengal is Sinha’s doing). For his fiction, he created stand-ins for the institutions he wanted to write about: small, plucky Shobhabajar and big, slick Juger Jatri.
His realism came from elsewhere. Here is just one piece of atmospherism from the opening pages of his novella Striker: “Baba used to work as a timekeeper at the Aruna Glass Factory, which had been closed due to a lockout for over three years.” Nandy’s Calcutta may sound like Satyajit Ray country to the casual reader. But it isn’t: it doesn’t draw from that famously artful, studied vision at all. Nandy was in the business of soap operas, not epics. His heroes were strugglers, sick men, ageing stars and young bucks with mighty chips on their shoulders: broad and generously sketched Rudyard Kipling boys.
The two greatest stories in Kick-Off are the novellas Striker and Stopper, previously published about a decade ago, also in Sinha’s translation. Both encapsulate the breadth of Nandy’s concerns and form pleasing mirrors to each other. In Striker, the young Prasoon, under a shadow thanks to a famous father who was unfairly accused of throwing a match, struggles to prove himself at Shobhabajar and migrate to a bigger club. Stopper is the story of the injured, ageing widower Kamal Guha, who has descended from the heights of success to a small-time role at Shobhabajar, and must come to terms with his past and future.
They are the most intriguing and complex of Nandy’s stories, full of middle-class Calcutta atmosphere, and replete with what you might call middle-class morality. It has its blind spots; but like so much popular art that emerged from in and around Nandy’s context, Striker and Stopper are unironic in their passion for justice, their roiling anger at poverty and corruption, and their moving sympathy for lonely, proud men.
All of these are hallmarks of Nandy’s other stories too (and more than one can feel a bit same-y). Each one has the enjoyably syrupy penchant for drama that drives good popular fiction. Best of all, each one is completely and utterly sincere in its passion for football - so sincere that it will infect even readers with no love for the sport, or any sport. At their heart, Nandy’s stories are about the difficulty of being good. Football was just a means for him to explain that being good - and being good at something - is bigger than life and death. It’s the only reason that famous quote means anything. If you love anything at all, you’ll love Nandy.
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