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Football

Just another day with Novy Kapadia

Journalist Sanjeeb Mukherjea pays a tribute to Novy Kapadia, his long-time colleague and definitive voice of Indian football, who passed away on Thursday.

Just another day with Novy Kapadia
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Sanjeeb Mukherjea, Indian footballers Pritam Kotal and Aditi Chauhan with Novy Kapadia at his book launch in 2017 (Special Arrangement)

By

Sanjeeb Mukherjea

Updated: 19 Nov 2021 5:41 AM GMT

If I had the good fortune to choose to talk sport over a good meal with a person of my liking, it would be Novy Kapadia.

The Fox in the Box. The Ultimate Finisher. His famed monikers would take me back in time to that glorious age of sport, which devoid of commercialism, as he would say, was a delightful romp about all that is to love about sport.
Novy, with his famed offering of gathiya and nankhatai in tow, would arrive in time, complaining of the smog and traffic. Yet he'd settle down soon enough for the tea, coaxing me to savour the snacks he had brought while helping himself too.
Asked about his love for
nankhatai's
, he points me to Bhicoo Manekshaw's succulent tome 'Parsi Food and Customs', egging me on to know more about the gastronomic delight he had just lugged all the way from Naraina.
No sooner do I start thinking about his fixation for the round, crisp snack does he remind me about this very day in sporting history. The last flashes of brilliance, he would say, rattling off two memorable conquests made on this very day by Steffi Graf and Boris Becker. The dying of the light would start for both of them after these title wins, he adds. I am thinking about googling what they won when Novy chimes in about Graf winning the WTA Tour Championship in Madison Square Garden even as Becker won his last ATP Tour World Championship title in Frankfurt.

'Everyone had Novy Kapadia on speed dial'

As he stretches himself out on my rickety single-seater wooden sofa, Novy enquires about some tea, since lunch is still some way off. As we settle down with tea and some more biscuits, he speaks in a rather worried tone about his good friend Syed Nayeemuddin. The former Indian football captain, an Arjuna and Dronacharya awardee, Nayeem has fallen on bad times, living hand-to-mouth. Novy thinks maybe a call to some reputed media houses here in Delhi might help throw light on his plight; maybe someone might come forward to help.
He is in touch with everybody. All footballers, coaches, match officials, journalists of the time gone by, everyone has Novy on speed dial. And he updates me on a few others who too should get help in their final days, as he remarks. A couple of calls come through from young reporters, enquiring about whether he would like to write a piece on the ISL that's getting underway. A few more call him for sound bytes. He has to go to a show on an English news channel in the evening. Still, he promises to make time for them – all of them.
As we speak about the latest developments in Indian football, suddenly he mentions another close friend of his – Shabbir Ali. Shabbir, the ace striker who terrorised defences, the former Indian captain and decorated coach, one with whom Novy shared a memorable friendship for decades.

Myth-buster of Indian football

Why is he suddenly so curious about football in Hyderabad? And that reminds me, Novy has been that bridge of information for many like me, helping demystify the many untruths and myths surrounding Indian football. For him, it's always been Hyderabad football that's been the love of his life.
A reputed television journalist once remarked during a panel discussion about how it was Bengal football that could never look beyond itself and succeeded in destroying the growth of football in the country. Novy, who was the co-panellist, immediately stood up in defence, mentioning how the famed Indian teams of the 50s and 60s had a massive representation from Hyderabad.
Like Maradona's slalom in Mexico City when he raced and rolled past the England defenders with contemptuous ease, Novy launched into an impassioned lecture that day on how the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad were actually the cradle for talent in Indian football. About how the black-and-yellow shirts of Hyderabad City Police dominated Indian football, and were as good, if not better than East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in the 50s.
Apart from the legendary coach Rahim saab, Novy's other favourite being the football-loving visionary Shiv Kumar Lal, Additional Inspector-General, Andhra Police, who too was instrumental in taking the game forward in the late fifties. And the audience was spell-bound, reliving those glorious yesteryears of the Beautiful Game, as Novy's fabled storytelling took over the entire auditorium.
And just like that, I remembered, Novy had dispelled all theories about Indian football being only about Bengali clubs and their players. Hyderabad football had a special place in his heart. And in his memories. Present-day Hyderabad though is anything but what Novy fondly remembers. Gone are the days when Olympians used to be a dime a dozen from the City of Nizams.
However, he seems very enthused by the re-appearance of a team from the city of late. ISL club Hyderabad FC, turning out often in their black-and-yellow jerseys, have struck a chord with Novy, and the emotional connect is hard not to acknowledge.
Lunch is served, and my mentor and friend Mr. Kapadia is tucking into the pulao with delight. This even as he shares a few more anecdotes about taking famous Indian football stars to Old Delhi to savour the Mughlai food there. Those were different times. In fact, a few old restaurants there still swear by Novy's name.
The discussion veers towards social media now. Novy himself is a part of it, having got onto Twitter a few years ago. And his simplicity is evident in the way he tweets. Perhaps disseminates information. For most others to studiously copy. I ask him about the number of people who lift so generously from his scholarly tome on Indian football 'Barefoot To Boots', without as much as a line of acknowledgement. Novy brushes me aside, says the more people write, talk or discuss the game, the better it will be.
Lunch culminates with kaalo jaam (known in these parts as kaala jamun), a Bengali sweet Novy had been wanting to have. In fact, on my invitation, he specifically asked me if I could get a few for him. Didn't know it was one of his favourites, and the decreasing frequency of his visits to Kolkata had perhaps initiated the yearning for the said delicacy.
He's getting restless, as he calls up the guest desk at the channel he's supposed to go to, giving them particulars about how to reach my place to pick him up. I ask him – what is the show about. Novy's voice trails off as he mentions they are doing a special show remembering the departed legends of Indian football – PK, Chuni and Franco who all passed away in quick succession. With time, Novy has become a tad more nostalgic, his effervescent enthusiasm now seams into a tinge of sadness every time he looks back at the glorious past of the game.
There's some more time for his cab to arrive, so we settle down with more tea. He enquires about me, my health, work and the works. He misses doing our near regular shows on football but is happy I have ventured into broadcasting.
His elephantine memory now comes back with a hilarious incident during my time with one of India's foremost TV news channels. It was during a FIFA World Cup, that I was hosting, and we had Novy as one of our main analysts. No match footage, just Novy. With fantastic anecdotes, critical analysis and ready wit, the English professor was charming our viewers with his takes on the tournament.
It was one such day. Rather early morning. And I refused to wake up on time to be at work! Rather, overslept. Exhausted by the non-stop night shifts I guess. A dear colleague rushed home to wake me up, and I did, bewildered and scared I would lose my job. As I reached office, I saw our Sports Editor, who had generously stepped in to anchor, coming out of the studio with Novy.
Minutes later in the newsroom, I sat ashen-faced, preparing for a yelling and a certain sacking. My boss did nothing of the sort. And Novy. Oh boy! With his breakfast in hand, Novy comes around offering me a toast from his plate and enquires, 'are you unwell Sanjeeb?' A single line that surely saved me from a shellacking, and a certain sacking. And here he was, after all these years, remembering that day!

The weight of nostalgia

I ask him about living alone for all these years. Does it affect him? It does, he says, but that's the life he chose for himself, he quips. Says he is grateful to all those who have been in touch and misses most others. But that's life as he knows it to be. It is clear he chose to be what he is, and with dignity. It's none of anyone's business to comment about his loneliness. At least, he would have none of it.
Suddenly, Novy looks very frail, as if age has suddenly overpowered the man. He's now slouched on the sofa, in a football reverie I guess. I decide to have some shut-eye too. Almost immediately, there's a message on my phone from a common acquaintance that shakes off the trance. I rub my eyes in disbelief. The message says Novy Kapadia has passed on to the next realm.
Eulogies are difficult to write, more so when the departed is known to the writer. Tasked with this tough ask, I ask myself today – will I ever be able to measure up to the high standards of journalism, writing and broadcasting that Novy set as a benchmark? Will others like me, be able to pick up the essence of what Novy actually stood for? As he said, sport is an event where the outcome is unknown, and the clash of skills is what draws the audience? It's the portrayal of that chronicle that matters.
Novy Sir, you mattered. You mattered more than most others. I know you are now in august company, with your favourites Rahim saab, Chuni da, PK, Franco and many more decorated immortals of the game. Till we meet again on the other side. Adieus.
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