Helicopters in the bathroom

by Sidin Vadukut in


Around 11 pm on the 15th of June 1990, my mother woke me up in the vigorous fashion that she used to.

"Wake up Sidin wake up wake up wake up wake up. Enough of sleeping like a wild buffalo. Wake up wake up."

As far as I know my Malayali family has never owned a wild or domesticated buffalo. Cows? Yes. Chickens? Very much. Rabbits? For a brief period. Turkeys? Yes, and hilarious. Venomous snake in the copra warehouse? Unintentionally.

But buffalo? Never. We've never owned them. And I highly doubt if my mom ever spent any time observing their sleep patterns. And yet here she is insinuating that I sleep like one.

But uniquely, on that night, I woke up instantly. We rushed to the living room, switched on the TV, and promptly sat down to watch West Germany versus UAE at the 1990 World Cup. My mom and I were excited beyond description. UAE. UAE! Our UAE! At the football world cup! And playing against Germany! How is this possible?

Is this real life or just fantasy? Etcetera. We were super excited.

Now this expatriate excitement no doubts seems a bit strange. I mean UAE is hardly a paragon of human rights, religious freedom, labour law enforcement, workers welfare etc. But as NRIs who grew up there in the 1980s may tell you, you felt a certain fondness for the place. Because you lived in it. (And what, really, is patriotism but just finding yourself somewhere and thinking what the hell why not.)

So some 1980s-NRIs might remember a time when policemen used to speak a bit of Hindi and a little Malayalam. And when the emaraati at the customs counter would ask you if you had 'coconut halwa' in your luggage, and when they trusted the Indian fellow in accounts--aka Dad--so much that they let him draw up all the cheques, which they would sign with merely a cursory glance.

True story from 1978-79:

Dad: "Please sign here sir."
Ancient bedouin boss uncle whose Welsh-educated kids ran the company, but who still insisted on dealing with all money himself: "Oh Mr. Sunny very big amount eh? Very very big..."
Dad: "Sir, that is the date. This is the amount."
Boss: "Inshallah company is in your hands Mr. Sunny."

So anyway. We were unbelievably excited.

And on June 15th the UAE faced West Germany. They'd already lost to Colombia previously. But a match against West Germany? United Arab Emiridiciulous level of hype.

The Germans quickly put two past UAE goalkeeper Muhsin Musabah. Did this do anything to undermine the electricity coursing through the veins of mother and son? Absolutely not. I vividly recall sitting on the edge of our sofas, mom and me, waiting for a moment of magic from Adnan Al Talyani (UAE Legend, UAE Player of The Century).

And then in the 47th minute a moment of magic came, not from Talyani (Legend etc.) but Khalid Mubarak (Firefighter from Dubai). Who took advantage of a spot of bad defending, and scored a really fantastic goal.

Boss, we lost our minds. Mom and I just completely and utterly lost our minds. We were bouncing off the walls. Hugging. Punching the air. UAE had scored! UAE HAD SCORED. AGAINST GERMANY!

Twenty-eight years later I still remember that moment quite well. Was mom wearing a nighty with little blue flowers? Yes, I think so.

Or at least I think I remember that moment very well. I try hard to remember it. Periodically I tell myself: do not forget that moment. Save it. Stash it away. The goal. The moment. The celebration.

That is because two and a half weeks later, on the 4th of July 1990, my mother had a heart attack. That morning we were on our way to the airport, to catch a flight to Trivandrum. We were going on NRI summer vacation trip to Kerala. All the luggage was carefully placed in the dickie of a friend's car. Mom came hurrying down the stairs. And just as we were about to step into the car, she said she felt ill. Dad told my brother and me to wait in the little Malayali hotel nearby and rushed her to hospital. She didn't make it. She passed away in the car. Nobody knows exactly what happened. Perhaps it had something to do with her thyroid problem.

The next few days are a blur. I remember very little of it. I recall our house being full of people. Everyone was talking all the time. Because, I think, that is how Indian families cope with stuff. They talk and talk. First, they talk of the tragedy of it all. Then they talk about funny memories and laugh until no one can stand it any more and then everyone cries. And then when everyone is done crying, they talk. And then they eat. They eat all the time.

At some point, someone came and told my brother and me to go play. Something. Somewhere. Don't just sit here and watch the grown-ups. Someone went and bought a toy helicopter for us. The only problem was you aren't supposed to play in a house in mourning. So eventually someone suggested we could sit in the bathroom and play. And that is what we did. We played with our helicopter in the bathroom.

Four days later we were in Kerala. Driving around inviting people for the funeral. At some point, late in the night, we were driving back home when the driver of the Ambassador taxi suggested we drop into his house. "It is the World Cup Final," he said. "You can't watch it in your home because of the mourning. But you can watch it in mine."

So we sat in the driver's house and watched that very bad, very very bad, final. Almost as if the football too was in mourning.

Sometimes people ask me why I like football. Or why I support Arsenal and so on. And I find this a funny question. Nobody asks this when I say I love aubergine. (I love aubergine.)

I like football for many reasons. So many reasons. Last night's free kick, for instance.

But I am also thankful to football for one very important memory. There are many different ways in which we remember someone... for the last time. In which we capture a snapshot that we will then carry with us till we run out of snapshots ourselves, so to speak.

And UAE's goal against Germany in 1990 is a moment I will carry with me forever.

Anyway. Enjoy the world cup. You never know when you'll need the football to help you remember.

And England will win. Mark my words.