A few years ago, I entered the studio of the television channel I was employed at, for a show previewing the forthcoming FIFA World Cup. Novy Kapadia and the critically acclaimed coach Karim Bencherifa were already seated, miked up, and ready to go on air. We had planned a short segment on Novy’s new book, a ready reckoner of all things football, as part of an on-air launch. I was supposed to ask him about it.
No sooner did we start that Novy, with his customary unbridled excitement, took up the role of a quiz master, and started asking me and Karim some extremely tough questions on the game. Live, on-air! Role reversal got over minutes later, and Novy was back to his effervescent best, talking up the impact Messi might have on the World Cup! A short commercial break later, he was agonising over how India languished in the pits of world football, and how so much more needed to be done.
All in the matter of a few minutes. That was Novy Kapadia for us – the true football romantic, who measured up his love for the game with some wonderful core understanding and the unreal, yet unerring ability to breathe life into even the drabbest encounters.
The quintessential gift of the gab, with the remarkable ability to inject humour in his storytelling, ‘Novy sir’, as we all fondly addressed him, was one of a kind. A regular fixture in the now defunct Sportsworld magazine, The Telegraph (Kolkata) and later Asian Age, as well as across news and sports broadcasts, Novy was in essence the voice of the sport.
Most sports reporters cut their teeth covering assignments, Novy’s introduction was as a player himself – he even ran a football club in Delhi till the mid-1980s. Employed as a professor at the Delhi University (DU), Novy’s love for the game started well before he realised it would be his life.
A young Novy would stealthily sneak out from home even as relatives gathered for his grandmother’s funeral. Reason – he had to watch Mohun Bagan’s quarter-final game in the 1963 Durand Cup!
The young boy had always wanted to see Jarnail Singh, Chuni Goswami, Kempaiah and the likes in action, and this was too good an opportunity to let go, with Bagan playing in Delhi.
And thus, football became his life. It is no mean feat that the man could narrate such wonderful stories about the game, to the minutest detail, even from eras long gone by. Starved of international football for a very long time, Indian readers only had Novy for their weekly dose of anecdotes on legends from the likes of Puskas, Law, Eusebio to modern-day giants like Maradona.
And it’s the form of Novy’s narrative that would captivate you. He spoke as if he swayed with El Diego on the Azteca, defended as stoutly as Beckenbauer against the Flying Dutchmen, or even partied alongside George Best after a scintillating display of his skills; he brought to life the characters and the passages of the game that made his writing, and later television appearances all the more invaluable.
Yet, his strongest suit remained Indian football. Indian football’s earliest patron, the Nawab of Tarband, the football nursery of Zaminstanpur High School, the fearsome ‘Pancho Pandavas’, a five-man forward line that ruled the roost in the early 1950s, the legend of VP Sathyan, to the towering legacy of Brahanand, Novy knew it all. Like the back of his hand.
Most sports broadcasts today have become more data-centric, and with reason too. Novy, however, was a different league altogether. Stringing such magnificent instances in Indian football with the fervor and enthusiasm of a child, and the expert eye of a hardcore analyst alike.
Contrary to what most know, he was equally good with other sports too. Sightings of the DU professor in his slightly oversized blazer in TV studios speaking about India’s prospects at the Olympics and other multisport games, were such a common sight. And his superior knowledge made it easier for the programme to flow. Once Novy started, there was no stopping him.
These days, everyone is an expert on television, more so in sport. Even without basic knowledge of the subject. For Novy, knowledge was always a premium. And generous he was, doling it out, even to rookies, without the slightest sign of condescension. And that’s how he touched so many careers over the past few decades.
Who was India’s goalkeeper in the ’51 Asian Games? Ask Novy. Did Pele and Eusebio ever face off in an international fixture? Call Novy. How long did Camilio Gonsalvez play for Dempo? Novy will know. How many Santosh Trophy titles did Pappachan win with Kerala? Speak to Novy now!
That was the common refuge. For sports journalists and newbie writers across the country, across cities and newsrooms.
Yet, it was his simplicity that added to his aura. A Novy Kapadia striding into a newsroom would excite people around him. The ‘Voice of Football’ being there meant there was a positive story to be told. Clutching on to his bag, coming in straight from university, he would duly take up one of the workstations. And start working on the show. Cups of tea, along with his favourite bread omelette would be devoured with gusto, even as he distributed his offering of some delicious Parsi snacks to the sports desk he was stationed at.
Show done, while most on the desk would head out for tea, some even leave for the day, Novy would return to the workstation, reading up on the game, sometimes taking a few printouts of articles he wanted to read at home. And yet, his infectious energy would still be there, as he finally trudged off to the cab, on a long ride back home.
This time though, he won’t be back. He won’t be around to regale us with those lovely stories, neither will his wisdom be imparted to us anymore. He had planned to have another favourite of his, bun maska, at Café de la Paix, his favourite in Mumbai, with me sometime. But it was not to be.
It is numbing to think that a man who touched so many lives and careers is no more. Sadder still, loneliness was his constant companion as he neared the final whistle. Many of us will regret not having made the time to go and meet him in the recent past when he was struggling. Struggling with an illness that robbed him of his candour, his effervescence. Yet he always had the time for us. For all of us.
Even more disappointing is the appearance of videos on social media showing him struggling to speak coherently. Sad. Lonely. He lived with a lot of dignity. It isn’t anyone’s right to rob him of that when he is gone. You knew us well sir, and you guided us like no one did. Most sports desks across the news television industry will be saying a prayer for you today. And while I write this today, you must know that all of us, your favourite ‘sports gang’ in Noida will miss you terribly as you leave to meet your maker. Go well, Novy sir.
(Sanjeeb Mukherjea is an independents sports journalist and broadcaster. He tweets @sanjeebmukhrjea.)