At first sight, Indian men’s football team goalkeeper Subhasish Roy Chowdhury comes across as a romantic film hero. Tall, athletic and those expressive eyes – you won’t often come across a good-looking sportsperson like him.
Subhasish shakes his head, runs his fingers through his hair, and shakes his head again. “Life has been cruel, extremely cruel,” he murmurs.
“When you starve for days, and live on leftover pieces from your neighbour, that too not without any guarantee that you will even get them — all romanticism goes out for a toss,” he looks deep into your eyes.
A professional goalkeeper for over 18 years now, Subhasish has won every single domestic competition in India, and has been an integral part of the Blue Tigers for over a decade. At 35, he even got a call from Head Coach Igor Stimac to be a part of the camp in Dubai for the March friendlies against Oman and UAE.
“We used to live in Teghoria (in Kolkata). My dad, Late Samiran Roy Chowdhury, got influenced by some evil souls and took up drinking. He was our sole earning member – we were a family of 8 – 4 brothers and 2 sisters besides my parents,” he narrates.
“With dad not earning anymore, my mom was left with no option, and took up the job of a maid nearby. My elder sister also went with her,” this time he breathes heavily. “I was barely 5, and when mom went out, I took care of everyone at home.”
‘WE FED ON LEFTOVERS AFTER STARVING FOR TWO DAYS OR MORE’
“With more mouths to feed than the income, we were unable to pay the rent, and eventually had to vacate our home. We moved to Panapukur (in Rajarhat, Kolkata) in a small thatched house as tenants.”
By this time, National Team defender Pritam Kotal has moved into the room and sat at a distance. Subhasish smiles. Pritam adds: “Dada please continue. You have never told us about your life story.” Subhasish smiles again.
“We were left to starve – at times for almost three days. I didn’t eat, we didn’t eat. Every morning, with much optimism, we used to walk barefoot to a house nearby and knock if they had any leftover rice from the previous night. At times, we got lucky, but not every day. And the quantity wasn’t enough to feed us all,” Subhasish pauses, his eyes fixed on the floor.
Deep down in his heart, he must have choked. He gestures to the water lying on the table. Pritam hands it over to him. Subhasish takes a sip.
‘I WASHED UTENSILS WHEN MOM FELL ILL’“We used to have panta-bhaat (a rice-based dish prepared by soaking rice, generally left-over in water overnight). Mom never got to eat. She ate salt and chillies.”
“I remember my mom once fell ill. It was the first week of the month, and she asked me to get her salaries from the homes she worked as a maid in. But one certain home was not so kind. They complained as to who will wash the utensils, and mop the floor,” Subhasish chuckles.
“I offered to help. I washed the utensils, mopped the floor, persuaded them to give me my mom’s salary. Eventually, they obliged.”
In the sociological context of India, very often you will hear about a player’s struggle – battling poverty, cynicism, overcoming roadblocks and eventually making it big. But Subhasish’s life story beats everything.
He leans back on the sofa, and looks out of the window. All you can see is luxury cars gliding effortlessly on the road in Dubai. “Today, I have everything by my side,” he states. “Everything,” Subhasish spreads his hands. You notice the reach of his hands, and ponder a bit as to how one gets to score past them when he stands under the bar.
‘OUR HOUSE HAD NO ROOF. WE RAN WHEN IT RAINED’
“The story stayed the same as I grew up. We were unable to pay rent, and had to vacate again. We went back to Teghoria, this time surrounded by four walls but no roof overhead. It was a house that was under construction but hadn’t been completed,” he goes on.
Pritam was about to say something. Subhasish gestures him to stop, and adds: “The first night itself, it rained. We ran for shelter, and stood all night under a sunshade. All of us. And when the sun came out the next day, we again ran to the same place and stood. Food wasn’t a regular visitor. The same fate continued. At times we didn’t eat for 3-4 days. But by then we had got used to it,” Subhasish caresses his gloves which were lying nearby.“Taking pity on us, the locals sheltered us in a makeshift home in a basti (jhuggi), just next to the pavement. But at least, there was a roof,” Pritam has sliced some apples by then and brought some for everyone.
‘AT 7, I STARTED WORKING IN A POULTRY SHOP’
“My mom started a tea shop. I had just turned 7 and understanding I had to help her, I joined Joydeb-da (Haldar) in his poultry shop. My job was to take care of his shop, bring the chicken from the mandi, peel and sell them, manage the cash flow. I became quite an expert in no time. In return, he gave me food and allowed me to play football,” Subhasish punches his gloves for himself. “I even joined a football coaching centre – Nirbhik Songho in Baguihati (in Kolkata).”
“Were you always a goalkeeper?” Pritam quips.
“Always,” Subhasish nods. “I felt the goalkeeper stayed in the thick of the action all throughout. So I wanted to be a goalkeeper. At the centre, some of the days some goalkeepers would not come. That allowed me more time to stand under the bar.”
‘WITH BLOOD ON MY HANDS & FACE, I SAVED PENALTIES’
“There was a school next door, and there was an inter-school tournament going on. I finished all my work at the shop, and ran to watch from the side-lines. I was wearing the same shirt, and it was dirty and had blood all over, and even on my face and hands. But I never cared,” Subhasish continues.
“It so happened that the goalkeeper hadn’t turned up, and some kids suggested that I be fielded as a goalkeeper. Hurriedly, I was enrolled into the school, and given admission. I played, and took them to the final where I saved penalties against a school from Phoolbagan. We were the champions. I knew how to fight. I had learnt it the hardest way possible.”
So you never went to school prior to that?
“We didn’t have anything to eat. School needed a uniform, fees, books. We could not afford that,” you spot his moist eyes.
“The school tournament spurred me on. Lalu-da came into my life. He took me to train with the seniors. At that time, Bivash Ghosh (former India goalkeeper) used to practice there. He was so tall. He used to drive a car which he always parked around the entrance of the playing arena. I adored his car. I used to touch it, peep inside and ask myself – ‘Will I ever be able to drive my own car?’”
“Kishore Mukherjee, Proloy Saha also used to practice at the same venue.”
‘I WOKE UP AT 3 AM FOR PRACTICE’Subhasish gets up, walks to the table, turns around and queries: “Cha Khabey? Naki coffee?” (Will you have tea or coffee?)”As if his marker has gone past him, Pritam runs faster, snatches the sachet from his hands, and says: “Ami banacchi. Tumi boso (I am making it. You sit.)”
“But it didn’t take off from there,” Subhasish leans back on his sofa again. “To get extra time for practice, I started waking up at 3 am in the morning. I went to a compound that had a wall and street lights. I used to kick the ball myself into the wall and catch it. Sometimes I used to do my own commentary,” he laughed. “I also did my drills, all of which was taught to me at Nirbhik Sangha. Thereafter, I sat at the poultry shop and did the errands.”
DILEMMA AS A SON – ‘TO SAVE OUR HOME, OR ATTEND DAD’S DEAD BODY’
“My dad passed away. It was a day I won’t forget ever. The civic authorities had come over to clan off the jhuggi as there were plans for the expansion of the road. May dad’s dead body lay on the pavement, even as our family quarreled, and pleaded in a desperate effort to pacify the authorities not to break our house. Life couldn’t have been more cruel,” Subhasish clutches your fist. You gauge his power, the frustration, his fighting spirit, the attitude that made him win everywhere and everything he played in.
At this juncture, any human being would have put his arm around his shoulder. Yours truly couldn’t be different.
“My mom had saved some money, and managed to purchase a residential land for us in Rajarhat. I remember, she purchased it for Rs. 25,000,” Subhasish lauds Pritam’s tea, mentioning: “Pritam cha ta bhalo banay (Pritam is an expert at making tea).” Pritam raises a toast.
‘ADJUDGED BEST PLAYER IN SUBROTO CUP’
“I proceeded to become the best player in the Subroto Cup. I was supposed to play for Sukatna Nagar school, but it didn’t happen. I was sent to Purulia by Manjoor Ali Khan, and played from there. I was adjudged the best player and also the goalkeeper in the tournament. There were pictures of mine in the newspapers. I was thrilled,” Subhasish’s eyes lit up. Pritam clapped, you nod.“I was 16 or 17 at that time. I went to Tollygunge Agragami, and met the Late Amal Datta. I still remember his first lines: “Ki re parbi khelte? Lomba toh achis. Chol dekhi kirokom khelis. Choley aay practice-e (Will you be able to play? You are tall. Ok, let me see how good you can play. Come join our practice).”
“I signed a contract and was paid Rs. 500. I didn’t know what to do. As I walked down the streets in Kolkata, I felt I owned the city. I had Rs. 500 in my pocket. And I was practicing with Hemanta-da (Dora), Emeka, Seriki (Abdul Lateef) and others.”
The mood in the room lit up a bit.
‘JOB OR PURSUE MY DREAM’
“Amal-da (Datta) sent me to the Tata Football Academy. I carried his letter and met Vijay-sir (Kumar) and Ranjan-sir (Chowdhury). Ranjan-sir even mentioned that he was looking out for me but couldn’t find my address. How could he? I never had one,” Subhasish’s laughter goes around in a circle.“My accolades landed me a job in CESC, the monthly salary was Rs. 8,000. For a family which hardly ever saw three meals in a day, it was as if we had struck gold. My mom was over the moon. ‘Sonsar ta bechey gelo re (the family has been saved),’" she had uttered to me.“But how could I tell her that I didn’t want to take up the job. How could I? But I had to. She cried, she stopped talking. I felt bad. But I knew my future will be better if I could believe in myself. I just held my mom’s hands and told her: ‘Amar upur bhorsa rakho (Have faith on me),” Subhasish expresses. “Lalu-da came over and persuaded my mom.”
"My mom stays with me nowadays. Or rather, I stay with my mom," he corrected himself.
JUNIOR INDIA CALL-UP“Tarpor? (What happened next)?” Pritam became impatient.
Subhasish looked at his watch. “I only knew to work, and work harder than all. I signed for East Bengal, and was called for the U-19 National Team and flew to Pakistan. But as I wasn’t getting much time to play in the club, I opted for Mahindra United. It was a big risk, as till then, everyone was only flocking to play in Kolkata.”
“In the meantime, I built a roof overhead at our home. Mahindra was a star-studded squad. Sandip Nandy, Dikap-da (Mondal), Sur-bhai (Surkumar Singh), Mahesh-bhai (Gawali), Venky-bhai (Shanmugam Venkatesh), Jules-bhai (Alberto), Yakubu (Yusif), Barreto (Jose Ramirez) and others. We won the NFL, the Federation Cup, the IFA Shield, the Durand Cup. There was no looking back for me since then. I have won everything in India, even the Hero Indian Super League. And I have also donned the National jersey.”
What’s your biggest lesson as a player? Or rather a human being? – you ask.
“In sports, you need to be patient. Nothing is constant. Your time will come for sure. And in sports and life, there’s no room for false pride. Today you are a king, tomorrow will be different,” Subhasish taps Pritam on his shoulder. “You need to soak in all the pain, and never complain. The road will never be a straight one.”