SPORT AND CULTURE are two distinct phenomena. Pole vaulting, in India, is a sport. Cricket is a culture. Striker, a film about an expert carrom player who hustles his way through the carrom clubs in Mumbai’s Malvani suburb, has raised hopes among the All India Carrom Federation, state associations and departmental sports boards alike. Perhaps now, they hope, the government will allocate more grants to this sport which is most likely to be of Indian origin (though this hasn’t been proven), and in which Indians have held world championship titles for years. Perhaps more carrom players will win the Arjuna Award, the most prestigious sports honour in India, which only one carrom player has won so far. This, despite Striker’s writer-director Chandan Arora and lead actor Siddharth repeating time and again: “Striker is not a sports film.” Which stands to reason. Carrom in India is not a sport. It is a culture and will never be about the grants and the awards.
Carrom never interested the upper classes much. The middle classes, who once played it, have mostly climbed on to more affluent pursuits such as the PlayStations. So the culture of carrom has sunk and spread, deeper and wider, among the lower-middle and lower classes. Young and old flock to carrom clubs, to pay Rs 3 to Rs 5 per game, rather than pay Rs 3,000 for a carrom board set. This demand, coupled with the fact that a carrom club requires very little space, has made establishing such clubs lucrative for small businessmen. Clubs flourish in the slums.
There are other reasons, besides thrift and accessibility, for carrom’s popularity. Carrom takes little time and has more action than chess. The white and black pieces, and the red queen of carrom, do not flit around the board without strategy. So it makes interesting play and watching. Also, it can take up to four — and in the case of special hexagonal carrom boards, up to six — players per game, which makes it inclusive. But there are not so obvious reasons which vary from town to town.
In Malvani, for instance, where Striker is set, betting is big. “Each person bets an average of Rs 10 on each game he plays,” says Zaid Tupe. “And one rupee out of this goes to the club.” Tupe, enlisted as ‘carrom consultant’ for Striker, owns a carrom club in Malvani. He talks of the times when he and his ‘guru’, former national champion Suryakant Bhairalu, would hustle clubs outside Malvani: “I would pretend to be the expert, and Bhairalu the novice.” And just as every bet was placed on Tupe and other players, Bhairalu would “smile, take the larfain and the rani, clear the board, and walk away with the rokari”. Larfain is the ‘line that leads you to money’. Rani, the red carrom piece is the queen. Rokari is the money. Tupe and Bhairalu’s slang and mannerisms have been used amply in Striker. The film’s protagonists even bear their names: Zaid and Surya.
In Kolkata, if chess is the couture of the Bhadralok, carrom is the culture of the cadre
In mainland Mumbai carrom clubs are currently being used by the Nationalist Congress Party and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena to promulgate their respective politics. More game ghettos are located in and around Mohammed Ali Road. Here carrom clubs over half a century old fend off rival video game parlours with ease. This, despite the police crackdowns they have faced in the past because of their alleged connection to the underworld. Mumbai Police, during their battle with the dreaded D Company in the 1990s, had accused some clubs of being owned by local dons, and of being used to recruit criminals. Ahmed Shaikh, who owns a club off Mohammed Ali Road rubbishes these accusations: “Underworld shooters would use witnesses from the clubs as alibi, to say they were playing carrom at the time of the killing. These shooters have sullied our name.” They mingled carrom with crime.
In Kolkata, where chess is the couture of the bhadralok, carrom is the culture of the cadre. Every bylane has a carrom club, each owned by a political party — with either the CPI(M)’s hammer and sickle or the Trinamool Congress’ twin flowers painted on the outer walls. Gautom Chatterjee, who lives right next to a North Kolkata club, says, “The politicians use it to draw the unemployed into their party, and then keep them on call all day — at the carrom boards.” Here who will play is decided not according to willingness to pay, but according to seniority in the party. When a different party comes to power in the area, youngsters change the carrom club they play at. A show of might is done by demolishing the opposition’s carrom boards.
Chennai’s slums hold out carrom as one would a carrot — as an aspirant’s adventure. Players find inspiration in legends like Maria Irudhayam, from a slum in Periamet, who has been world champion twice and national champion nine times, and who is the only carrom player to have won the Arjuna Award. Irudhayam says, “Small portions of houses are let out for carrom players. It’s in these ‘boardrooms’ that champions are made.”These ‘boardrooms’ lend their boards to female participants every once in a while — to stunning effect. Many a girl from Chennai’s slumland has risen to strike home Chennai’s superiority but none like I Izhavazhagi — the daughter of a fish vendor who won the 5th World Carrom Championship and received Rs 10 lakh as award from Chief Minister M Karunanidhi.
In Delhi, old carrom clubs abound in Nizamuddin, Okhla, Seelampur and in old Delhi, near Jama Masjid. “It is played avidly in every historical city, be it Lucknow or Varanasi, by ordinary citizens who have lived there for generations. The old carrom clubs of Delhi are concentrated in areas with a sizeable Muslim population,” says SK Sharma, general secretary of the All India Carrom Federation and carrom historian.
The metros throw up only some of the carrom subcultures. There are besides these, the carrom players of the North East who play as they keep vigil with the dead at funerals, those of Punjab (where the game is called fatta), the players of Kashmir, of Kerala, and many more. Unlike Munshi Premchand’s chess players, they are not noblemen. Their stories have not been told by a Satyajit Ray. They are a people without a king.