Salaam Stanley Matthews, by Subrata Dasgupta

A game of two halves and two cultures
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Subrata Dasgupta was a child of that generation of Indian professionals who migrated to a somewhat morose, grey, postwar Britain, earned in pounds (and sent remittances home), missed their luchi and Tagore songs, and failed the Norman Tebbit test most brazenly - by barracking for Hungary over England, for instance, in a soccer game the former won. Yet Dasgupta's boyhood years in the early 1950s were more English than hybrid. He would try to make sense of his world in terms of football in England - its heroes, dynamics, politics, jargon and trivia. But that he, as the product of a fusion of cultures, should identify with Thomas Babington Macaulay's idea of the "Babu" is disconcerting.

In early 19th-century India, Macaulay sought to create a class of intermediaries, "Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect". The idea of a young engineering student in independent India trying to adhere to this formula is disturbing. Surely there are other models than Macaulay, whose policies were directed at creating glorified clerks - the Anglicised yes-men of the Raj?

Having said that, Dasgupta's memoir is an enjoyable account of the drama inherent in relationships forged across cultures. His father, an ear, nose and throat surgeon from newly-liberated India, looked for an engagement in a Britain coming to terms with postwar deprivation and the loss of colonies. Being beaten at its own game by the US in the World Cup and then by communist Hungary on its own soil (at Wembley Stadium in 1953) could be read as metaphors.

But there was still Stanley Matthews, the star player of Blackpool, and known for the almost poetic beauty that he could bring into the game. In the mind of a pre-teen Dasgupta intent on discovering the nuances of a skilled performance, Matthews was a living embodiment of all that soccer was and meant to England - a way of life perhaps on its way out. The slightly inhibited but completely smitten Dasgupta travelled all the way from Derby to Blackpool to catch his idol, then somewhat past his prime. Even his name would conjure up snapshots from Dasgupta's English experience after he had left the country.

Dasgupta paints intimate portraits of his younger self, his surgeon father and singer mother, and their extended family of single young men from India working as apprentices in prestigious engineering firms. The Dasguptas' friendship with their landlords in Derby, the Amos family, is thwarted by differences: Dasgupta senior is a surgeon, Mr Amos a porter and his wife a bus conductress. The relationship, which finally settles down to a status quo not entirely rid of tensions, also highlights the chasm between the English-educated Indian bhadraloks (upper-middle-class, white-collar workers) and their blue-collar counterparts in England. While Dasgupta's friend David, a postman's son, earned his bit by selling newspapers, Dasgupta's mother found the very idea that her school-age son should make some money by running errands absolutely shocking. The first stirrings of the pre-pubescent Dasgupta's feelings about the other sex are sweet and endearing. He is attracted to artistic Mrs Thomas, to Pauline, the landlord's lovely daughter, and later to his mother's friend's daughter Kumkum: closer in age but light years ahead in confidence.

But the high point of this book, for me, is when the author decides that what football was to England, cricket is to India. Watching a cricket match at Kolkata's Eden Gardens, swept and churned into the maniacal frenzy that surrounds it, he realises the power of these two games in defining and asserting the identity of their respective nations.

Chitralekha Basu is a writer and journalist in Kolkata

Comments