Tulsidas Balaram: The reclusive yet talkative person no one knew
Tulsidas Balaram may have carried a deep hurt at not getting his due recognition in Indian football, but he never spoke about it with the friends he made late in life.
Uttarpara: About an hour's drive from the bustle of Kolkata, the town of Uttarpara in Hooghly district is quite cut off from the main city by the river Ganga. In a sense, the quaint little town is happy in its reclusion from the mainstream.
It was only fitting that Tulsidas Balaram shifted base from his Bhowanipore nesting to a flat by the banks of the Ganga here about 25 years ago. The room where he lived out his last years has a window with a clear view of the Dakshineshwari Temple. Having been an ardent theist, it was the perfect place for Balaram to have his life's swansong play out: reclusive and aloof.
Tulsidas Balaram breathed his last at the age of 86 on February 16 this year. He was thus the last of Indian football's 'golden trinity' of Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, and Balaram to pass away. With his death, a glorious chapter comes to an end. Of the 1962 Asian Games-winning Indian team, now only Arun Ghosh and DMK Afzal survive.
Balaram had not been very connected to contemporary Indian football possibly because he felt insulted. He reportedly refused to attend a book launch in recent years because it was close to the East Bengal camp.
But one week before the ISL 2022/23 final between ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC, around 50 people - his close ones and former footballers - congregated at a local library in Uttarpara to remember the man Tulsidas was more than the player. How they recounted the legend's last days throws some light on why the 86-year-old would spend his final days as a recluse.
Former India and East Bengal goalkeeper Debashish Mukherjee told The Bridge: "In our country, the kind of recognition you get depends on the kind of people you keep around. The deserving don't get the respect they deserve. Someone as qualified as Balaram da didn't get anything after the Arjuna Award. This is perhaps why he left Bhowanipore and settled down here in Uttarpara. A grievance remained that his contemporaries got so much but he didn't. Naturally, it hurt him."
While Goswami and Banerjee, India's two other football stars of the swinging sixties, were conferred with the Padma Shri recognition, Balaram couldn't go past the Arjuna. But if indeed this was the grievance he held in his heart till the end, he did not make it apparent to anyone around him. It was as if he almost used to intentionally hide the fact that he had once been a renowned footballer.
To an outsider, Balaram would probably have come across as a bitter man who would keep his distance, but to the few he kept close, Tulsidas was a fierce friend - someone who would be a constant at a friend's daughter's wedding or another friend's father's death ceremony - as an ever-present pillar of support from his own corner.
A few others from his inner circle also had some anecdotes to share.
From a confidante from above
A constant in Balaram's life for the past 25 years was Shimita Sarkar, who resides on the fourth floor of Ashmita Apartments, where the former footballer used to occupy the third floor.
"We were very close. His door used to always be open and when I used to leave for work in the morning, our day would start by greeting each other a good morning. We used to talk about everything apart from football. The pandemic had brought us even closer. The terrace was the place where we used to get some fresh air. That is where we became very close in the last two, three years," Sarkar said.
"I never saw him as a footballer, he was an elder brother to me. He never talked about football," she said.
Having been a constant companion in his last years, one could expect that Balaram might have opened up and talked to Sarkar about his regrets in life or why he had left it all to live a peaceful life outside Kolkata, but she was not bestowed with that honour. In fact, no one was.
"We used to understand that something was hurting him inside, but it never came up. He never liked reporters. If someone came to invite him as a guest of honour, he would avoid it unless it was someone very close. Only if it involved going to the field would he be ready to go," she recalled.
Sarkar remembers him as a deeply caring person who looked out for his loved ones. Such was his love for his close ones that he'd decided not to marry because of his many and recurring ailments early in his life.
"We used to tease him and ask him about marriage, but he was honest to say that if he fell sick, who would take care of his family?" Sarkar added.
From a wide-eyed doctor
The former East Bengal forward had been suffering from abdominal tuberculosis. His doctor, Saikat Sengupta, was therefore a regular visitor in Balaram's last years. What the doctor recalled as stunning behaviour was how the octogenarian would emanate optimism and a zest for life even when his health had started to decline sharply in the last few months.
"We have to be positive with our patients, but here was a person who never complained. This was hugely inspirational, and something that I gained from my association with him," said the doctor.
"He had a fabulous memory. He recollected every minute, and possibly every second of what went on in major matches. Where the game turned, what (Syed Abdul) Rahim saab said, who played in what position, how he met Muhammad Ali, Milkha Singh," said Sengupta.
"If this was the UK, he would have been remembered like Stanley Matthews or Bobby Moore, but no one in this country knows him, and he didn't want anyone to know him either. He was happy in his own space," added the doctor.
Balaram's friends from Uttarpara like Shimita Sarkar and the doctor wanted that he live his last days in his own room, by the Ganga, the flow of which would always enchant the man. But that could not happen, he had to spend the last two months of his life at a city hospital.
However, there is one memory which will forever be with the doctor.
"The night he'd started sinking, I'd gone to meet him. I had this usual style of greeting him and massaging his calves, and such. He wasn't exactly verbal but he did extend his hand, shook mine, and said 'thank you'. I believe that was his last interaction with anyone. I will live with that," the teary-eyed doctor recalled.
From acquaintances turned dear friends
At the commemorative event in Uttarpara, the speaker asked the audience at one point to raise their hands if they had seen Tulsidas play. Only one hand went up.
Samiran Banerjee, a one-time referee in the Kolkata football circuit who had become a frequent visitor at the Ashmita Apartments, spoke out. "I had seen him play once in 1966. I had heard about his gift of being two-footed, later I saw him making the ball dance with both his feet, even in his late sixties," he said.
When Banerjee was asked about what led Tulsidas to cut himself off from Indian football, he pointed fingers to the Kolkata giants.
"He had a grievance, a bone to pick with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. He didn't play for Bagan, but he did for East Bengal. Later on in life, East Bengal never gave him the respect and never treated him with dignity. He'd straight out refuse to even go to any event hosted by the club," he added.
Mridul Sen, a neighbour who had initially started off as someone who used to run banking errands for Balaram, recounts the footballer having been a 'father figure' for him. He also recounted how Balaram hated the limelight.
"Once I had invited him as a guest at a puja, he said that he did not like being the centre of attraction. Later, he called me to tell me he had indeed gone to the puja and seen the idol without informing anyone because I had requested him. He was that kind of a person," Sen narrated.
Sen also remembers Balaram changing from being a fitness freak with a straight backbone to someone who needed the aid of a walking stick to move around in his last days.
"I remember seeing him in a feeble state, with a stick in his hand. When I asked him about it, he said that his friends Chuni (Goswami), PK (Banerjee), Badru (Banerjee) had all passed away, and now he too wanted to go and that he would request the Goddess from his window to end his life. His will to live had decreased in his last few days," Sen said.
Multiple people spoke on a proposal to erect a statue of Balaram in Uttarpara to remember him.
The football ecosystem of the country might have failed to shower adequate love and recognition to one of the country's greatest footballers the country has produced, but it is certain that the few people in Uttarpara that Balaram met late in his life gave him enough love and recognition for the person he had been.