When I was thirteen years old I wanted to be Warwick Capper. You see, Warwick Capper had long blond hair, white boots, and took spectacular marks. He played like a bird, fragile on the ground but always dexterous in flight. When I was eleven, even twelve, I didn’t really know who Warwick Capper was, in fact I didn’t know what a mark was nor did I understand Aussie Rules, which at the time made little sense to me or my parents, as we had just emigrated to Australia. But I learnt quickly.
‘Dad, what are the sticks?’
‘Dad, what are the side sticks?’
‘I don’t know, son.’
By this time Mum would get involved: ‘What is this game? What are you both watching?’ And invariably she would get absorbed and not leave the television until the game was over. ‘Look at that, he just caught and flung that player in the air. What, no foul? Hey, he looks hurt. This game is wild. What are the rules? Are there rules?’
No-one explained to us the rudiments of the game. We learnt by watching and listening to Channel 7’s commentary team.
We left India before Rupert Murdoch had taken over the airwaves, before Fox, and Sky and Star and CNN. And certainly pre-Internet! Until then, my elevenyear-old Indian brain had been fed the local state-run TV channel with non-English, black-and-white programs. The few movies I had seen were shown at the local club we frequented: the Dilhousie Institute. This was an old remnant of the British Raj where English elites used to hobnob over sundowners, cocktails and aperitifs. After Independence it was left to middle-income professionals such as my mum and dad, who took me swimming at the pool, while they socialised with friends over drinks and Chinese food or played billiards and tennis or simply browsed in the library. One by one these friends left to live overseas. This was ‘brain drain’, I heard someone once explain: ‘The best brains of this country are leaving.’
Occasionally, we watched movies on an outdoor screen. Generally, American 1970s movies. These were in Technicolor and had been rigorously scrutinised by the government censors. We watched Terence Hill and Bud Spencer comedies, The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, the old Tarzan and first Superman films. I remember sitting between my friends Nitesh and Brian, watching Bette Midler in The Rose as it caused some fuss by its screening. I can’t remember the film but I remember Mrs Buttacharia, one of the really wealthy members of the club (her father had played an important part in the Independence Movement in Calcutta), complaining: ‘Movies such as these are the corruption of our youth.’
It was with this background that I arrived in Australia and saw my first Aussie Rules football match: the Bombers versus the Hawks. These names made more sense to me at the time than the suburban names of the teams concerned. I had never heard of Hawthorn or Essendon. The match made an impression. It was the ball, the goal and point posts and the ferocious tackling that I found extraordinary, alien. What is this game? Where am I? My eleven-year-old brain tried to grasp the reality of being in Australia, of living in Australia for the rest of my life. I hadn’t even been to an Australian school yet but still I managed to understand that this strange game, the roughness, the secret hidden rules, would be useful currency. It would help me integrate and come to terms with being a stranger in a new country that was now going to be home. That day Dad barracked for the Hawks and they won. Accordingly, the Hawks were his team from then on.
I still didn’t know what to make of all this. It seems strange thinking back to a time when watching the television coverage of a football match was amazing: the colour, the noise and passion generated was like nothing else I saw around me. Having just come from Calcutta, leaving behind all its heat, colour and noise, I found this place particularly quiet. But here, on television, at the football people seemed to come alive and their personalities shone through. Spectators and players alike looked like heroes and villains.
Melbourne, I had hoped, would be a place full of movie stars and multilevel freeways such as I had seen in the few American films I watched at the Dilhousie Institute and the copious amounts of Bollywood hits I had seen with our driver at the local cinema. Instead, Melbourne was ‘clean and green’, as Mum said, ‘with not a person in sight on the road except for those who drive’. Strange, too, it was to realise that not everyone in Australia was blond and blue-eyed as I was led to believe growing up in India in the seventies. Naively, the young me had expected to become blond and blue-eyed when I became an Australian.
Here I was lonely and the football on television occupied me. But again it was more the sport than the personalities that captivated until I saw a match with the Sydney Swans, featuring Warwick Capper. Here was someone different; I had never seen anyone in India who looked like him. He stood tall and blond and could easily have walked off the set of any of the films I had seen or for that matter imagined. He had a blonde fairytale girlfriend and they always had paparazzi chasing them. I recall pink helicopters whisking the couple off and managers who looked like Bollywood thugs protecting them from obtrusive cameramen. Capper was athletic and loved to be flamboyant. He won games singlehandedly, taking a flying mark over all opponents and then turning around, picking himself up and kicking a goal. Most important, he brought out such strong emotions from different sections of the audience. His tight shorts got tuttuts from the older male commentators while most of the girls seemed to fancy him (some, admittedly, seemed to be repulsed). His white boots made him stand out and made me want to wear white boots just like he did.
Somehow Capper, his boots and his fantastic entourage made my vision of Australia as a land of heroes and outlaws come alive. Strangely, now that I look back, his brand of football, long hair and tight shorts, tapped my inner being, my creativity, and the need to express myself and be different. These things encouraged me as a young boy not to settle for the mundane. This idiosyncratic footballer, in a strange and alien land, taught me the importance of being an individual and trusting in myself.
This was important. At school I was made to feel different: ‘What is your name?’ ‘Have you ever got on with someone?’ ‘You speak funny.’ It was only after Darren Carter became my friend that I slowly began to feel accepted.
Darren was caught and thrown by a ferocious Gavin Harvey one day after school. ‘It’s on. It’s on,’ the boys cried. Darren was struggling and groaning as Gavin kept punching and kicking him. When I stepped in and grabbed Gavin by the scruff of the neck and threw him, the boys yelled, ‘All in, all in.’ Some boys closed around and punched and kicked. But it all amounted to little as the teachers soon came and stopped the fight. Some weeks later Darren invited me to attend football training with him, and I did. Dad bought me white Adidas boots, which I wore with pride.