Sound of silence: Real Kashmir brace for emotional homecoming
At some time on Thursday, September 5, a football team beset by anxiety and anguish will land in a city and a state completely transformed.
Real Kashmir FC return to Srinagar after a month spent on football duty, cut off from their families and their people, trying to keep their minds on the game but dogged by the uncertainty of what lies ahead. In 2018, RKFC became Indian football's new fairy tale, the first team from the troubled state to qualify for the I-League first division. Today, they are, as their owner Shamim Meraj says, "the only good news coming out of Kashmir."
In the RKFC ranks, there are ten players and officials who belong to the Valley, where people and communication have been under lockdown from the night of August 4. On the morning of August 5, these men had to find their way past barricades and battle through thousands of anxious travelers trying to leave Srinagar, in order to catch their flight for Kolkata and the Durand Cup.
On Thursday, they will return to Kashmir along with the rest of their team, non-Kashmiris and foreigners included.
"In the time I've been here, we've always got hard roads and mountains to climb, and things to do against the odds and we've always done it," says their Scottish coach David Robertson. RKFC made semi-finals in the Durand Cup and were then hosted by the Reliance Foundation campus in Navi Mumbai for the next two weeks, like they had been in 2018 as well.
But continuing to stay away from Srinagar, even if in the middle of the state's biggest political crisis over the last three decades, was never an option.
"At the end of the day, Kashmir is home, good bad or ugly, so that's why they are coming back," says Meraj.
Co-owner Sandeep Chattoo, without whose resources and intent RKFC would not have been able to push ahead in the last month, feels the same.
"It is important for us to practice in Srinagar, to return home, because it is the pure essence of this club," says Chattoo. "If you believe like we do that you can change things through football, we had to return to Srinagar."
RKFC have five foreign players and three Scottish coaches including Robertson, his assistant Jimmy Lindsay and new goalkeeping coach Jonathan Craig. But over the last month, it is the Kashmiris in the team who have found themselves cut off from home.
"This year we had specific targets and had spent months planning, signing on new players and coaches," Chattoo says. "When something like this happens you do feel sad but there's nothing you can do."
When the Eid festival came around on August 11, Chattoo had only one thing in mind: "I asked the Kashmiris what can I do for you guys? They said, 'We want to talk to our families.'"
Chattoo worked out options for the rare working mobile phone to reach players' families in the heart of Srinagar.
"Sandeep sir made efforts to reach our families with a single phone," remembers midfielder Khalid Qayoom. "One thing that kept us going was that we are professionals and this is our job."
The players would assemble every night to watch the news on TV and discuss the situation amid the contradictory messages they were being presented.
"When you're playing matches, your mind is taken off other things," says Robertson. However, the silence that followed post-match was what was hard for the Kashmiris in the squad.
"It was getting difficult for us, because we were all used to talking to our family before and after matches and this time it was missing," Khalid explains. "Our coaching staff and the support staff motivated us to get through this situation, but this feeling of not being to talk to people at home, that's the worst."
During those rare phone calls, one of the fathers in Srinagar told his player son that the lockdown and curfew was worse than anything he had experienced in the past.
While some of the Kashmiris spoke to their families three times over the last month, one among them was unable to make any kind of contact. This was because members of his family were unable to travel to the local police station to join in the long queue for a landline on which they were allowed to make the briefest of calls.
It is to this Srinagar they will return on Thursday, with the owners working the various levers in the background to keep the team going. The State Sports Council and Jammu & Kashmir Bank had promised RKFC Rs 2 crore each in sponsorship and support last season.
"We have been assured that it (the Sports Council sponsorship) will be done as soon as possible by the finance department of the J&K government. So far the indications are positive that it will be done at the earliest because we also need the money at the earliest. That is our first step," says Meraj.
Chattoo has a family friend offering his school's football field as the RKFC training ground should the familiar TRC Ground be out of bounds. He said that the club had also requested the AIFF to draw up the I-League schedule in such way that RKFC's away games are played first: "It's so we get leverage of one-and-a-half months at least."
The I League schedule is not out yet, but an early November start is being talked of.
At the moment, the team management is sorting out the "puzzles", as Chattoo says, that the situation in the Valley keeps throwing at them. They will remain in Kashmir till September 19 after which they have been invited to train and play at the Jamshedpur FC facility.
"What saw us through is the spirit of being a family," says Meraj. "We have the support mechanisms. The others knew what strikes and curfews were, so we will activate phones in the hotel where they can be contacted."
Turning up in the Durand Cup, he said, had kept RKFC's story alive: "At the moment all we can do is perform, and ensure we get more eyeballs from corporate India, surely that must continue. Whatever it takes."
Meraj describes RKFC as the only club in world football running in a place that is not connected by telephone at the moment. It is an atmosphere that could well remind Meraj, an English literature graduate, of something between Orwell and Kafka.
Except this is Indian football and Real Kashmir are scrabbling to keep their place in it.