On a fiery day in the summer of 1998, our family of four stood sandwiched between boisterous throngs of locals and tourists at the square of the Hotel de Ville in Paris. We were watching soccer on gigantic screens propped up all over the vast plaza. For over a month, the city of Paris, host of FIFA World Cup, rocked. Squares pulsated with people of different color, nationalities and faiths. Fans parlayed their feelings through face, hair and clothes. They spoke in one universal tongue: the language of a good, fair game savagely played.
Inside the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, our son, then just four, screamed every time he saw Zinedine Zidane headbutt a player or score a goal. The boy sat atop his father’s shoulders, screaming wildly as the sea of spectators around him erupted and clapped. He didn’t understand the rules of the game. I didn’t either. But what did it matter?
During those weeks in Paris, I was reminded of the frenzy at cricket stadiums in India, of the volatility of people crowding around the radio listening to a cricket commentary. In the 80s, I used to watch the molten excitement in my relatives as they devoured a game of cricket on a black and white television set. Me? I could not tell a ball from a bat.
Even though I never learned to appreciate sports in any form, one word engraved itself onto my brain in those years, over and over, as the voice of a commentator floated in from Eden Gardens or Chepauk grounds or the Oval Stadium. It was a Hindi word whose origin, traceable to the 17th century, derives from Arabic: maidan. The word means, literally, open field—an open area, an esplanade or a space in or near a town, often used as a marketplace or parade ground.
A couple of summers ago, on a morose monsoon morning, my daughter and I stood at one of India’s most magnificent grounds, Kolkata’s maidan, the largest urban park in the state of West Bengal. We marveled at Victoria Memorial built over a hundred years before, as we stood there between puddles of water, without an umbrella, using our dupattas for cover. The place was home to many playgrounds, the famous 90,000-seat cricket venue Eden Gardens, several football stadiums and the city’s race course.
We soaked in the melancholy of a stately, historic space in a dusty, chaotic city. Those acres of grass had sprouted many political rallies and ideological movements. I could imagine the dissent and the passion, the flags and their colors and the crowds and the cries and the band and the beat.
I remember my times on many an international square. The feelings were always the same: whether we were at the Trocadero in Paris enjoying the beat of African drummers until the sun set at 9 PM; or crooning with the people of Paris, along with Luciano Pavarotti, while feverish and drunken in the love of both Verdi and Pavarotti, on the endless grassy knoll of the Jardin de Champ de Mars; or by the waters of the San Francisco Bay on July 4th watching fireworks light up the sky; or watching the processions at the Plaza de Armas in Peru’s Cuzco on the day of Corpus Christi when fifteen saints and virgins were borne in a procession to the Cathedral to greet the body of Christ; or walking with the crowds at the Junkanoo in the Bahamas on Boxing Day; or simply sipping coconut water at the cricket maidan in Chennai at the One Day International.
Every maidan I have ever been in has made me ponder the oneness of humanity at a given hour. It has made me believe in the vitality of the moment. It has also made me reckon with how, sometimes, in a moment of epic upheaval with historic significance, the human spirit could straddle both beauty and destruction. How else could we explain the events in Egypt as they played out in Midan El-Tahrir? Or, as we saw in Euromaidan, the tide of demonstrations and civil unrest in Maidan Nezalezhnosti that altered the political landscape in Ukraine. We saw the power of many in Kiev. We saw firsthand how the raw emotions of people thrown in together for a common cause could sometimes extinguish the megalomaniacal dream of one. Such was the power of the maidan that it riled people up and sucked the fervor of its occupants engaged in a festival, a sport, a rally or a riot.
I’ll never forget the time I was wending my way to the absolute greatest maidan in the world—where twelve radiating avenues meet and a flame always burns over the tomb of an unknown soldier—when the ecstasy of a nation made a man go berserk. Our family was headed for the Bir Hakeim Metro to celebrate with Parisians at the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile on the night of France winning the 1998 World Cup. People poured in and out of the metro station, their faces the color of the French flag. They were laughing, weeping, and hugging. The smell of alcohol and cigarettes rent the air. And while we paused for a minute, wondering if this were the safe thing to do with two young kids on such a raucous night, an unknown Frenchman ran up to me for no reason other than the fact that he was deliriously, inexplicably happy.
He swept me in his arms and kissed me, while my children and my husband looked on, shocked by the braggadocio and the fever that one nation could inspire in one moment in the heart of a man.
Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.org and http://saritorial.com.