When India meet Pakistan in their World Cup preliminary match on Saturday, there will be more at stake than just four points or a spot in the Super Six: the hopes, honor and pride, real and perceived, of fans on either side of the border will be on the line.
And when the twenty-two players start sparring in Centurion, the match will be vicariously played in the minds of millions of people, where cricketing loyalties can often challenge, head on, people's patriotic beliefs.
Thanks to pumped-up nationalism, India's 140 million Muslims have had the mortification of being accused of showing greater loyalty to the "Men in Green" each time subcontinent's arch rivals have met on the field.
Whole careers have been built on rumors that fireworks went off in minority-dominated areas at the news of a Pakistani victory; whole constituencies have been won and lost on rumors that the Pakistani flag was hoisted when the Indian defeat was complete.
It's been three years since the neighbors met on the same piece of turf. Will it be different this time? Or will the rivalry on the field be used as a handy tool to berate those on the streets if things go wrong?
"There are some foolish people who might burst crackers or hoist a flag. But I assure you that nothing would make most of India's Muslims happier than a convincing win against Pakistan," says Iqbal Hussain, owner of a videography shop in Bangalore. "We chose to stay in India after Partition. Isn't that proof enough of our patriotism? Why do we need to be questioned again and again?"
But those swept off their feet by the Hindutva tsunami, like K.P. Putharaya, president of the all-India Brahmin Federation, are unwilling to buy that: "Muslims might stay here but their loyalties lie in another country, you know which."
A few yards down from Iqbal Hussain's shop, tucked away behind layers of concrete and dust, is Shah Valle Ullah Madrassa, a refuge to poor Muslim children from Karnataka and beyond. Like in most madrassas, television, films and cricket is a taboo for students overly busy in learning the Koran by rote.
Mohammed Nasser (name changed) is a wiry but timid 13-year-old student at the seminary. He speaks in faint whispers and you have to almost stick your ear into his mouth to make out what he has to say. "Inshallah, Pakistan hi jeetega is baar," he says.
Asked if he could name any of his favorite Pakistani cricketers, he seems clueless and turns to his friend for help. "Shoaib Akhtar," replies his pal. "Ji haan, Shoaib Akhtar behtareen hain," echoed Nasser.
Seated across him is 22-year-old Mohammed Tahir (name changed), who joined the madrassa three years ago, midway into his twelfth standard.
"Earlier, I always supported Pakistan. Now I don't watch television. Who wins doesn't matter to me any more," he says. Tahir reasons that supporting Pakistan is like courting a girl. "You will always love your parents more. And India is my motherland," he says. "After all it's a game and the best team should win."
He and his friends would often in the past get together after a Pakistani victory and celebrate with soft drinks. "Supporting Pakistan in a cricket match is not being anti-national," he insists. However, Tahir dismisses as a canard the notion that fans like him hoist the Pakistani flag or burst firecrackers: "Exploding crackers is not permitted in Islam."
Outside, people are gradually pouring out of a mosque after their midday prayers. "Most Muslims are busy earning their livelihood, they don't have time for issues such as nationalism. Moreover, most of the students in madrassas haven't been to regular schools and are ignorant. They should not be considered representative of the entire Muslim community," says Sameer Khan, a furniture dealer.
Often, Indian Muslims have found themselves unfairly slotted with 'fundamentalists' merely for backing the team they like.
"There are verses in the Koran that lay emphasis on protecting the rights of your immediate neighbors, Hindus in our case. If an Indian Muslim supports Pakistan just because it is an Islamic nation, he or she is not faithful to the Koran," says Shakir Ahmed, the president of the Center for Islamic Studies in Cooke Town, Bangalore.
"But if someone backs Pakistan impartially and in the true spirit of the game, we must not condemn him as a fundamentalist. After all, cricket is a game," he adds, debunking the British Conservative Party leader Norman Tebbit's infamous method of using a person's team affiliation in cricket as a yardstick to test his or her national loyalty.
"Cricket and politics should not mix," maintains Ahmed.
Often, such controversial actions are triggered by ignorance and illiteracy amongst Muslims. The Karnataka State Minorities Commission, in a recent survey, found that the socio-economic status of the state's Muslims was far worse than those of the scheduled tribes and scheduled castes. Only one in three Muslim children between the age of six and eight attends school.
"It is very unfortunate and sad that we too are daubed as fundamentalists and anti-nationals because of this. Instead, we should try and find the reasons for such actions and try and set them right," observes Ahmed.
Media and sponsor hype about the India-Pak clashes only exacerbates the situation. "No one makes such a ruckus about Indian Muslims supporting Pakistan in other sports. We should not fall into the trap of commercialization," said Kevin Fernandes, a prosthetist, who believes that anybody should be free to support any team without his/her national loyalty being questioned.
Madrase-e-Fazeelath-ul-Quran, a coeducational madrassa in Bangalore's Hidayath Nagar, has been doing its bit to erase the existing stereotype. It holds functions on Republic Day and Independence Day, and during the Kargil conflict, the children even collected funds for the Indian soldiers besides marching on M G Road.
"It hurts tremendously to see the way Muslims are perceived today, even worse than second class citizens," said Imran Khan, a teacher there. "Even Muslims fought for India's independence. We are Indians, we too deserve a decent life and we always wish the very best for this country. We have no reason to support Pakistan. It doesn't feed or nurture us," he adds.
The students were busy reciting verses from the Koran, vigorously rocking themselves back and forth.
It sounded like a drone of bees romancing multihued flowers. But, unlike Shah Valle Ullah, all students here believed that India will crush Pakistan on Saturday. "Umeed hai Hindustan hi jeetega. Sachin ki batting lajawaab hai aur woh Shoaib Akhtar ko moohtodh jawab denge," said Mohammed Tufail, from Gudda district in Jharkhand.
While 13-year-old Mohammed Nasser at the Tanner Road madrassa won't be watching the match, the students at this madrassa were busy planning for Saturday. Because they don't have access to television in the madrassa, most were planning to go back home on Friday. "If India wins, I will distribute sweets to all my friends. But the ultimate would be when India wins the World Cup," Tufail added hopefully.
Meanwhile, preparations were already well underway in Basappa Lane, off Tannery Road. Crackers had already been bought in this unobtrusive locality with a harmonious past, an eclectic mix of Muslims, Tamils, Christians and Marathis.
"There are Mohammedans who support Pakistan during a match, but it lasts only till the end of the game. After it's over, we are all friends," says Siddhu Khandare, a Maharashtrian. In Basappa Lane, people do burst firecrackers if Pakistan wins but Khandare maintained there had never been communal tension as a result.
People had gathered under the shadow of the nearby Sri Kaliamman Temple to speak about their love for cricket.
"Mein yahi chahoongi ki Pakistan jeete kyonki woh sare Musalmaan hain," wished Zarina Taj, surrounded by her Hindu friends.
"She supports Pakistan just because of the Islamic connection. If I were in Pakistan, I would have pitched in for that country. These people must realize that," butted in Khandare without any malice.
It was more than evident that the residents of Basappa Lane have a ball every time India plays Pakistan. "Betting is great fun," says Khandare. For this poor locality, it can be an expensive affair. Stakes can go as high as Rs 10,000, a two-month income for an average household. "Yeh log pagal hain, apne auto aur cycle bhi daon pe laga dete hain," remarked Shaheen Taj, an avid India supporter.
But back at the Center for Islamic Studies, Shakir Ahmed expects something else out of an India-Pakistan match. If India wins the match, which I hope is the case, they should use it to foster better ties with Pakistan. The idea of any game is to initiate friendship and a bond of trust between the two rivals. If any game results in more hatred and malice, there is no point in playing such a game," he noted.
(NB: Some names have been changed to protect identity)