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regular-article-logo Thursday, 18 July 2024

Meet Pradip Das, East Bengal fan, blind since birth, who lives to listen to the sound of football

The 55-year-old from Howrah's Salkia is a regular at club matches on the home ground. He has taught himself to "hear football"

Arnab Ganguly Calcutta Published 08.07.24, 10:59 AM
Pradip Das, 55, is blind from birth.

Pradip Das, 55, is blind from birth. Pictures: Sourced by the correspondent

Minutes before half-time during the Calcutta Premier League’s match at the East Bengal club ground on Sunday afternoon between the hosts and George Telegraph, the referee blew the whistle on the far side of the ground.

I turned towards my companion, Pradip Das, who was dressed in the red and yellow colours of the 104-year-old club, and asked: “Can you tell me what that whistle was for?”

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“A card,” he replied after a brief pause that could not have been more than a few seconds. It indeed was a yellow card for one of the George Telegraph players.

Pradip Das, 55, is blind from birth; but he has trained himself to “hear” football. And little else.

Das, who studied till Class VIII, has not heard of echolocation. Bats, Beluga whales, dolphins use echolocation, emitting a sound wave that bounces off an object returning an echo that generates information about the object’s distance and size.

“When a shot is hit high and lands on the ground, it makes a deep sound,” said Das, though he could not explain what it actually sounds like. “Mostly I rely on the whistles of the referee. The whistles guide me to each stage of a match – the goals, off-side, free-kicks.” Other club supporters tell him the goal-scorers' name or other key points in a match.

Das walks with a cane, like most visually impaired people do, he follows the game of football hearing the sounds on the field and off it. In that little world of his that he has built for the last 24 years, Das is happy and content.

“This is my life,” he said.

He has two loves. Argentina and East Bengal.

Das's ancestors once lived in a place called Kundubari in what is now Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka.

Das's ancestors once lived in a place called Kundubari in what is now Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka.

Das's ancestors once lived in a place called Kundubari in what is now Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. More than that distant ancestral connection, there is something else that binds Pradip to East Bengal. It is the club colours.

“I can actually feel the reflection of the red and yellow, especially on a bright day. Those are the only colours I can feel. In 2019, as the centenary celebrations of the club were underway, I was given this club T-shirt. That is when I realised – East Bengal is the only light of my life,” he said.

Two hours before the match started on Sunday, Calcutta and Howrah witnessed a heavy downpour. East Bengal fans came braving the rain – groups of young men, couples, even families. Standing under the only shed available at the Central Excise club canteen, there were loud murmurs whether the match would at all happen.

Rain stopped barely 15 minutes before the referee blew the whistle. And minutes before that Pradip Das got off a bus opposite the Eden Gardens, with a companion who escorted him till the club’s main gate, reserved for members.

He occupied a seat in one of the empty rows. His blank eyes wandering all over the place. Then the whistle blew and the match started.

“No goals scored yet, how will this team play against Mohun Bagan?” Das asked, sounding worried, half an hour into the first half.

Forty minutes into the match, George Telegraph got the lead with a goal scored by A. Ekka. Pradip fell quiet as the George Telegraph players rejoiced on the field and the bench, a little to the left of where he was seated.

“We will get the equaliser in the second half,” he spoke a little later, voice dripping with certainty.

A regular at all East Bengal matches when they play on their home ground, Das has been attending matches since 1997. Before that, for eight years, he had never stepped out from his room in Rasik Krishna Banerjee Lane in Salkia, Howrah.

“I don’t have even the faintest idea what this world looks like,” Das said, without a trace of emotion in his voice.

From 1982-83 till 1989, Pradip Das studied at the blind school run by the monks of Ramakrishna Mission Narendrapur. In those days, blind students had to study with the general textbooks in Classes IX and X with the help of a reader, whose job was simply to read the lessons aloud.

Das, one of four children of a rickshaw-puller and a domestic help, knew he could not study beyond Class VIII as the family could not afford hiring a reader. He returned to his Salkia home with no idea what to do with the rest of his life and kept himself confined to his house.

Till one day he stepped out of his home. In 1997. That first stop was to Belur Math.

“I was scared. Scared of the streets, the buses, the people. But I made it to Belur Math. And then I thought it wasn’t as scary as my mind would keep telling me.”

The next stop was to the East Bengal ground for a Federation Cup match between his favourite club and Air India. East Bengal won that match 2-0 and eventually went on to be the tournament champions. That day he did not even know where exactly the ground was. On that day too it was raining hard. Das, unfamiliar with the wooden platforms that used to be the stadium’s gallery, was afraid he would fall.

“So many things have changed since then. The seats, the ground,” he said.

Four minutes into the second half, East Bengal equalised with a goal by the 24-year-old forward Jesin Thonikkara. Pradip Das said he doesn’t know the current crop of players in the team, though he was familiar with the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia and Mehtab Hussain.

The club officials know of Das. Despite not being a member, he has access to the members’ gallery. The walking stick that he uses was provided to him by the club last year.

“From the time I started playing for East Bengal in 2007, I have seen him at every match played in the club grounds. Everyone knows him,” said Mehtab Hossain, who donned the East Bengal colours for 10 years and 255 matches.

Pradip Das’s visits to the grounds are restricted to the East Bengal ground in the Maidan and the Salt Lake stadium for the derby matches with arch-rivals Mohun Bagan.

“I have to spend around Rs 50 for a trip to the Maidan. For Salt Lake, the cost comes to around Rs 200,” said Das.

He is unemployed, dependent on his brothers.

Usually he boards a bus from Salkia and gets off in front of the Eden Gardens. Most of the bus conductors on the route and even the cops at Maidan know him. For the Salt Lake stadium, he takes a ferry from Bandha Ghat on the other side of the river for Ahiritola, from where a companion joins him. The two board an auto-rickshaw till Ultadanga and a bus or auto-rickshaw for the stadium.

“The return trip from Salt Lake is difficult. There are fewer buses,” Das said.

The cost factor and his difficulties travelling alone stop him from making trips to the stadium in the neighbouring towns of Barrackpore and Naihati, where many of the matches are played.

Since 2017, Pradip has been running a football coaching camp for the children of rickshaw-pullers, mill workers, vegetable sellers. This September he plans to organise two football tournaments. One for those under-15 and another for seniors.

“I have spoken with the officials of 16 clubs who have agreed to participate in the tournament. I will talk to the East Bengal club officials after the July 13 derby,” Das said.

By then East Bengal had taken the lead with a goal from Sayan Banerjee. Fifteen minutes before the final whistle, Das walked out of the grounds.

“Once the match ends, there is complete madness as everyone is in a rush to leave. Unless it’s a derby and the match extends to extra time I have never stayed in the field for the full 90 minutes,” he said.

As he was walking slowly with his cane tapping the metalled road, another round of applause and cheers rang out from the ground now behind him. East Bengal has scored the third goal, Pradip Das said.

“We will win next Saturday’s derby too [against arch-rivals Mohun Bagan]. Aapni dekhben [You will see],” he said, before heading back to Salkia.

He will return to the football field on another day.

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