Friday, September 5, 2014

Face in the crowd, by ANAND OBEROI

Ambom – a Paljor Stadium original

Standing strong through the history and evolution of Polo Ground from a grazing field to a dust bowl football pitch to the astro-turfed Paljor Stadium of now, is “Ambom’s Canteen”. There could be no better a history teller about the stadium’s transformation from sand to turf than the 80-year-old Eden Lhamu Bhutia, lovingly called “Ambom” by all who have played at the stadium with any regularity at any time in their lives because the Paljor Stadium experience is not complete without a snack served by Ambom.
At the canteen, the same a wooden structure behind the gymnasium hall for the past 35 years, Ambom has been feeding hungry sportspersons, trainers, officers and people from all walks of life for many generations now.
With Ambom’s shyaphaleys, alu-thukpa, alu- bhuja, momos and alu-bun still fresh in the memories of all big names of Sikkim sports, the strict but still disarmingly charming lady has served piping hot food from the wooden window which continues to prominently display boiled eggs, bananas and chewing gum, standard fares for sports enthusiasts through decades who flock to the wooden benches of the canteen to get themselves the much needed diet.
Speaking to NOW!, the shy and hesitant Ambom questioned the need for a newspaper to carry an article about her as everyone around already knows her and has had a meal here. Refusing to even be photographed, it took a lot of convincing to get Ambom to briefly pose for the camera while she narrated what makes her do what she does.
“I have five children, two of whom have already expired while I ran this canteen at the ground. There are people who would run a business for the profits, but for me it is the satisfied faces of children after eating here that gives me the will to open shop everyday at 5 a.m.,” she says.
As for the name “Ambom”, she says that this started with her nephews and nieces who visited the canteen in the early days [and for whom she really was the Ambom by relation] and the name stuck.  Now everyone calls her Ambom - mother’s elder sister.
Ambom originally hails from Ben village in South Sikkim. Back home at the village, Ambom still has her Amla, her 98 year old mother who was the one who gave her the idea to setup a canteen as she was neither educated nor from a very financially stable background when she started living in the stadium complex five decades back.
“My husband worked in a bank outside the state and I had to sustain myself and my growing family which is why I decided to follow up on my mother’s advice and open this canteen. When we started here, there was just a single large auditorium where all indoor games including basket-ball were played. But with time and the development of separate infrastructure for different games, we had to shift to the present location,” she informs.
Ambom also recalls names such as Bhaichung Bhutia who were regulars at her canteen when he used to still play and practice at Paljor Stadium [during his school days at TNA].
As for the heydays of the stadium and the canteen, she says that there were times at the canteen when even 30 kilograms of meat would be insufficient for the momos because of the rush at the grounds. Things have changed since. Paljor Stadium does not attract such big crowds anymore. Meanwhile, she recalls that now the scenario has changed since the days when she sold momos for Rs. 5-7 a “double”, and a cup of tea went just for a rupee with even a half-cup serving of tea for 50 paise.
“There was a time when events like 15 August and Governor’s Gold Cup were the time of festivities at the ground. We hardly got time to even sit for a minute on such days because of the heavy rush but that has changed now and new establishments in front of the stadium are the new hangout for the new breed of sports persons,” she tells NOW!
While maintaining that the glory days of the stadium are in the more innocent past, she adds that infrastructure development around the stadium campus has also limited access for the footballers to come to the back of the stadium complex where her canteen is housed.
“Much has changed since then but the number of hungry children and sportspersons has not. There are still children eating here on credit, some of whom have not paid since 1994. Their ‘khatas’ are still active here. Sometimes old people come here and look at me and say, Ambom you are still alive! And these old people tell me that they were regulars here at one time. I am not very good at recognizing faces but once they start ordering and talking, I know what they are talking about,” she shares.
Ambom is now helped by her elder daughter Lhamu Bhutia in running the canteen and she shared of how Ambom sometimes serves what are practically free treats to those who could not afford to pay her. “Children come here in groups and the ones who have money order and start eating while the few unlucky ones just sit and stare at the rest eating and that hurts Ambom. She then starts serving free treats to the remaining telling them that they have to pay later; of course they never do and Amla knows that as well,” says Lhamu.
Ambom, for many sportspersons, be it from the field of football, Tae-Kwon-Do, TT, Badminton or basketball has stood in as the “dietitian” who has provided good nourishment at affordable price. There are still many sports associations which get their diets for their players from the canteen on credit. Working behind the scenes, in a hot and sweaty kitchen, amidst the din of hungry sportsmen and women, Ambom’s canteen has served the state’s sports people ever since one can remember.
One sportsperson calls her the ‘unsung hero’ of sports at Paljor Stadium.

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