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Nestled in India’s east, Kolkata is a hub of activity that beats to its own tune. From when the British were in the country, the city has generated some of the nation’s most celebrated heroes.

In a cricket-crazy country that treats all other sports as poorer cousins of the bat and ball game, Kolkata is a pocket where time has seemingly stood still, and life unfolds at a pace alien to the rest of the 21st-century world.

Think Kolkata and you’re immediately confronted by an array of images: hysterical debates on politics in College Street’s famous Indian Coffee House; poets seeking to follow in the tradition of Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan; agitating Marxists protesting on the steps of Writers’ Building, the seat of the State Government of West Bengal.

But for many, who are neutral to politics and couldn’t be bothered to pick up a classic, Kolkata will always be deeply linked to sport. It is impossible to separate Kolkata from the greatest football rivalry in India: between Mohun Bagan, formed in 1920, and East Bengal. This derby has divided Bengalis down the middle. Like Scotland’s Celtic and Rangers, England’s Manchester United and Liverpool, Spain’s Barcelona and Real Madrid, there is no room for common ground if you are a football fan in India’s eastern state. Even today, when cricket’s inexorable march has reached Kolkata, matches featuring the best-known football clubs draw full houses.

While the current generation of youngsters, fed on a healthy diet of international club football on live television, may identify more with the mesmeric moves of Lionel Messi or the bullish power of Wayne Rooney, the average adult in Kolkata is still committed to local football. An emotional lot, Bengalis invest heavily in the team they support, and this idiosyncrasy has spilled over into cricket.

While the districts maintain their strong ties to football, when you walk around in Kolkata proper, don’t be surprised to see pick-up games of cricket being played on practically every free patch of land. If there’s one thing the people of Kolkata are more famous for than their passion for sport in general, it is their addiction to hero worship.

And, in recent times, no public figure has caught the imagination more engagingly than Sourav Ganguly, the former captain of the Indian cricket team. While the Bengal public’s thirst for cricket can never be in doubt, this has scarcely been matched by their contribution to the Indian team. Not since Pankaj Roy, who last played for India in 1960, has a cricketer of such stature emerged from Bengal. That Ganguly’s rise to the top echelons of his sport ran parallel to India’s ascent to the No. 1 spot in world rankings proved a happy coincidence, and one that ensured that the craze for cricket gripped Kolkata. Today, cricket academies easily outnumber football clinics in the city, and an industry insider estimates that more bats are sold than footballs. The lure of a lucrative contract in the Indian Premier League – the ten-team Twenty20 competition that is the richest of its kind in the world – has ensured that the young sports fan in Kolkata is dreaming, not of pulling on the red-and-yellow East Bengal jersey, but the purple-and-gold of the Kolkata Knight Riders. Owned by Bollywood megastar heart-throb Shah Rukh Khan, the most popular film star in the world, the Knight Riders had a tumultuous start to their IPL existence, but, in 2011, a new-look team led by Gautam Gambhir powered into the play-offs, and have shown hope.

If cricket is a pan-Indian obsession and football a peculiarly Bengali affliction, and you couldn’t care less for either, there’s still no shortage of options as a visitor to Kolkata. Golf, one of India’s fastest growing sports, is played principally at two locations: the Royal Calcutta Golf Course – the first-ever golf club established outside Britain and widely regarded as the finest golf course on the sub-continent; and at the fashionable Tollygunge Club, which boasts tennis and squash courts, and equestrian facilities. Both venues have produced numerous players who have made it big, including caddy-turned-pro S.S.P. Chowrasia, and Arjun Atwal, the first Indian to record a win on the PGA tour in the USA.

The British, who left Kolkata with these tremendous golf courses when they quit India in 1947, also sowed the seeds of another sporting phenomenon in Kolkata. The city is home to one of the most vibrant rugby leagues centred around the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club (CC&FC), which is the oldest surviving rugby club outside the United Kingdom; indeed, England and Scotland still compete for rugby union’s Calcutta Cup, a trophy that originated from a Christmas Day match in 1872 between 20 players from England and 20 from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. The CC&FC was formed a month later, in January 1873, while the fragile cup is now on display at the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham, England.

When you speak of Kolkata, you can’t help but get nostalgic, and want to return to the roots of the great traditions of the city; but today, the winds of change are blowing over the region. In May, the Trinamool Congress became the first non-communist party to win in 34 years, on their promise of pariborton, which means ‘change’ or ‘transformation’ in Bengali. Sport in Bengal has been embracing pariborton for years, yet it still revels in its glorious past.

Kolkata, India
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