As international cricket comes to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, Jonathan Wilson who lived and worked in a Tibetan monastery in the remote Indian mountain outpost, recalls the most bizarre football match of his life
We were having breakfast in the outhouse by the kitchen when Choerab sidled up to us. Round-faced with rimless glasses, he'd been discipline monk when I'd taught there, despite being behind every scam going; he'd even run a book on sports day at the local Tibetan school, TCV. Looking anxiously around, he hissed, "You wanna play football?"
This was the summer of 1997. Between August 1994 and February 1995, I'd lived in the monastery in McLeod Ganj, the Tibetan settlement where the Dalai Lama lives on the ridge above Dharamsala. The monks had been obsessed by football, to the extent that one who had a tuft of hair at the front of his head was known as Letchkov. Other than at special festivals, they were banned from playing, but there were occasional attempts to organise illicit games. Occupying an awkward position between the monks and the monastery hierarchy, I'd always turned a blind eye but stayed away.
Between my departure and my return, on a month-long trip round India with Peter, a schoolmate who is now a chemistry teacher in Nottingham, regular games had been set up. Every Sunday, a group of Tibetans – monks, students and other refugees, went down to Dharamsala and played a team of Indians. "We always lose," said Choerab, "but with you…" I fear he greatly overestimated my abilities, but Peter was a decent forward, playing regularly for Dynamo Fenham.
We met at one o'clock, as instructed, by the stupa at the bottom of the track up to the old military church. As soon as Choerab arrived, after a last glance over his shoulder, he pointed into the forest and started running. We followed, clattering through thick undergrowth down a ludicrous slope until we hit the road that hairpins down from McLeod to the town. This was evidently still an illicit game. We'd barely got our breath back when the bus came round the corner. The rest of the team were already aboard, the monks having made their escapes with a variety of excuses.
There were also some fans aboard, which was the first inkling we got that this might be more than a normal kickabout. The full realisation dawned when it turned out we were playing in the first-class cricket stadium. It's been significantly redeveloped since but it was imposing even then, with two vast stone stands down the sides, and a gorgeous view down the Kangra Valley behind one of the goals. At least 2,000 people were there to watch.
Monsoon season was just coming to a close and the pitch was dire, muddy and covered in puddles. The Tibetan team, many playing with robes hitched into their belts, was even worse. By half-time, even with Peter and I charging about in midfield, we were 3-0 down. We conceded two more early in the second half, the second after one of the two TCV students up front – by far the most technically adept Tibetan players – lost possession and made no effort to regain it. My temper snapped. "Just do some fucking running," I screamed at his baffled face. "Fucking running." The crowd loved it. Every time he got the ball from then on, a murmur of "fucking running" rumbled around the ground. And he did start to run. He crossed for Peter, who hit a shot that the Indian keeper, who was small but excellent, diving to his left, scooped out from behind the line. It was a stunning effort, but the ball had clearly gone in. Again, I was less than dignified in my response. Eventually, in the face of two irate Injis, the white-bearded Tibetan referee gave the goal.
A few minutes later, sliding on to another cross and unable to stop on the wet surface, I clattered into the keeper's ribs. Off he went. A couple of minutes after, Fucking Running man got another. As we trotted back to the halfway line, Choerab clapped his hands. "Come on, boys," he said in a bizarre faux Cockney accent. "We can still win this." Another monk answered, "It's not as though we're being slaughtered, skipper."
I looked at him, wondering if they really could be quoting Escape to Victory. Then I remembered. Every Sunday, with their dal and rice, the monks watched a video borrowed from the local shop. After I'd been there a few months, they'd decided it was my turn to choose. Given sex and violence were fast-forwarded through, and few of the monks spoke English or Hindi fluently enough to enjoy extensive dialogue, I tried to demur but they insisted. Seeing Escape to Victory on the shelf, I realised it was perfect: no sex, little violence, perfunctory dialogue and football. It turned out it had become such a favourite a lot of the monks could reel off chunks of the script.
The momentum was with us. The Indians flagged. Siva, one of our subs got a third, Peter got a fourth, and by the time Sopa, another sub, levelled with a couple of minutes to go, the comeback felt inevitable.
The bus journey back was jubilant. The monks, trying to calm their euphoria, escaped back into the monastery. Peter and I went to the Hotel Tibet and got leathered on booze bought for us by delighted locals. English virtues – bawling at refs, injuring opposing players and lots of fucking running – had saved the day.
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