The other day, a bunch of friends were talking about how most sports in India seem to be increasingly only for people like us. Cricket, tennis or football — the people who populate our slums and villages rarely get the chance to play them. Was there a sport, we wondered, that exemplified people like them? Then someone suggested carrom, the game that, according to some estimates, over 20 million people in India play. Played in the seedy parlours of Mumbai slums as well as on rickety tables under neem trees in UP’s boondocks — carrom is the quintessential common man’s game. As the discussion moved to other things, my mind drifted off to Ashok, the carrom freak I’d met a few years ago.
He was an assistant to an accountant who’d shuffle off to his dirty old office in Bikaji Cama Place, dissatisfaction written all over his face. His father was a watchman who’d spent every penny he earned to educate him. And now that Ashok had a job, he believed it was payback time. Then one day, Ashok saw us playing carrom in our balcony. We started chatting and soon, he was telling me the story of his life and love — carrom.
Ashok had graduated from Mumbai University. “As a student, I shared a cheap room with two friends in Malad. Soon after we got our bearings, we discovered a carrom parlour nearby,” he recounted. One of the shadowy 200 clubs scattered in Mumbai’s poorer neighbourhoods, the club catered to those who didn’t have access to other, high-tech and expensive forms of entertainment. “It was just a room on the first floor of a slum dwelling, but it changed our lives,” he said.
As out-of-towners, the boys were initially charged Rs 5 a game. In turn, they were guaranteed a stream of fairly good players and a motley audience comprising slum kids, school boys and regular players. “It was exhilarating,” he said, “we’d play with immense concentration while people heartlessly dissected our every move!” As Ashok developed into one of the best players in the parlour, he realised how beautiful the game was. “I learnt more about geometry playing carrom than I did in school. I realised that you needed dead calm nerves and deep concentration to win…” he said. Everyday, his friends and he’d eagerly climb the metal ladder to the sweltering top floor. Oblivious to the humid heat radiating off its thin walls, they’d put down their money and start playing. “We forgot about studies, we forgot we were poor, we forgot about the sweat that poured off our backs — all we cared about was the game,” he said. It was, he said, as thrilling as a well-contested game of cricket.
Ashok’s carrom idyll ended abruptly when his father got wind of it. As soon as he completed college, he was forced to return to Delhi and find a paying job. “I would have loved to play carrom professionally — I was the undisputed champion of my parlour after all!” he rued. “It’s sad that a game so passionately played by so many Indians isn’t recognised by the government. No wonder my father thought it was just a hobby, a waste of time for people like us…”
Months after our conversation, Ashok ran away, never to be seen again. Nobody knew where he went. But I’m betting that wherever he is, he isn’t far from a carrom board, with feverish eyes on him waiting for him to make his move.