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North-east football - Centre, forward

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I had stalked him over telephone for months, and the direction of the interview -- towards the issue of north-eastern identity -- amuses him. Robert Romawia Royte, businessman, former bureaucrat and owner of Aizawl Football Club, which became the first club from the north-east to win Indian football's highest prize, the I-League, in an unexpected, stirring run in Madhu Kapparath Football, he believes, is central to the "mainstreaming" of the region with the rest of the country.

A sense of regional collective does exist beyond and above the sport. Mark Lalduhsaka, director of operations and marketing at the Mizoram Football Association MFAis a millennial and a sharp dresser with a sharp mind. He spent many years living and working with the mainlanders and when asked about identity beyond, he finds himself amused by the fact. One player called it "racial discrimination," and that is accurate.

Stories told by the eccentric but gifted coach Bimal Ghosh provide clarity. Ghosh is a footballing frontiersman who signed on with Manipuris in the early s for the Air India team. His players had faced opposition and abuse, and he repeats an ugly word used about them: Roughly translated, it means Chinese-Christian, the pet stereotypes dropped into casual conversation around his players. Appearance and religion wedded by ignorance.

In Guwahati, Barbora holds up a mirror of blinding light when he says the north-east was united by "the reality and memory of political violence.

Land of a thousand mutinies At the time of Indian independence, the region was, as Larsing said, many segments, separated by geography, culture and religion. Dialects changed from village to village, and the idea of government varied from colonial masters to royal diktats to clan gatherings. The British left India with the drunken drawing-up of two nations, three geographical entities, four regional chunks and one Chicken's Neck.

In the early decades of free India, there arose the desire and need on the part of the state to control, often by force, lands on the other side of the Chicken Neck. Among the people who lived there arose the desire to rise and resist.

More than six decades of conflict between the Indian state -- military and paramilitary -- and locals in the form of protesters, insurgents, militants and rebels have left the region pockmarked by gruesome indignities and loss.

Insurgencies, independence movements, political struggles, separatist demands for new states and border conflicts between the states themselves still surge through the north-east like river currents. The response of the state to the people of the region has been either heavy-handed -- its imposition of the harsh and controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act AFSPA in several areas, for example -- or largely inattentive.

That was the bombing of Aizawl in March for two days in a row after rebels took control of military installations and laid siege to the Assam Rifles headquarters on whose grounds, coincidentally, MPL matches are now held. Historical estimates over the movements in India at odds with the state or with one another since independence have ranged from 30 to It is not for nothing that the north-east is wryly referred to as the Land of a Thousand Mutinies.

On the side of the rebels, some popular causes have been diluted into corruption, expediency and self-interest. Nagaland is the totem for such an existence. In the commercial capital of Dimapur, we are being thrown around in a car on the main drag. It is essentially a tarred riverbed of a road, belching traffic and grey air. That mundane fact is a cold hand around the throat. A grotesquerie that is as much India as are the uber-arty airports, startup sassiness and record-breaking rockets.

A weekday MPL match is about to get underway at the Lammual Stadium stadium played on artificial turf. Mizoram is criss-crossed by 21 hill ranges and prone to rainfall and landslides, making it impossible to find and then maintain an all-grass pitch. Madhu Kapparath Leaving the wild east of Dimapur behind and heading for Kohima on a quiet Sunday morning, the countryside is soaked in deceptive peace.

There is very little traffic, only the rustle of leaves, the chattering of birds, red-throated, blue-breasted, and the taxi's gearbox clearing its throat. Along the Chathe River, which marks some of the border between Assam and Nagaland, photographer Madhu Kapparath voices a thought. If armed men were to step out of the forests and line up across our road, the outside world wouldn't have a clue.

How could football survive in such an environment? An exhibition match organised by "expat" Manipuri footballers last summer to raise money for a cancer-stricken young player attracted between 15, and 20, people. There were stray names -- football historian Gautam Roy cites two from Sikkim, Pem Dorji and, a generation before him, midfielder Jerry Basi.

However, the routes between the simmering north-east and national football, says Novy Kapadia, came together through three unrelated happenings: It is they who ensured that today the region fuels the I-League's two divisions. Anthony's Shillong became the first north-eastern team to win the title. The event is now split into the unders and the unders, and the region's schools still feature regularly in the title rounds. Most north-eastern players, both past and present, have the Subroto Cup on their CVs, and it is from there that many were signed by the TFA.

From the TFA and the SAGP came football livelihoods and contracts with the big clubs or jobs into the lesser-paying but more secure government bodies like the railways, banks and petroleum companies. SAI entered their clubs into Delhi leagues, and the names began to come streaming through: This is when Air India's Bimal Ghosh steps into the history of north-eastern football.

As big clubs paid expensive foreign players, Ghosh -- operating on Air India's limited public-sector budget -- went east. A football player whose busted knees turned him into a young coach, Ghosh had seen the handful of Manipuri players in the Bombay leagues and admired their strength, agility and lung power.

I thought, 'This is a different type of player with different muscles. Why don't we try them? The Air India budget was less than Mahindra's, who were one of the best teams in India, but we used to beat them all the time. I have full confidence in me. This at the Malki Ground in Shillong. Madhu Kapparath It is a sizeable boast, but Ghosh reels off the names of players signed up who went on to become either major India or club players: So many Manipuris that at one point the Air India team would be derisively referred to as Air Manipur.

At first, they would cry themselves to sleep in academy hostels or sports camps far away from home, dreading the evenings at the TFA or SAI hostels, after football and before dinner, the solitary study time at desks in the gathering gloom. Mama makes the breakthrough "There was no phone, there was no STD booth.

I used to speak only one minute, once in a week. Most of the time, I am staying alone. I am just thinking after this, I have to do this, I have to do that. I'm just taking my step every minute. I'm just going, going, going.

A country boy who spoke little English, never mind Hindi, Mama had already earned the scorn of the football hipsters in Aizawl.

In Jamshedpur, he didn't like the food; his palate -- used to boiled and steamed food -- was overwhelmed by oil and spices. He couldn't understand why some colleagues tried to rib him by asking him, a Christian, to join them in Hindu prayers or made fun of how he dressed. He had grown up following football by listening to a minute weekly sports bulletin with his farmer father and always knew he wanted to play. When his primary school teachers asked him what he wanted to do in life, he would say, "I want to be a professional football player.

I want to encourage young players back home that by playing football we can live a good life. When his first paycheque arrived -- Rs 1. It was kept in his Bible before "a friend told me this is very important. Coerced by his family into academics, Thopi returned to the sport after graduation and trained with his old local team, Life Sports FC of Chizami village. To meet us in Shillong, Thopi travels more than 20 kilometres from Rangdajied's home base of Mawngap-Mawphlang, and for his photograph he wears Aizawl's red shirt.

This is him, Nagaland's first player in the I-League first division, on the back of an ironclad whim and many prayers. He says, "I play to make some change for myself, for my people India international Potsangbam Renedy Singh, currently president of the Football Players' Association of India, joined the TFA at age 11, his grandfather unable to bear hearing him cry at night because his parents wanted him to join the army. Renedy says, "Kiran Khongsai and others, they were the pioneers who started playing for the national team.

I am sure in other fields the north-east faced a lot of problems, but in football we didn't. He had earned an SAI scholarship to the highly respected Tashi Namgyal Academy in Sikkim before the school competition that would change his life. Bhutia recalls his first months with East Bengal. One practice you do well and they say you did well, but it may be a one-off and you have to repeat it and repeat it more.

I was 16, there was a bit of fear of not succeeding and having to return to Sikkim. At the same time, you are just excited to play for such a big club and you are ready to work hard and do anything to succeed. Whatever grumbling there may be about no true successor from his state, it was his skills and personality that made Bhutia the most popular north-eastern face across the rest of India.

His name became instant recall for a sport and a people. Any doubt Bhutia may have faced in his early years from mainlanders has now dissipated into their faith in the north-eastern players' abilities -- and constitutions. Or, as Jeremy Wallang, a lean, relaxed Shillonger who returned from a club career in Goa to join Lajong in its early years, jokes about the legendary leg strength of the north-easterners, "These are hill people; some guys they have cows, not mere calves.

Madhu Kapparath Often many players wind up wiser beyond their years, like year-old Holicharan Narzary, one of Assam's rare exports to the current national team. A forward with DSK Shivajians, Narzary had to choose between securing a place in an SAI hostel or returning home and helping his family cultivate paddy.

Narzary is speaking to us in Guwahati's Taj Vivanta hotel; he is in his NorthEast United white jersey, lithe, almost regal, and eloquent.

Football is a game for everyone. If we play, it means others can also play. Keep playing, keep moving ahead, have the confidence you can play. Narzary's call to other young footballers from his state comes from the personal familiarity of working his way through a scarcity of opportunity to where he is today.

Their motto of "Eight States, One United" is not exactly welcomed by the region's indigenous football community. Lajong, in fact, had equity in NorthEast United in before selling it the next season. I look at these eight ISL clubs as being incubated for the future.

Hopefully over time they will evolve and move from a franchise frame of mind to [being] real football clubs and start investing in long-term developmental programmes. I just hope that one day we will get to see a match between Lajong and NorthEast United. Hold it in Lajong's home ground at the Polo Grounds in Shillong.

Flatlanders against hills people in their own environment. The third wave Like the town it belongs to, Lajong has always moved to its own beat. Shillong is the north-east's beating heart of ubercool: An under match in Shillong, the original nursery of north-east football.

Here the state's two foremost clubs, Shillong Lajong in red and Royal Wahingdoh in yellowgo head to head at the Mawlai Stadium. Madhu Kapparath It was Shillong Lajong, with its professionalism and corporate sponsorship, that became both catapult and catalyst in Indian football. It set the trend towards a smoother standard of management in Indian club football, and the rest of India has only followed, highlighted by the ISL's larger coffers and poshness.

The Lajong club offices are in a corner of the Centre Point hotel owned by Larsing's family. There are photographs of past matches featuring standing-room-only crowds at the Polo Grounds-Nehru Stadium terraces and a mezzanine den set aside for visitors and trophies that overlooks the Guwahati-Shillong Road.

Larsing, from a wealthy business family, followed football while a student in Bangalore and realised that the stream of footballers from the north-east could become a torrent. Grassroots youth talent scouting, scholarships for to year-olds and quality training "to develop a team that could represent the region in the Indian national league. InLajong sent out a call to arms for the region's older troops.

Stalwarts from other teams, like Gumpe Rime -- who stayed on and is now head of youth development -- turned up, and sponsors, including big names like Adidas, Nokia and The Telegraph newspaper were cajoled into buying into the idea. Larsing claims that Lajong's Adidas sponsorship was the first real merchandising and jersey sponsorship done for an Indian football club. Inan FDI investment by a firm called Anglian Holdings, through which the owners divested 15 percent equity, meant that the club were on to a good thing.

The earliest response to Lajong by "mainland clubs," Larsing says, was "perhaps a sense of a jolt, that suddenly these new entities have come out of a region that had been producing players for a decade or so prior but never really had a club identity. Perhaps everyone wondered whether we would be able to sustain ourselves. They still field among the youngest teams in the I-League; where the minimum requirement is least one under player in the starting XI, Singto, the coach, says they field five or six U23s on average.

Everyone in the region recognises that Lajong did more than raise the bar. It was to actually establish the bar -- of a club that was greater than the sum of its victories.

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An institution of learning, a centre of regional aspiration and a place of sustainable business. Mizoram Football Association secretary Lalnghinglova 'Tetea' Hmar, the man credited with causing a football revolution in the state, pushing through the introduction of artificial turf pitches and formulating the concept of the Mizoram Premier League.

Madhu Kapparath Lajong has generated across the region what Jeremy Wallang -- a first-generation Lajonger -- calls a tsunami effect. Aizawl FC are already the face of Mizo football across India but are looking wider. They are spread out across the globe; we have a very big support base in Myanmar. We are just very new in the system. This will also change the scenario of north-east football.

Manipur's turbulent political climate does not make for the best environment to create an entity based on an intangible called hope. Yet they are on their way. So far, no club from our state has participated in the I-League even though we produce so many players.

The family own the Classic Group of Hotels, which are the main sponsors, but two years ago they turned the club into a private limited company to compete in the I-League second division. It sounded and felt like a Kolkata derby, he said, "without the fighting in the stands. We want to see football in the region to reach greater heights and to participate strongly because it helps Indian football.

When the amused Assam Rifles guards let us into an eerily quiet and empty ground, the lone human being in sight is a vendor selling lotus seeds. There is light and activity at the bottom of the main stand. The players in their changing rooms, the match commissioner ensuring that his countdown clock, synced with the Zonet TV crew, follows the schedule glued to his "office" door.

The match balls are being tested for air pressure, and the referees are pulling on socks, giving their calves a good rub. The room smells of Iodex. There is prayer in the dressing room before Chanmari goes out to play a Mizoram Premier League match against Aizawl. The MPL has become a game-changer event in the last five years with matches shown live from start to finish on a local cable network. Madhu Kapparath Lalrawngbawla, aka Bawla, match commissioner by night, school commissioner by day, has a cheery confidence.

The MPL has become part of that larger community, moving effortlessly through church and state. The eight participating MPL teams are neighbourhood clubs, and as the competition heads towards its knock-out phase, the areas in the reckoning hold prayer meetings seeking a hand from God. With less than 10 minutes for Chanmari vs.

Aizawl FC to begin, the main stand fills, men, women, children knowing where each side's fans must sit. It's a weekday, it has rained, but around people turn up. The match is played at a furious pace, with speedy passing, muscular tackles and chanting fans. Melodies you recognise, like "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" sung in Mizo with the lingering rumble of the darkhaung, a large brass drum.

The Mizoram Premier League lasts about four months and features eight teams from Aizawl. This may appear to limit teams from elsewhere, but almost one-third of Mizoram's population, and maybe almost its entire industry and business, operates out of the district. Few other Mizo towns could afford to support teams in the competition.

Budgets vary, with clubs like Chanmari, from an affluent part of town, spending around Rs 15 lakhs per season; at the most frugal end this season are Dinthar FC, who manage with around Rs 5 lakhs. Club owners, some who are local businessmen, put in their own funding, rope in other friends and reach out to sponsors for extra leverage. Door-to-door household donations are part of fund-raising.

Tvanlalhuma, a Dinthar founder-chairman, says his club represents around households and 2,odd people. The MPL has become a major event in an otherwise quiet Aizawl calendar. It has advertisements, hoardings, female models to represent the clubs, merchandise, a music video and every two years a "Mizo Idol" reality TV singing competition show on Zonet.

The league came into being among three friends in January during a trip to Delhi. It was, not incidentally, Bhaichung's testimonial match. Talking about Mizo football, Tetea says they saw that some Mizo players would earn "a lot of money," but others didn't have enough "to even pay for boots.

We felt that if we can provide them with the platform, they can compete with the rest of the nation. The game changer was Zonet's gamble of a financial commitment to the MFA of Rs 25 lakhs per year for five years for the telecast.

The dream was to create a league that was at least semi-professional, with the coaches and the players paid. I don't know where the money came from," says Tetea, laughing. In a state without multinational companies or external investment, it's a fair bet either way. Turning disadvantage into opportunity, the state has moved into overdrive in the past five years.

A year later, Aizawl FC became the fifth club from the north-east and the first from Mizoram to qualify for the I-League -- first division. InShylo "Mama" Malsawmtluanga became the first Mizo to participate in the country's highest professional competition, at that time called the National Football League NFL ; in the season, 54 Mizo players were registered in both divisions of the NFL's successor, the I-League. And then came Aizawl's fairytale season. Not getting tickets, not getting to school every day, dealing with a bandh every alternate day.

Football is the only way Manipuris think they can be in peace. Despite wrestling with flu, he turns up at the evening's MPL match, rigged up in a jacket and Burberry scarf, to glad-hand the Sudeva crew. Tetea's choice of the word "powerhouse" is not an overreach. Mizoram has become the model football state for organisation, innovation and enterprise.

It has turned its small size into an administrative advantage and its hurdles -- intrinsic, logistical, financial -- into the background score of a rousing athletic opera. You have to be there to feel it. Football, what it means and its place in the north-east. That which is united My knowledge of the north-east is flimsy at best; until a short trip to Agartala to understand the phenomenon of the gymnast Dipa Karmakar in earlyI'd never been farther east in India than Kolkata.

Like most Indians, my mental geography was generally lumpish, maybe even lumpen. Assam was elongated atop Bangladesh, Sikkim sort of squashed in between Nepal and Bhutan. Meghalaya was near Assam. Then there were the other mystifying, remote landlocked states on the other side of Bangladesh.

So far that, in the mind, they're blended together in a large mush of bad news: And was not Nagaland about headhunters? One of India's most distant state capitals, its landscape is dotted with churches and bare football grounds, both of which form the centre of its tightly-knit communities. Madhu Kapparath It wasn't very accurate: A spare white cross fronted its terminal building, with the words: Before the arrival of football in the 19th century, the hill tribes of the north-east always had indigenous forms of leisure, including variants of wrestling, archery and ball games.

Once the British took control of the hill regions of Assam, both closer to the Mainland and far away in the Lushai Hills around what is now Mizoram, missionaries moved into the region with Christianity and football.

The Welsh and American Baptists were the earliest arrivals in the s, followed nearly half a century later by the Presbyterians and other denominations of the Anglican Church. The establishment of Christian missionary-run schools on the Victorian model meant that the easiest "alien" sport to teach converts was football.

The north-east's geographical proximity to Bengal, the capital both of India until and its football, kept the sport alive even through violent and fractious times. Could the north-east, though, be studied as a single, clunky whole only because it was in the grip of a single sport?

The region is a tumult of cultures, clans, tribes, religions, faiths, languages and ethnicities. Wasn't trying to bind them together as uninformed as the blurry notion of the north-east being about tribals and political trouble and Mary Kom? Where did football fit? What is that which is united? Once the shimmer and noise of the ISL's eight-states-one-united melted away, the question hung in the air, like the morning mist off the hills, invisible when surrounded by it but impenetrable from the outside.

Maybe our ways of seeing are completely wrong. A stray comment one evening nailed it when, while cooking a dazzling dinner, Xonxoi Barbora, associate professor at Guwahati's Tata Institute of Social Sciences, served up perspective to chew on.

Outsiders look at the north-east, he said, through two dimensions on a flat surface -- the political map on paper or screen. This view makes hill country unfathomable to the eyes of plains people, for whom the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line. Aizawl to Agartala should be kilometres as the crow flies, less than Mumbai to Pune. On the road, it is a kilometre journey and could take more than 10 hours. Kohima, northeast of Aizawl, is kilometres away on a paper.

In real life, it is kilometres and 17 hours of hill driving. The flatlanders' perspective of the north-east in straight lines will always bypass the jagged edges of its history and undulations of culture and faith. What the map does show is the undeniable fragility of the geography separating the hills people and the plains folk.

It is a strip of land 25 kilometres long, less than 45 kilometres at its widest point and a little over 20 kilometres at its narrowest, with a railway line running through it to connect the two parts of the country.

The Siliguri Corridor -- aka Chicken's Neck -- looks like a hungover cartographer's "morning after" map but is in fact a product of the Partition of India in Over the past few decades, football has become the strongest connector between both sides of the Chicken's Neck -- and the source of a collective identity of the north-east.

If you listen to Larsing Ming Sawyan, owner of Shillong Lajong FC, football is central to the region's understanding of itself as a collective whole.

Larsing believes his club was the "first real pan-north-eastern initiative, the first football club or organisation outside of politics, that has looked at uniting the entire region.

Ming is the man behind the emergence of the north-east's first professionally organised club, Shillong Lajong, which qualified for the I-League in Madhu Kapparath Lajong were the first north-eastern club to compete in the country's highest football competition, the I-League.

Their logo features the eight north-eastern states cradling a football. The word Lajong means "our own" in the Khasi language -- it certainly means far more than the acronym for the national ministry in charge of the region's affairs -- Ministry of DONER Department of the North Eastern Region.

Larsing points out that the Chicken's Neck, while connecting the region to the mainland, also compacts it. He thinks of himself as a north-easterner: He speaks slowly, thoughtfully. Before independence, the region was not eight states but one large British-ruled province Assamtwo princely states Manipur and Tripura and many tribal republics. Largely similar races sharing a common stock of what is referred to as the Tibeto-Burman family of languages and a segment of what are classified as Austro-Asiatic languages; in the plains a significant percentage belong to the Indo-Aryan language stock, the many varied groups, he points out, then "engrained into a larger identity over time through geography and climate.

Robert Royte, the owner of Aizawl FC, one of five clubs from the region to play in the I-League's top division, has been on both sides -- a native Mizo familiar with the world of DONER while he worked in the state government's education department.

InRoyte was invited to head and then run a year-old local club that had been defunct for nine years. He gave up his government job to set up his business and helped in the Aizawl FC revival.

Today, after their second I-League season, they are champions of India. Royte's office is a short hike from the Lammual Stadium in downtown Aizawl and reflects his working life. The North East Consultancy Services NECS operates in software design and civil construction, and his office walls are papered with plans and photographs of construction projects -- football academies, a women's prison and police headquarter colleges.

Royte is small and square-framed. I had stalked him over telephone for months, and the direction of the interview -- towards the issue of north-eastern identity -- amuses him.

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Robert Romawia Royte, businessman, former bureaucrat and owner of Aizawl Football Club, which became the first club from the north-east to win Indian football's highest prize, the I-League, in an unexpected, stirring run in Madhu Kapparath Football, he believes, is central to the "mainstreaming" of the region with the rest of the country.

A sense of regional collective does exist beyond and above the sport. Mark Lalduhsaka, director of operations and marketing at the Mizoram Football Association MFAis a millennial and a sharp dresser with a sharp mind.

He spent many years living and working with the mainlanders and when asked about identity beyond, he finds himself amused by the fact. One player called it "racial discrimination," and that is accurate.

Stories told by the eccentric but gifted coach Bimal Ghosh provide clarity. Ghosh is a footballing frontiersman who signed on with Manipuris in the early s for the Air India team. His players had faced opposition and abuse, and he repeats an ugly word used about them: Roughly translated, it means Chinese-Christian, the pet stereotypes dropped into casual conversation around his players.

Appearance and religion wedded by ignorance. In Guwahati, Barbora holds up a mirror of blinding light when he says the north-east was united by "the reality and memory of political violence. Land of a thousand mutinies At the time of Indian independence, the region was, as Larsing said, many segments, separated by geography, culture and religion. Dialects changed from village to village, and the idea of government varied from colonial masters to royal diktats to clan gatherings.

The British left India with the drunken drawing-up of two nations, three geographical entities, four regional chunks and one Chicken's Neck.

In the early decades of free India, there arose the desire and need on the part of the state to control, often by force, lands on the other side of the Chicken Neck.

North-east football: Centre, forward

Among the people who lived there arose the desire to rise and resist. More than six decades of conflict between the Indian state -- military and paramilitary -- and locals in the form of protesters, insurgents, militants and rebels have left the region pockmarked by gruesome indignities and loss.

Insurgencies, independence movements, political struggles, separatist demands for new states and border conflicts between the states themselves still surge through the north-east like river currents.

The response of the state to the people of the region has been either heavy-handed -- its imposition of the harsh and controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act AFSPA in several areas, for example -- or largely inattentive.

That was the bombing of Aizawl in March for two days in a row after rebels took control of military installations and laid siege to the Assam Rifles headquarters on whose grounds, coincidentally, MPL matches are now held.

Historical estimates over the movements in India at odds with the state or with one another since independence have ranged from 30 to It is not for nothing that the north-east is wryly referred to as the Land of a Thousand Mutinies. On the side of the rebels, some popular causes have been diluted into corruption, expediency and self-interest.

Nagaland is the totem for such an existence. In the commercial capital of Dimapur, we are being thrown around in a car on the main drag.

It is essentially a tarred riverbed of a road, belching traffic and grey air. That mundane fact is a cold hand around the throat. A grotesquerie that is as much India as are the uber-arty airports, startup sassiness and record-breaking rockets. A weekday MPL match is about to get underway at the Lammual Stadium stadium played on artificial turf. Mizoram is criss-crossed by 21 hill ranges and prone to rainfall and landslides, making it impossible to find and then maintain an all-grass pitch.

Madhu Kapparath Leaving the wild east of Dimapur behind and heading for Kohima on a quiet Sunday morning, the countryside is soaked in deceptive peace. There is very little traffic, only the rustle of leaves, the chattering of birds, red-throated, blue-breasted, and the taxi's gearbox clearing its throat.

Along the Chathe River, which marks some of the border between Assam and Nagaland, photographer Madhu Kapparath voices a thought. If armed men were to step out of the forests and line up across our road, the outside world wouldn't have a clue.

How could football survive in such an environment? An exhibition match organised by "expat" Manipuri footballers last summer to raise money for a cancer-stricken young player attracted between 15, and 20, people. There were stray names -- football historian Gautam Roy cites two from Sikkim, Pem Dorji and, a generation before him, midfielder Jerry Basi.

However, the routes between the simmering north-east and national football, says Novy Kapadia, came together through three unrelated happenings: It is they who ensured that today the region fuels the I-League's two divisions.