If you study in a hostel, your identity is immediately drawn up on the basis of a few things.
What you look like (basically fat or not), the state you’re from, how you perform at studies, and so on. At that age, there is a strange sense of pride in association. Family names are treated with reverence; to make fun of someone’s family name is absolutely unacceptable.
Amidst the many states (and a few countries) that people came to my school from, I was lost as a person from Orissa. At times, it was like I came from a place that didn’t exist in reality. A Platform 9 ¾ sort of extension that only a few of us could see and feel.
There was no mention of Orissa anywhere – in films, books, magazines, news – none at all. Which meant that the references to the state were the same – teachers called us ‘tribals’ (which is grammatically wrong, by the way). There was one particular teacher who would say things like ‘See how you fellows are, that’s why your state is like that.’
I wasn’t deeply ashamed or anything. I did not swear to take a wow to avenge the insults and uphold the pride of my state. Childhood keeps you busy with other important stuff.
And yet, sometime in the year 1998, Orissa found an identity in the mainstream.
It wasn’t just a mention in the Geography text book, or a quiz question (What is the dance form of Orissa? ‘Oriya’. Bash head till person is buried into the floor).
For a nation that was used to cricketers from Mumbai, Delhi and Punjab, to have an actual cricketer from Orissa infused a great sense of pride in my heart. And the entire state caught up to it.
Every person I knew back then had a Debashis Mohanty story of his/her own.
‘Oh, he used to stay near my house. Used to play with my elder brother. Really nice chap.’
‘He was always a quiet, humble boy. Who would have thought he would one day play for the country?’
‘My brother is good friends with him. The two of them used to drink beer together. Yes, yes. Now go get two cigarettes from that shop and come. Quick!’
No matter how far removed from the sport, they all had a story of their own. One they loved to narrate to others.
And this wasn’t just an award from a President, or a Limca record being set. It was playing cricket for the country. It was appearing in newspapers, appearing live on television. It was millions of people watching and rooting for you. It was Tony Greig calling out your name on the microphone, it was articles being written in The Hindu.
Debashis Mohanty was the first reason I was proud of my state.
It was a magical three-year phase.
Having never really played serious cricket, I took up the ball. In a way, my bowling was like Mohanty’s – never express pace, just some sense to pitch it in the right areas and wait for the conditions to work (in my case, for the batsman to play a Ghatotkach pull to the boundary).
When Mohanty was selected out of the blue for the 1999 World Cup (without being in the list of probables), my happiness knew no bounds.
It was the first World Cup I was actively following. And Mohanty was in the thick of things for most of the matches. For a state starved of national heroes, it gave me an insane amount of joy to watch him, his loose jersey flapping in the English wind, running up to bowl, extracting generous amounts of swing both ways (which, if you remember, wasn’t something most Indian bowlers could boast of back then).
The World Cup was a dream run of sorts. Mohanty picked up wickets in nearly every match he played in, and for the first time, I had hopes of him cementing his place in the team. But those were tumultuous days for Indian pace bowling.
A string of bowlers were picked, tested, and unceremoniously dumped. Harvinder Singh, Abey Kuruvilla, Tinu Yohannan, David Johnson, Reetinder Singh Sodhi, Ajit Agarkar – all jostling for the position of the 3rd pacer.
By 2001, the dream run had ended.
Agarkar was being touted as the next Kapil Dev, he had started picking up wickets like the TTE of Rajdhani Express, and could hit the ball around too. In the meanwhile, Mohanty was struggling to find swing in Indian conditions – hot, sweaty weather and dead, flat tracks.
2001 would be the last year he would play for India. Another cricketer from Orissa, SS Das would make his debut for India, but it wasn’t the same. SS Das was too stoic, too silent, too expressionless to inspire me in any way.
And slowly, Mohanty fizzled out of the national team.
Fifteen years later, I began hunting for online footprints of Mohanty.
Thanks to YouTube, nostalgia is no more a closet in your mind that that gets lighter and fades out as time passes. With YouTube, you can take your memory off the cupboard, dust it, gaze at it all over again, and pick a fight with a Pakistani cricket fan while you’re at it.
And so I began searching for his videos on YouTube.
I found a total of three videos. The first one was a video titled ‘Tarap catch by Debashis Mohanty’. It was a clip of Mohanty running in to bowl at Saeed Anwar, who lobs it back to the diving bowler, only to grass it. It was a sad little video that had one comment (‘Just missed the catch’).
The second video I found was one of Afridi smashing Mohanty to all parts of a Pakistan ground. Later on, the Peter Pan of Pakistan goes on to say that he had a score to settle with Mohanty. Apparently, before that series, the two teams had played in Canada. Mohanty, who was bowling well, kept walking down the pitch to Afridi to stare at him.
Even if the video failed to refresh any memories, it gave me some solace. That the person who my friend’s neighbour’s brother’s uncle’s son knew personally, stood up to an opponent batsman.
A little more searching, and I find the third video with Mohanty in it.
It is titled ‘Debasis Mohanty does justice to Boston Gymkhana Wicket Ale !!!’.
The scene is far removed from a cricket field. It is a house with about 20 people in it. Back in the days when only one person in a group had a camera and was entrusted with the task of documenting the act for posterity.
Debashis Mohanty stands in the middle of the group, with all the people in the room cheering him on. The camera spins around to show a huge dinner being prepared for the group, there is a general loud laughter of an Indian occasion. Just as I was trying to figure out what was going on, I notice a pitcher of beer being offered to Mohanty.
He accepts the pitcher, and the crowd begins to cheer for him. And just like that, as I watch the video, Debashis Mohanty gulps down the entire pitcher of beer. The group is happy, and everybody is cheering for Mohanty. End of video.
It is a little sad that there is not a single video of my favourite childhood bowler. It seems unfair that ‘Elaan Full Movie Part 1’ is readily available, but not a single compilation video exists of the bowler whose action I tried to emulate. A Google search lends results up to half a page, to be followed by Orkut profile pictures of others named Debashish.
May be that’s the true depiction of Oriya spirit. Eating and drinking and laughing with friends. Left with no other option, I philosophise the situation, drawing analogies between the video and the Oriya way of life.
And yet, deep inside of me, it is heart-breakingly sad.