FIFA World Cup 2018 diary: Discussing Bollywood, sanitation in India and other notes from Nizhny Novgorod

It has been hard to be cheery. Argentina’s fans sang, bounced, and used up every little note in their vocal chords, but things just would not fall their way. Lionel Messi probably cares very little for what Cristiano Ronaldo is doing, but his fans have thinner skins.

When I met Argentinean supporters before the tournament opener against Iceland in Moscow, their faces were bright with optimism. No matter that Argentina had struggled to make it to Russia. Now that they were here, anything could happen.

But then, reality caught up. An underwhelming draw in the first match showed that the issues inherent within this Argentina side might be rooted deeper than they thought. Onwards to Nizhny Novgorod, though. Argentina was to play Croatia there and the Albiceleste faithful remained keen to rally the forces. The Iceland draw was only a blip in their mind.

Representative image. Reuters

Representative image. Reuters

Unfortunately for them, it was not. A day after Ronaldo scored his fourth goal in this World Cup, Argentina conceded three against Croatia. There is a world of analysis possible on Messi or Ronaldo without mentioning the other. For their fans, though, that possibility does not seem to exist. So, on we went with the constant chatter that Messi was feeling the pressure because Ronaldo was finding the net frequently. It becomes a thing if you keep talking about it.

Argentina’s World Cup hopes hung by a thread as we travelled to Saint Petersburg for the decisive encounter against Nigeria. Fear had joined the fans for company. The singing and chanting were still there, but feebler in comparison, a song of doom threatening to interrupt the melody of fandom. Argentina’s eventual victory laid those demons to rest, for now.

There were, of course those who could afford to be happy throughout. The Nizhny Novgorod (literally, 'New Lower Town') city centre has been a host to the revelry which often colours the World Cup. The arrival of the tournament has transformed a place, like a few others across Russia, which often positions itself in opposition to ‘noisy’ Moscow. During my visit to Nizhny, many locals were keen to stress, “This is not Moscow.” But the World Cup has brought it closer to the Russian capital in spirit.

Nizhny’s residents are stunned by the number of tourists who have descended upon the place. Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, the popular boulevard lined with cafes and bars, is usually considered to be busy by the locals. But it is heaving now, holding more people than ever imagined.

It was also the site of my brush with public disapproval. As Germany sealed its dramatic victory over Sweden with a goal from Toni Kroos in the dying seconds, I could not help but laugh and clap loudly at the incredible drama we all had just witnessed. It was not a wise decision though. The bar was full of Russian men who dearly wished that the Germans would go out on the night. It might have something to do with the Second World War.

As I went on laughing, longer than I should have in hindsight, stern faces met me. I faded away from the scene hurriedly, moving towards more pleasant sights. Thankfully, nobody chased me.

That incident was at odds with what Nizhny offered otherwise. With a heavy influx of tourists, the city has seen the doubling up of homes as unlikely rented apartments. One such house on the margins of the city was my host. An old couple, generous with their hospitality and even kinder with their time, opened their doors to my friend and me without reservations. They did not speak a word of English and it should have meant that we would live in wariness.

But we got on, with perseverance. Recording our voices in our own languages, we let the online translator do its thing. The conversations were not limited to the basic information we had to share with each other. Thanks to my host’s keenness to learn and say more, I came to know that I was living with a man who had served in the Soviet military for 22 years. An avid coin collecter, Aleksandr exchanged a lapel pin of the army for a two-rupee coin from me. Think I got the better deal.

On one of the mornings, Aleksandr asked me to join him for a cycle ride to Lake Svetloyar. The lake finds itself placed between the rivers Kerzhents and Vetluga, both tributaries of the Volga. After navigating a stony path for about three kilometres on an unusually hot day, Aleksander and I found ourselves between families enjoying a weekend barbecue. More used to this than I was, he could swim a few lengths while I stood shivering in the cold water. I eventually gave it a try but not with much success. Aleksander was thoroughly unimpressed.

I would like to believe I left a better impression on his wife, Marina. When she was not busy introducing us to the delights of Russian cuisine, Marina spoke in colourful detail about her love for Indian cinema while growing up. After days of hearing about that one song by Mithun Chakraborty, I learnt with much relief from her that Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar were the popular stars in her younger days. The latter’s Ram Aur Shyam remains one of her favourite films.

The host family had another member, Aleksandr’s 83-year-old mother, who recently published a book of her poems. I am hoping to learn more about her work when I return to Nizhny for the quarter-final in July.

Not all memories are fondly recalled though. On the day England thrashed Panama in Nizhny, I chose a Georgian outlet for dinner where I happened to overhear the conversation of four, ranging from middle-aged to old, Englishmen. They were gladly sharing their reminiscences of India, from visits dating back to at least 15 years ago. ‘Facts’ like half of India — one of them stressing that the number is 700 million — resorts to open defecation were shared with plain disgust. How did they arrive at the count, I wonder?

As I overheard them with a sense of amusement, I suddenly thought of interrupting them to say that I am one of the famed 700 million. But of course, there was the risk that my sarcasm might be lost on them and then I would be open to public ridicule. So, I thought better of it and kept my mouth shut while they went on about how 10 percent of the world was defecating on the streets in India. My mind soon switched over to the crappy Polish display against Colombia.

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Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 23:11 PM

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