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.

 


Jinxed it

by Sidin Vadukut in


The family and I moved to Bromley, a suburb in the South East of London, in May last year. For the schools, primarily. But also for a little piece of garden, an extra bedroom and an office that I didn't have to share with anybody except too many headphones and far too many books. On all these fronts we have been amply rewarded for our endeavours. And quite the endeavour it was. Just thinking of the last twelve months makes me want to faint onto my sofa in exhaustion. We packed, unpacked, repacked, moved things upstairs, moved things downstairs. We had to knock down a wall, rip out a kitchen, put in a new kitchen, replace power sockets, replace the satellite dish, replace the flooring... 

But these days, when the weather is beginning to get a bit warmer and then sun a bit more forthright, I step outside and sometimes just stand there listening to the birdsong. Birdsong, I suppose, is a bit like love or hunger. You don't notice it until you do. And then you notice nothing else.

A few weeks ago, now that life seemed to have returned to a semblance of normalcy, I decided to go and see my local club play football. Frequent visitors to this blog will recall that once upon a time I used to live right outside Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. I now live a twenty minute walk away from Bomley FC's Hayes Lane ground. It is impossible to exaggerate the difference between the two venues. 

This plan had been forming in mind for many, many weeks. What greater sign of commitment to your local community is there than to go and see the local football team play in the fifth tier of English football. Bromley FC play in the Vanarama National League.  

Arsenal play in the Premier League. Then there is the Championship, League One, League Two and the National League. Confusingly enough the National League is what many people here call 'Non-league Football'. Because it is semi-professional at best, and a bunch of barbers and school teachers and accountants at worst.

Bromley FC, the night I went to see the Ravens for the first time, were sitting somewhere in the middle of the National League table. Which is not bad for a team that had only recently been promoted up to this level of football. (Organized English football, I am told, goes down fourteen levels. Crazy.) 

The club, however, was coming off a somewhat bad run of form. They had just lost 4-0 in their previous game. And I was hoping my presence would perk things up. After all, in seven years of watching Arsenal play live at the Emirates infrequently, my club has won every single time. Really. It is a great record.

So the missus dropped me on Hayes Lane, and I walked down a dark path to the ground. Which wasn't too bad at all. Comparable to a good college football ground in Kerala in every aspect except for the excellent pub and the green pitch. I showed my ticket to the cheerful girl in club colours at the gate, walked up to the pitch, had a look around, nodded in self-satisfaction, and then went to the pub for a pint. Inside my jacket pocket I carried enough cash to procure a burger, chips (french fries) and tea at half time. It was a very cold night. But I soon found a vacant seat and sat down to enjoy...

Bromley conceded a penalty after five minutes. Braintree Town scored. 1-0. There was a murmur of disapproval in the stands. (Later I was informed that less than 500 people attended the match. More people get arrested for anti-social behaviour at each Manchester United game excluding players. However the murmur was strong.)

Then Bromley's Lee Minshull was sent off in the 16th minute. 

In the 32nd minute Bromley's Daniel Johnson was also sent off. And in the ensuing brouhaha Bromley manager Neil Smith was also dismissed. 

One minute later Bormley conceded another penalty. 2-0. 

And just before half-time Braintree scored again. 3-0. 

At half time I walked over to buy my burger, fries and tea in a mood that can only be called "Bencho yeh kya ho raha hai". 

I was fully expecting to come back to my seat for the second half expecting to find the crowd in a violent mood. Instead I spent the next 45 minutes enjoying exquisite gallows humour. Resigned to humilation, the Bromley FC fans were indulging in some comedy to somehow get through the next 45 minutes. Memories of IIT-JEE papers came flooding back.

Braintree scored twice more by the 73rd minute.

I have never, in all my life, witnessed a more one-sided sporting event. (I have participated in a far more humiliating contest. But that is another story.) 

When the final whistle was blown some fans stayed back to applaud the Bromley players back into the tunnel. The referee walked away to resounding boos. I applauded and booed respectively, had another drink, and then went back home. And then after thirty minutes of waiting for the missus to stop laughing I went to bed. 

Bromley are playing at home again on the 25th.  

I am conflicted.