By Boria Majumdar

Pradip Kumar Banerjee coming to the house was an event. Being a close relative (he was married to my father’s younger sister), this would happen fairly often when I was growing up as a child in North Kolkata and each time he would come, it was like the holidays had come early. We would literally gulp every word and every story. A superstar player and coach, and of course a master storyteller, Banerjee was everything Bengalis are proud of. He could regale an audience with his sense of humour and instil confidence in players even if there was no hope left. Most importantly, he was a superstar with no ego.

PK, as he was popularly known, passed away on Friday morning. He was 83. How good was Banerjee as a player and coach? From my many interactions with Chuni Goswami, his foremost rival and colleague, and Subhas Bhowmick, one of Banerjee’s favourite students, he was clearly the most powerful shooter in India’s football history. With goals against France in the 1960 Olympics and against Japan and South Korea in the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, Banerjee had proved his pedigree to the world. Also, in Indian football’s finest hour — the 1956 Melbourne Olympic games —Banerjee played a major part. While it was Neville D’Souza who scored a hat-trick against Australia to steer India into the last four, it was Banerjee who played a stellar role with two assists. And against Yugoslavia in the semi-final, it was not until PK had to leave the field injured that the opponents managed to get a grip on the game.

Playing for Eastern Railway for the most part of his life, Banerjee was revered by Mohun Bagan and East Bengal supporters alike, the greatest tribute one can possibly get in Indian football.

If he was very good as a footballer, he was even better as coach. “Pradipda had this innate ability to inspire. He could talk us into believing we could do anything and personally he always managed to get the best out of me. He was a player’s coach,” Bhowmick himself an accomplished manager and coach, said. “For him I could defy every odd and play. Even if I was injured all it needed was for Pradipda to just tell me to play and I would,” he said while speaking about Banerjee a few months earlier. Banerjee was also the quintessential middle-class success story, who proved that everything was achievable. “I often played matches in an empty stomach,” he would tell us. “It did not matter. The football field was my temple, and each time I had the football with me, I believed I could do anything,” his words served as mantra growing up.

From starting to earn a livelihood at the age of 15 and taking charge of a large joint family in his early 20s, Banerjee was always the beacon of hope. Interestingly, it will not be wrong to say that any account of the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal rivalry will have to feature Banerjee in a leading role, despite him never playing for either club. Be it using his vocal tonic in charging his players or praying at the ‘Firingi Kali Temple’ in Bowbazar on the eve of the Derby matches, Banerjee was a showstopper in every sense. “With Banerjee it was never about money. He would just start talking and by the time he finished we would feel it was our duty to do something special,” recounted Manoranjan Bhattacharyya, an East Bengal stalwart of the 1970s and 80s.

Nitu Sarkar, a senior member of the East Bengal club management, summed it up nicely. “Pradipda was special. He was a star himself and with him we knew we were in safe hands. He could just win you games with his brilliance and it often happened that he was the first name we put down each time we sat down to make a team.” As his body left for the burning ghat, befittingly he was covered with two flags —of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Such was his aura that even in death, he got the two traditional rivals together for one last time.

Personally, he gave me my first taste of European football as a teenager. It was in his house in Sealdah that he had this treasure of video cassettes of famous matches and best goals and I would borrow some whenever I happened to meet him. However, my most enduring PK Banerjee memory is rather recent. In 2015, Pele visited Kolkata for the second time and I had the privilege of hosting a show which honoured both Pele and PK in the same frame. Listening to the two of them discuss the 2-2 draw between Mohun Bagan and Cosmos in 1977 when Pele had visited the city for the first time is something I will never forget. PK, as Mohun Bagan coach, had in fact planned how to stop Pele, a story he shared with the greatest footballer ever when they met in 2015.

While it is a cliché to suggest that he will forever be remembered in the annals of our football, suffice to say that Indian football has lost its truest devotee and is indeed poorer for it.

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