July 16, 2009

Black Cat League

Sikkim must be one of the few spots in the country where cricket is not the major sport. In every town we passed on the drive up, holiday football matches were in progress, little stadiums crammed with colourful and noisy spectators. The speck on the map called Melli echoed emptily as we rumbled through: pretty much all its residents were at the match. Several exceptions took the long range view, watching from the highway. As we did, for a few minutes.

Tumbling along far below, gray, silver and foaming white, is what separates the stadium from the highway, the Teesta river. So this was truly long range spectating: from across a river that's already, in these its upper reaches, formidable. But there's more. At Melli, the Teesta forms the border between Sikkim and West Bengal. So the fans on the highway were actually watching the match from another state. A generation ago, they would have been watching from another country altogether.

Those thoughts lingered through an evening spent sipping wine and chatting with a civil servant. On his balcony that looked out over the lush Gangtok hills, fragments of mist floating about cotton-like below us, he spoke sadly about travelling in other parts of India. "Many people treat me as a foreigner," he said. "When I say I'm from Sikkim, they have no idea where or what that is."

We considered apologizing for our fellow countrymen, us ignorant non-Sikkimese. The moment passed. But there was soon another glimpse of how deeply this attitude towards Sikkim affects him. We turned to football talk, and he mentioned the upcoming Governor's Gold Cup football tournament. Some big Sikkim teams are expected, he told me. Also, he said without irony, "all the big teams from India: East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Mahindra, all of them."


Gangtok's cantonment is some way out of town. The regiment stationed here calls themselves Black Cat Eagles, which imposing name is painted everywhere. There's the usual, and welcome, cantonment spit-and-polish: spruce driveways, tended flower-beds, stones piled up neatly to hold a pot for a plant, that sort of thing. There's a "Black Cat Eagle Mobile Veg Shop" -- an enormous Army truck selling veggies to villagers.

But why this soldier standing on the road wearing a track suit with "Ek Dam Fine" on his back? Looked around for "Do Dam Not So Fine". No luck.

But rounding a curve in the road, sharp bellowing from above. Look up, to see two sentries saluting smartly, still shouting, as a sleek black Ambassador passes. It winds down the driveway and onto the road, only feet from where I stand. I expect some high-powered General-type in the car, some uniform that would command the saluting bellows.

Instead, there's a flash of colour. In the back are two women, respectively in dazzling yellow and red saris. A child sits in front with the driver. That's all. It's possible one of these four is a General. Possible, but somehow -- forgive any chauvinism -- somehow I have my doubts.

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