The snow-laden mountains in the distant background appear in a haze. Up close, all around the TRC Turf Ground, the leaves of the chinar trees are drooping with the weight of frost. It’s 2° Celsius in Srinagar—damp, dark and brooding on a January morning in the picture-postcard capital of Kashmir. Ten kms away, the iconic Dal Lake, is frozen. Inside the stadium, there’s warmth as 10,000-plus people have packed into the stands for, perhaps, one their happiest moments in recent memory—the I-League match between Mohun Bagan and local heroes Real Kashmir.
Among the excited spectators are family members of Real Kashmir’s young defender Muhammad Hammad. His cousins have driven down 90 km from Pahalgam to watch the derby, a rare celebratory occasion in the Valley locked down since August 5 last year when Jammu and Kashmir was bifurcated and its special status revoked. For the delirious fans, between seven to 70 years, it’s ninety minutes of pure joy when the adrenaline rush is triggered by goalmouth skirmishes, not bullets or grenades. It did not matter that Real Kashmir lost by two goals to the 100-year-old sporting behemoth.