‘I’d braced for rainy days, but this is a storm that gave no warning’

Vijayakumar Runs Ashwini Mess, A Tiny Eatery Planted On One Of The Corners Through The Maze That Is Markham Road. The Last Five Months Haven’t Been Kind On The Man And His Book Of Accounts, But The Fifty-Six-Year-Old Says He Draws Inspiration From All The Times He’s Seen The Blues Stage A Revival At The Fortress…

If you worked your memory really hard, chances are you will recognise Vijaykumar from one of these three places – the East Upper stand at the Kanteerava, tailoring ‘Hogappa Innond Togondba’ for our season campaign in 2017, and most recently alongside Blues’ skipper Sunil Chhetri for the launch of the 2020-21 Back On Our Feet campaign.

While his relationship with the Blues and the club staff stretches all the way back to 2013 when the club was announced a stone’s throw away from his little shop, Vijayakumar says the last few years have strengthened what was an already solid bond.

Pulling the shutters of his shop down after another slow day of businesses, Vijaykumar doesn’t wait for the locks to come on when he begins speaking with us. “I’m 56 now, and in my time I’ve watched ITI, HAL, KGF and many of the big clubs that have come and gone. I’ve been watching football all my life, but never once did I believe I’d get so close to a club or its staff and players,” he says.

His eatery – Ashwini Mess – has been running for 15 years and is his only source of income. To Vijayakumar, it was a dream come true, and a sense of pride to begin a business for himself, however small it was in the beginning.

“I’ve done all kinds of jobs, just to make ends meet. I worked at a Delhi-based cable company in Bengaluru first, then I worked cash-and-carry for the Metro when they started in the early 2000s, but I always believed that setting up my own business would be the day I could say I’ve accomplished something. I realized that dream just as I turned forty,” Vijayakumar recalls.

Set up in early 2005, Ashwini Mess began as a stall that served food on the streets. Saving up enough money to find himself a spot on Markham Road, Vijayakumar vividly remembers how happy he was the day it came through.

“We had been selling food on the streets for quite some time before I decided we needed to serve out of a solid structure. It was a long-drawn plan, we saved up a little every month and then put this place together. The people we met, the relationships we built, it saw a lot of regulars show up every day. If you think my shop is small, that only makes me happy, because it was so much smaller back in the day.”

But in all his time of running the show with its fair share of hurdles, Vijayakumar says he had never imagined that something as serious as a pandemic would come along to turn things upside down. He says these days have reminded him of a match he watched at the BFS many years ago.

“It was ITI and East Bengal, one of Indian football’s big rivalries at that point. It went on for three days! I cannot remember which year it was, but I can tell you it was in the 80s. There was crowd trouble on the first day, and the game was called off. The police intervened on the second day and it was called off once again. I went back for the third day too, and Mahendra Prasad scored the winner on the final day.”

It is a strange comparison, but for someone who watched his first game of football almost half a century ago, it is one that fits the bill perfectly.

“The last five months of my life have been like the first two days of that game. I wake up every morning, I go back to the shop, but it’s the same story. I’m doing everything I can, but nothing seems to change. I’ve always known there will be rainy days, and I’ve braced for those too. But this is a storm that gave no warning.”

The times have been tough, but finishing up with the interview, Vijayakumar says he draws inspiration from the Blues and some of their tougher moments.

“If you ask around, you’ll find that many people go back to remember the big wins and the trophy lifts. But my favourite moments are the ones that have seen BFC pushed back; by a goal, by a bad decision, by a result. It’s in those moments that the team, the fans and the club shows character. That’s the thing about Bengaluru FC that inspires me the most, and that’s what we need more than anything in these times; character.”