Remembering my Chuni da

Chuni Goswami received accolades and recognition from every possible platform. But the main accolade came from the common man on the road.

To my generation, Chuni Goswami was all glamour and skill. Every movement of his we would try to copy — the way he walked, the way he spoke, the way he smiled, writes the author.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

He seemed born to blend. Unwittingly, he bridged the divide between Bangal (East Bengalee) and Ghoti (West Bengalee) in an exemplary manner. His presence led to a rapport between the cricketers and footballers of Bengal. He possessed a magical mass appeal that gave him unprecedented popularity among the populace. His popularity even in the non-television era of his time would have dwarfed many a current cinema star.

Born and brought up in the liberated Murapara Zamindari (now in Bangladesh), my maternal link, where he was preceded by Sarojini Naidu, Bhanu Bandyopadhyay and Nripati Chattopadhyay, the young Chuni utilised his sports talents in the path of reconciliation of differences between the two artificially divided parts of Bengal.

Destiny too willed so. While Chuni was showing off his football skills to his Tirthapati Institution friends at Deshapriya Park, a distant pair of eyes watched with awe and wonder. The man walked across, asked him for his father’s address, and by evening was knocking at the door. The elder Goswami instantly recognised the boxer-footballer Bolai Chatterjee and was only too happy to allow his son to be at the Mohun Bagan ground the following morning for a practice session. As the cliché goes, the rest is history.

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Former players were wide-eyed in amazement to see the talent exhibited by the child prodigy. Within the course of the year, Chuni was the shining star of club and state teams. By 1958, at the age of 20, he was scoring goals for India.

Under Syed Rahim’s coaching, Chuni flowered beside the magnificent duo of P. K. Banerjee and Balaram and held India’s flag high at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He went a step further at the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games when India won the gold under his leadership. This was Indian football’s most successful era, when men of the calibre of Arun Ghosh, Jarnail Singh, Peter Thangaraj, Simon Sunder Raj, Mario Kempiah and Yousuf Khan, among a host of others, dominated the Asian football scenario. Apart from PK and Balaram, the evergreen glamour of CG stood out in the glittering panorama.

Chuni Goswami led India in a pre-Olympic qualifying match at Calcutta’s Rabindra Sarobar Stadium in 1964. As a 14-year-old enthusiast, I remember attending the one-month camp every single day as a spectator. Unfortunately, the brilliant Rahim was replaced by an English coach named Wright. Chuni da scored the lone goal as India lost 1-3 to Iran with my favourite defender Arun Ghosh denying the opposition a dozen goals. Never again was India good enough to qualify for Olympic football.

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A lack of guidance held Chuni back from accepting a foreign assignment with Tottenham Hotspur in his heydays of the 1960s. This was a typical scenario in our football context. While cricketers were going abroad and taking up assignments in the English cricket leagues, our football players never received any encouragement from our “frog in the well” administrators, who were content with their clubs’ politics, personal prominence and media flatterers. Thankfully, Chuni Goswami had the talent to seek other avenues.

He was deeply attached to cricket since his school days. He represented Monohar Pukur Milan Samity in cricket while a student at Ashutosh College. He also represented Calcutta University in cricket while doing wonders and winning championships on the football ground.

The victorious Indian team from the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games. Chuni Goswami is standing fourth from left.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Chuni made his Ranji Trophy debut under the strangest of circumstances. At the peak of his football career, he was selected to play against M. L. Jaisimha’s Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals. The year was 1962-63, the season when four West Indies fast bowlers came to India. Roy Gilchrist, the fearsome fast bowler, held little terror for the debutant as he most courageously gave support to this skipper Pankaj Roy, who scored two hundreds in the match. Thereafter, Chuni played very irregularly for Bengal as he was busy with his football commitments for club, state and country.

In the Ranji final against Bombay in 1968-69, Chuni played two glorious knocks of 96 and 84, displaying his leanings for cross-batted strokes, particularly the sweep. His fantastic speed between wickets is still in the memory of people who have seen him bat. Chuni da’s lone first-class century came against Bihar at Jamadoba in 1971-72 when he promoted himself to bat at No. 3.

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The highlight of Chuni’s cricket life was of course the fantastic victory of the combined Central-East Zone team under Hanumant Singh that inflicted an innings defeat on the visiting 1967 West Indies team at Indore. Chuni da took five and three wickets in each innings and in tandem with Subroto Guha he had the powerful Caribbeans on the mat. Skipper Wesley Hall top-edged a high skier towards mid-wicket. Goswami ran nearly 30 yards from mid-on and lunged forward to hold on to the ball one-handed, and then actually went on a victory lap around the ground! Skipper Hanumant Singh’s cultured voice, “Chuni, we are not playing football,” was drowned out by the thousands who had come to see their soccer hero playing cricket. That was the kind of popularity and affection he enjoyed.

In 1971-72, the Bengal cricket captaincy crown was on his head and he led Bengal to the final. The following year – my debut season – he led Bengal for the last time and announced his retirement. This idea of when to call it a day is a splendid example that he has set for others. At 34, Chuni realised another few years of cricket would be a waste of time as he would be curtailing the prospect of a deserving youngster. He had left international football at 26 and now first-class cricket at 34. A master-stroke: a great lesson for most sportsmen.

If Subimal was his first name, surely his middle name was Flamboyance. Both names were destined to stay in the background. Glamour and Chuni Goswami became synonymous. Reeking of glamour, Goswami was a revelation in a world of introvert Indian sportsmen. Most of our champion sportsmen in the pre-1960s were quiet, confident men who avoided controversies and publicity. Not so Goswami. He revelled in his extrovert form. He loved crowds, companionship and constant media coverage.

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To my generation of sports lovers, Chuni Goswami was a magical name. Handsome of bearing, glamorous of manner, the man had a distinct individuality. Smiling, waving, chatting – he seemed to be in perpetual motion. An extrovert to the extreme, he brought the Bengal cricketers out of their shells. With Chuni da as captain, the Bengal team learnt to take on the opposition eyeball to eyeball. Within the typical easygoing exterior of his Bengal teammates, he planted a tough approach to the job, which obviously did wonders for the state in the future. This was a distinct contribution of his.

Goswami seemed destined to bond people. Following Independence and Partition, the differences between the Padma migrants and the Bhagirathi residents were distinct and definite. Hilsa and Chingri. Bangal and Ghoti. In such a precarious scenario emerged a young lad with eastern Bengal tastes and lingo to become the hero of the western Bengal bhadrolok. Without meaning to do so, his approach and actions actually assisted in bridging the yawning chasm between two extremely strong loyalties. So popular was he that I remember praying with all earnestness: Let Chuni Goswami do well but East Bengal win! I am sure there were many school boys of the 1960s with similar prayers.

***

A long association of about 60 years has come to an end. Our childhood hero is no more. Chuni da has left the maidan for the Elysian Fields.

The last time I met him was on his 82nd birthday at his Jodhpur Park residence on 15 January. The Philatelic Bureau had issued a stamp in his honour that day. The ever-jovial face was in distinct discomfort. To enliven him, I recounted own glorious days to him – his magnificent contributions, his unique brand of witticisms. A tear or two welled up as he smiled his enjoyment. But no words emanated from the brilliant raconteur. A sad sight; sadder still to relate. Really unfortunate.

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For an extrovert like Subimal Goswami, universally popular as Chuni, to be sofa-tied and tongue-tied was indeed a dungeon-like existence. Boudi (sister-in-law) Bubli, Chuni da’s wife, and his endearing grandson gave him the best companionship possible, but the inevitable was near at hand. Though extremely saddening, perhaps his passing away was, in a sense, a blessing in disguise. No one would have liked to see his ever-cheerful face in that posture. ***

My elder brother Deb was a regular opener for Bengal and Mohun Bagan in the early 1960s and so I was quite a frequent visitor to those matches. I saw Chuni da often enough and was thrilled to get his cheery smiles. Once he offered me and my friend Bapi toast and tea at the Mohun Bagan canteen when we were waiting for a lift from Deb. That year, I also attended his wedding reception as the guest of his elder brother Manik da, who played club cricket with me at Milan Samity at the time.

However, the first genuine meeting with Chuni da was in December 1967 when I attended the Mohun Bagan nets after writing my final school exams. With him and his very witty elder brother Manik da around, the net sessions were full of laughter and humour, repartee and wisecracks. Chuni da warmed me up with, “Oh! No, another Mukherji. Oh! No, another with specs.” I was too stunned to think of a reply but realised that I had gained acceptance at the Bagan household.

Never before I had met anyone with his peculiar brand of speech and humour. However, I realized he had a funny peculiar way of speaking: a statement in the form of a query. He had a fantastic sense of humour. He would keep us in splits.

Chuni Goswami receives the Arjuna Award from President Dr. S. Radhakrishnan and (facing page) the Padma Shri from President Giani Zail Singh, respectively.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

“This pitch is a pace bowler’s graveyard.” Before the star pace bowler could take another breath, the Bengal captain replied, “Please take rest today. I need soldiers who will fight for his team.”

That was typical straightforward Chuni Goswami repartee. He had no time for excuses, vague comments or for the soft-hearted. He led from the front and expected everyone to follow. Chuni da did not believe in unnecessary theories. He always maintained that if you cannot motivate yourself, no one can motivate you. Absolutely to the point!

Once he admonished a prominent batter who complained about the size of the sight screen after being dismissed, “Watch the ball and forget the sight screen? Did you get sight screens in school, college and roadside matches?” He gave cent percent and more to the cause and expected others to do so.

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Chuni da received accolades and recognition from every possible platform. The Arjuna Award was followed by the Padma Shri. A whole lot of honorary posts were created for him. Influential people queued up to shake his hands and be photographed.

But the main accolade came from the common man on the road. His popularity in the days before television coverage was miraculous in the extreme. People stopped their cars to wish him. People at airports and railway stations stared at him and waved. Once our train was held up for more than two minutes at Bardhaman till Chuni da came to the door of his coach to wave to the multitude waiting to catch a glimpse of the man they had only heard of and read about.

To my generation, Chuni Goswami was all glamour and skill. Every movement of his we would try to copy – the way he walked, the way he spoke, the way he smiled. Our childhood hero was far ahead of the celluloid stars in sheer popular mass appeal. Always impeccably dressed, he spoke in an easy manner, mixed easily and genuinely enjoyed companionship.

He possessed a very rare sense of timing. He knew what to do and when. He knew when to retire just as he knew when to take up a new assignment. He knew his abilities just as he knew his limitations. His life has been a shining example to many. He never wanted to be a teacher, but his life was a document of teaching.

Not only was Chuni da my first Bengal captain, he was also the man who released my first book Cricket in India: Origin and Heroes in 2004. Ten years later, he penned a fabulous foreword to my second book, Eden Gardens: Legend and Romance. About three years ago, in a wistful mood one evening, Chuni da said, “I want you to write my obituary.”

Ki bolchen ta ki (What are you saying)?” I protested.

In a serious vein, he just added, “I am your captain. I am your senior. I like the way you write.”

His companionship was full of humour and nostalgia; prawn and beer. I am indeed blessed to have had him as my captain.

Raju Mukherji, who played 50 first-class matches for Bengal, has worn many hats in his career. He has also been a coach, selector and match referee, and is the author of the books Cricket in India: Origin and Heroes and Eden Gardens: Legend and Romance.

This article was first published on Mukherji's personal blog.