Goodbye, Chuni Goswami: India’s greatest all-round sportsman
Chuni Goswami would come home as a footballer, have dinner and get up the next morning as a cricketer. It came naturally to him.
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It was exactly a year earlier since I had visited 62, Jodhpur Park in Kolkata, to interview Chuni Goswami. If I am not mistaken, it will have been his last television interview. The first thing I noticed on arrival was how Chunida wanted to have a prior discussion on what I wanted to ask, if his wife Basanti had organised mishti and samosa for us all and if I was a Mohun Bagan supporter. If sport is ritual like I have always believed it is, Chunida was the perfect illustration of it. Exceptionally talented and a multi-faceted artist, he could unite masses with his artistry and move millions with his craft. A true ambassador of the sport, he was a beacon of hope who radiated a sense of optimism.
Beyond winning or losing, Goswami’s skill was ritual. Coming back from a successful Durand Cup campaign, he would just need a night’s sleep to turn up for Bengal in a Ranji Trophy semi-final. Such was his skill set. As Basanti Goswami reminisced, “All I had to do was keep his clothes ready. He would come home as a footballer, have dinner and get up the next morning as a cricketer. It came naturally to him.” Chunida, smiling all through the praise, added, “All you needed was physical fitness. Because I was physically at my best, it was never a problem to move from football to cricket.”
How will we remember Chuni Goswami? I would say we will remember him as India’s greatest ever all-round sportsman. He was perhaps in the same league as CB Fry or Dennis Compton or our very own Mushtaq Ali. While Ali could have easily played hockey for India in the 1930s, Goswami could well have gone on to play cricket for India while also being one of its greatest ever footballers.
Chuni Goswami: India’s greatest ever all-round sportsman. (Photo: Getty Images)
As a footballer, he led India to its greatest victory in the beautiful game. Winning the Jakarta Asian Games gold medal as captain beating South Korea will always be celebrated in the annals of Indian football. Interestingly, he did not have time to celebrate the victory because the team had to be rushed back to the hotel and then had to literally escape Indonesia, fearing violence. Comments made by the Indian Chef de Mission GD Sondhi had created a major controversy and the Indian players were the target of an imminent attack. Goswami, the captain, had to dribble his team to safety despite winning the gold medal. When asked, he enjoyed telling me the story, “Yes the bus lights were dimmed and we were literally smuggled back to the hotel and then rushed to the airport. It was about saving lives first!”
How very pertinent at these times!
If we agree that fandom is at the very essence of sport, Chunida can easily be the brand ambassador of this argument. Despite being an East Bengali, he was always and always a Mohun Bagan player and fan to the core. Nurtured by Balai Das Chatterjee, it was as if Chunida was born to play for Mohun Bagan and win laurels for the club. Never did it occur to him to leave the club and never did he ever contemplate doing so. His was pure love for the club, which is at the essence of fandom often celebrated as the only constant in human life across generations. A Chuni Goswami fan at 6 will die a Chuni Goswami fan at 82. You might change your political or cultural preferences, break up with your boy or girlfriend, change your palette over time but never will you change your loyalty to a sports icon. A Sachin Tendulkar fan will forever be a Sachin Tendulkar fan. Goswami was one such glue who united millions of Mohun Bagan fans as an imagined community. “I am what I am because of Mohun Bagan,” he said, before going on to add, “The club gave me everything. It allowed me to grow, made me a star, allowed me to live a blessed life for years.”
In death too, he has not lost the blessing. Even when the country is in the throes of a global pandemic, Goswami was fortunately draped in Mohun Bagan colours as his body left his house for the last rites. There may not have been too many fans, but he trended on social media all of April 30 with scores of Goswami fans uniting to pay their last respects to their hero.
As I mentioned earlier, he gave us all pure, unadulterated joy as a player, which makes sport what it is. Blessed with natural talent, he had honed it to perfection to become one of Asia’s greatest of all time. True to how sport will evolve post corona, Goswami’s last rites were performed amidst strict social distancing norms and in what can be labelled an empty stadium. But digitally and visually, he will forever be consumed. Celebrated and revered. Even in death. Loyalties to him will never change and that’s why sport today is poorer without him.