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Home Society Football, polo, a bamboo tale & society’s contempt for manual work- The New Indian Express

Football, polo, a bamboo tale & society’s contempt for manual work- The New Indian Express

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The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is genuine rocket science: the footballs used are loaded with an ultra-wideband sensor and an inertial measurement sensor. Every effect of impact on the ball, whether it is kicked or it caroms off a goalpost, is recorded at 500 frames per second in 3D space. That’s much more accurate than GPS and, combined with optical technologies already used by FIFA, will make the refereeing of close calls much less controversial.

But where do these digitally proprioceptive footballs come from? The World Cup has focused media attention on Sialkot in Pakistan, where the official ball of the event, the Adidas Al Rihla, is made by hand. Some 60,000 people in the city—that’s more than one in 10—are in soccer ball manufacturing, and they supply a third of the world’s demand. The crucial stitching is done by seriously underpaid women. Bloomberg reports that they make 75 US cents per ball, which takes about three hours to stitch. It’s way below the cost of living, even in Sialkot.

It’s a far cry from the world of Real Madrid and Man U, with its stratospheric signing and transfer fees. Never mind Cristiano Ronaldo, the first billionaire in sport, or Lionel Messi, whose moving cost is £162 million. Even a defender like Harry Maguire would cost a club £80 million. Which is why soccer attracts Russian oligarchs and oil sheikhs, apart from your regular English punter stepping into the neighbourhood Ladbrokes. It’s a game made of money and designed to make more money, and it’s a scandal that the footballs used in top fixtures are made for bizarrely low remuneration.

It recalls a similar sporting scandal which is now forgotten: until the 1990s, almost all of the world’s polo balls were supplied by the small village of Deulpur in Howrah district, West Bengal, again for marginal wages.

Today, Deulpur is firmly on India’s sporting map for a different reason: its most celebrated son is Achinta Sheuli, the weightlifter who won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this year. In the polo age, though, Deulpur was just a name on shipping manifests, because it supplied a few lakh polo balls every year, bound for clubs all over the world.

But no one ever went to Deulpur, and you won’t find its name in the Wikipedia page for polo. The nearest suburban train station was over an hour away. Deulpur had no attractions except… imagine a sprawling landscape of polo balls. They were everywhere, like the remains of some geological event in the remote past.

Though polo is of Central Asian origin—a much-photographed game using a sheep carcass instead of a ball is still played—the modern game derives from the Manipuri game of ‘pulu’. The British adapted it to their tastes, using a wooden ball or a cricket ball wrapped in layers of leather, and polo became the classic colonial—and by emulation, princely—sport in the mid-19th century.

According to sporting lore, alert Deulpur native Bipin Chandra Baug noticed that these balls didn’t last under the impact of the mallet. A more durable material was required, and in east India, there is no natural material quite as tough as the bamboo. Its root, particularly, is a solid mass. A power saw would bounce off it.

It is said that the Baug family started a small line in polo balls, each made from the root of a bamboo cut to size. The choice of material must have been obvious, because the region in which Deulpur lies was richly endowed with bamboo thickets. Their roots were chiselled into shape and rounded off with sandpaper. The process, which was still followed in the late 20th century, takes hours of hard physical work. It pays peanuts.

His first bamboo polo ball in hand, Bipin Chandra Baug went on a marketing trip to Calcutta. English-speaking friends in the big city apparently interceded with the Calcutta Polo Club—India’s oldest surviving, established in 1862. Globalisation, the byproduct of imperialism, did its thing, and orders from all over the world started coming to Deulpur.

Synthetic materials reached the Indian market in the 1960s, a century after the Calcutta Polo Club encountered Deulpur’s bamboo polo ball. The first entry was Bakelite, plastics followed, and by the Seventies, Deulpur’s business was threatened by the arrival of the ‘fibre’ polo ball. It was cheap and virtually indestructible. It even felt like Teflon. By the Nineties, it was game over.

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Back in the 19th century, bamboo was being put to many uses. Edison experimented with a bamboo filament for his incandescent bulb, one of the great innovations which lighted the way to the modern age, before tungsten came into vogue. Even today, bamboo is an inspiration for structural engineering. It bends in a storm but never breaks, and serves as a model for architecture which must withstand shear stresses, like high-rises in earthquakes. The 1999 super cyclone in Odisha, the most powerful tropical storm ever recorded, turned the coast into a moonscape, but bamboos remained standing, sometimes with corpses draped over them.

Bamboo also revolutionised polo but eventually, synthetics won that ball game. Now, in Qatar, inertial technology and AI embedded in footballs made in Sialkot threaten to make the referee redundant (though, to be fair, the maker insists that humans will have the last word). Since top-quality footballs have hand-sewed seams, the women who make them are protected from technological threats.

But society’s contempt for manual work means that like generations of polo ball artists in Deulpur, they will probably remain on a survival wage.

 Pratik Kanjilal

Editor of The India Cable

(Tweets @pratik_k)

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