It was the day after India's loss to UAE in the Asian Cup 2019.
The Indian fans following the Blue Tigers in the continental championship were moving from Abu Dhabi to Sharjah. So I packed my bags for Dubai which wasn't far from Sharjah and had some interesting matches to offer on its own; like Australia vs Palestine and the mega battle of Iran & Iraq.
The 2 hour-ish journey could be a bit monotonous. The desert landscape, while pretty at first, gets old real quick. The most interesting thing I saw out of my window that day was a gigantic fire next to some sort of a warehouse, sending up massive volumes of black smoke into the cloudless afternoon sky. The scene resembled an oil field on fire; the kind you saw in pictures from Iraq during the war.
The gentleman who sat next to me was in his late forties. He wore a chestnut brown partug-kameez and sported a well-maintained moustache. The first thing I noticed about him was that in the whole bus, he appeared to be the only passenger who was not looking at his phone. He stared through the window at the rows of distant dunes like he was looking for something in the dull sandy terrain stretching out till the horizon.
I was considering offering him the window seat when he spoke to me. He pulled out a folded A4 paper from his pocket and asked in Urdu, "Can you tell me if this is all right?"
It was a ticket from Dubai to Karachi. A direct flight on an Emirates plane. I told him it looked okay. He asked, "It's a good plane, no?" The word he used to refer to the aircraft was 'jahaaz.'
I said, "It's the Emirates airline, so it should be a good one."
He smiled, like a doubt he had held for a long time had been cleared up. He drew a breath, paused for a moment, and said, "I got fired from my job. So I'm going back home. I'm done with this country. At first my employer said he would book me a ticket where I would go to Oman or Yemen or something and then get on another plane to Karachi. But I said, sheikh, I have worked for you since we both were young men. I won't go back like this. You have to send me on a direct flight."
I didn't know what to say to that, other than a mumbled "I'm so sorry." He gave me a quizzical look. So I awkwardly asked, in Hindi this time, "You are going to Karachi? I have heard it's beautiful."
He nodded, and guessed from the way I spoke that I was from India. Hearing I was there to see India's matches at the Asian Cup, he said, "I saw your match yesterday. Very sad, your team lost. You were playing well."
This was another surprise, because out of the dozens of Pakistani people I had met in UAE till then, he was the only one who had shown any interest in the Asian Cup. I asked, "So you're a football fan?"
He said, "No. I hardly follow sports. I sometimes watch cricket when Pakistan plays, that's it. But yesterday was different. I never root for India, but I wanted you to win. I wanted your captain Sunil to score three goals past those Arabs."
I smiled. He was speaking about Sunil Chhetri with a passion that I would normally associate with a member of the Blue Pilgrims after a few drinks.
With that, we got talking. We talked about our hometowns, families, our work. And over the next hour and a half, I learned how he came to be a supporter of the Indian football team just for a day, and a fan of one Sunil Chhetri.
It wasn't the story of a typical football fan, but of someone who had seen many trials and tribulations, made numerous sacrifices, spending years away from his family to build a better life for them. And the culmination of his long journey in this foreign land had come through that one game, where in a strange way he saw the Indian team as an extension of his own hopes and dreams.
Here's the story of a Pakistani fan of Sunil Chhetri, in his own words, as best as I remember.
I live in a town near Karachi but originally I am from a village up North. I am Pashtun. I grew up in an area close to the hills.
We had many sheeps and goats. I was always good at taking care of them. Whenever it was time to sell some of them, my father used to take me along to the market. I loved going there. It took us till afternoon to reach the spot and we would have to hurry to get back by evening. We didn't have proper roads back then.
The market fascinated me. People came from all over because it was known for cheap foreign goods coming in through Afghanistan. We had people driving in from Lahore and also these hill tribesmen who came on donkeys. They looked so rugged, their skin had cracks like the earth. My father sometimes traded with them.
I always wanted to go abroad. I didn't get a proper education and this was the best way to make some money doing honest work. When I had grown up a bit, I asked a relative who was visiting home from his job in Dubai to help me get work here. He went back and vouched for me to his employer, saying I was hard working, did not slack off, and I had no addictions. Next year, he hired me for his camel farm. I worked for that employer for five-six years before taking a job with my last employer. I worked for him for nearly twenty years.
In the farm I took care of camels. It's a lot of hard work. We woke up at dawn and went over to the holding areas. From there it's clean them, clean up their shit, feed them, milk them. It takes hours.
Camels are not like cows and buffaloes. If one of them feels like it's not in the mood to have its back scrubbed or teats milked, it's a whole different battle. If they kick you see darkness. And they know your temperament. If they think you are weak they will mess with you on purpose. They won't listen.
But the pay is good. I bought a plot near Karachi, made a house and moved my family there. That way my kids could go to a better school. And when I go back to Pakistan I don't have to spend another day travelling back to home. If I land in the evening I have dinner at my own house.
I love being back in my house. Last time I visited, I bought a generator. So whenever there was a power cut I could still have the light on and watch TV. It feels so good to just relax in the evening knowing I can sleep as long as I want. There's no hurry to wake up. It's good to see my wife and kids eat good food and live comfortably. That's what made me want to keep working.
I got my cousin brother a job with my employer, too. We both worked together and shared a shack by the farm. It was easier because we took care of each other. When I was tired he would do extra work and when he was tired I would do extra work. That's why neither of us had any pay docked, ever. We always completed our work. The boss could never complain. Now he won't have me with him any more. But it's fine. He is smart. He went to school till eighth class.
I have two sons, by the grace of God. The elder one is absolutely good for nothing. He has made some bad friends and roams around all day. He is addicted to gambling. Always keeps putting money on cock-fighting. My wife loves him too much. She keeps giving him the money even though I tell her not to. These are the problems you have when you are away from home. People don't listen to you. When I visited everyone was on their best behaviour but the moment I left everything went back to the way it was. This time when I go back, I will make him get his act together. I think it's time I find him a good wife. Maybe that will put some sense of responsibility into his head.
But my younger son is intelligent. He got it from his grandfather. He's still in school. I want him to go to college. If he studies hard he will become a doctor or something. The only problem is his mind wanders. He watches videos of all these foreign countries on his phone and he does not want to stay at home. Last year he started bugging me, saying he wanted to come to UAE with me. I said, why do you want to ruin your life? You are getting a chance I did not get. Finish your studies. He said he wanted to start earning. I told him as long as I'm alive I won't let him give up on his studies. Nothing is more important in life than 'taleem.' Then he got angry with me, saying why don't I ever take him abroad with me? Imagine that. He thinks we are on a holiday out here. So my cousin brother came up with the solution. He started making videos of me cleaning camel shit and sent him every day, saying look, this is what your father is doing to earn money. Only then the kid came to his senses. Now he says, father, don't get a visa for me. I want to study.
I am doing well. Can't complain much. Perhaps I could have done this job for another five years. But then last week a camel died. Maybe it got sick. It was not a young one. But my employer blamed me for it and fired me. I did not even argue with him. If after all these years he does not trust me when I say it's not my fault, then who the hell wants to stay with him? I am done.
My former employer is really into football. He goes to Europe every now and then to watch football matches. He was very excited about Asian Cup. I didn't pay much attention. Pakistan is not playing, why should I care? But I heard them discussing a match with India. They were all talking about this guy Sunil. So I got curious. I asked my cousin brother, what's this player they are talking about? He found some videos on his phone and showed me.
I don't understand football very much. But I understood that man. He was a problem. The way he moved, it was like the ground was his. Other team's players were lining up to stop him. I know what that's like. Sometimes when a particularly misbehaving camel tears off his rope, you know that's going to ruin your day. Five men will try to corner him but they can't predict which way he will go. The grounds are big and when a camel is off the leash he owns the whole place. He will go round and round till you get tired. That's what Sunil was doing.
Day before yesterday I left the farm. I went over to Abu Dhabi to stay with an acquiantance. He has a TV with satellite dish connection. I asked, could we watch the match? He was rooting against India, of course. But I wanted to see India win. Because how amazing would it be if India beat UAE in their own country? My former boss would lose his sleep in grief.
I was looking for Sunil all the time. India was playing so well. A couple of times I thought he was going to score, and I even stood up in excitement. But it didn't happen. My friend thought I had lost my mind, supporting India. But I didn't care. It would have been worth it if that one time I got to enjoy a win.
But India lost. What will you do. We don't get what we want all the time.
I have earned enough money out here. I have been saving to start a grocery shop back home. I will do that now. Just sitting all day in a shop, doing business and going home, that's a good comfortable life. I think I will like it.
I think I like football now. How good is the Pakistan team? I will try to watch their matches back home. I hope we have some players who can keep up with Sunil. Does India still have matches left here? I hope he scores some more goals.
The conversation continued throughout the journey. When we reached Dubai, we had coffee and said goodbye. It only occurred to me later that he never asked me my name; nor had I asked his or noticed it on his prized plane ticket.
India saw a strong turnout of supporters in all three of their matches during the Asian Cup 2019. All of them, including the millions watching back home, had put their faith on Sunil Chhetri. Although the campaign ended in a hearbreak at Sharjah, the Indian national team had become a unique symbol.
We saw that when the streets next to Abu Dhabi's Al Nahyan Stadium turned into a music festival on 6th January, 2019. And we felt it in the buses, the back-alley restaurants, the parking lots and the discount shopping malls as the day of the match between India and UAE drew near. For thousands of South Asian immigrants, whether from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, the underdog campaign of the Blue Tigers became a metaphor for their own struggles against the hardships they endured far away from home. If India could win, maybe they too stood a chance in this land where they lived but never really belonged.
Perhaps that hope, that sense of purpose the Indian team provided to those people - including this particular Sunil Chhetri fan from Karachi - meant as much as the goals that Sunil, Anirudh and Jeje scored in that tournament.
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