The Stakes Are Getting Higher and Deadlier

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As Diwali approaches, the nouveau riche of Ludhiana stake their properties and imported cars in the traditional game of teen patti, says Sai Manish

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri
Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

HALF PAST 10 on a nippy Saturday night more than a week before Diwali. Outside a farmhouse on Ferozepur Road in Ludhiana’s avant-garde South City, a line of SUVs stand parked as if they have been idling there forever. “Bigger the stakes, bigger the engines. Everything very big inside,” says organiser Gursimran Bajwa as he points towards five blondes chatting and guzzling beer on the lawns.

Inside the farmhouse, a group of six men, some of them accompanied by their wives, are engrossed in a card game of teen patti (flush), whose popularity in the festive season is matched only by bottles of single malt that lie cluttered on a table beside, where the men go on with their game.

The game that began on Friday has already completed a 24-hour cycle and looked like it would run its course till the Sunday sun is out. “Around 50 people came. Most left after a night. Those two haven’t even got up from the table,” says Bajwa, pointing towards two players.

Winners and losers have one thing in common — all have bloodshot eyes and come with their wives in tow. “Lucky charms,” reveals Bajwa. “I have seen people ask their wives to play. One woman, whose grandfather has built many properties with his betting money, is the envy of many. She has a gut feeling about the opponent’s hand. It’s a rare talent. At no party does her husband come without her and I have never seen them lose.”

With an entry fee of Rs 3,000 and Rs 2 lakh as the show money, the stakes in this teen patti over its extended course would have easily run into crores. No heavy cash is on display even though settlements are made through counters and everybody knows who owes what to whom.

In this game, the losers do look like they could bear the brunt of the heavy losses and make a comeback again in a couple of days — all debts settled and ready to start afresh. The winners get their wives along again, while the losers might be tempted to choose from the bevy of blondes for a change of luck. A select few carry on as lone rangers at the gambling table.

In Ludhiana, which has seen a massive swing in fortunes over the past 40 years, the teen patti phenomenon is now threatening to snowball into a raging obsession consuming those who take a chance too many or a risk too great on a whisky-fuelled night of egomaniacal betting frenzy.

Although the farmhouses and marriage palaces are mostly the preserve of industrialists and politicians, the emergence of upper middle-class entrepreneurs has also raised the bar in the high-stakes game.

The case of the Kumars, an upper middle- class couple who committed suicide, has brought to light the perils of the card game whose popularity has now transcended purposes of entertainment and now borders on self-destructive addiction. Like in the case of the Kumars, the police have blamed financial crunch as the reason for the suicides of regular gamblers. Even family members are reluctant to tell the police about the reasons for the ‘financial crunch’, fearing the stigma attached to deaths driven by severe losses incurred during ‘auspicious’ sessions of teen patti.

Organisers boast that lower-level cops come in handy as collection agents in case a gambler cannot pay

MANY DEATHS in the city and adjoining areas have also gone unnoticed. Moreover, there is a conspiracy of silence between organisers and lower-level police officials who seldom bother to investigate gambling as the underlying reason for crimes and suicides in the city.

While families often pay off lower-level police officials to not probe further, big organisers who get together the well-heeled of the city for teen patti nights often bribe local station house officers and inspectors, instructing them not to patrol near the venue.

Many organisers also boast that in the event of non-payment, lower-level policemen often double up as collection agents — either threatening or recovering money by force from those who have lost beyond their means to repay.

This deliberate under-reporting of cases of crimes abetted through the police-gambler nexus was brought to light by a report by the Punjab Human Rights Organisation (PHRO). When the police raided a gambling party at a private resort near Amritsar with many prominent businessmen such as Lalit Nagpal, Mohit Khanna and Kanwar Kohli (son of PM Manmohan Singh’s brother Daljit Singh Kohli) in attendance, they rounded up 223 people but registered cases only against 44, letting off all the big fish.

The party was one of the biggest extravanganzas in the week preceding Diwali with a ‘show’ amount of Rs 3 lakh and an entry fee of Rs 4,500. This teen patti event, like the big-stakes games elsewhere, had four Russian dancers in attendance along with 10 other girls hired from New Delhi to keep the night going.

The investigator discovered that the FIR registered was fake as it was based on the statement of an assistant sub-inspector who was at her home at the time of the raid, as revealed by her cellphone tower location. In fact, so reluctant was the police to raid the place that none of the officers who conducted the raid belonged to the jurisdiction in which the resort fell. Even the raiding party let the Russian dancers head back to Delhi without checking their antecedents or questioning them about who got them here in the first place.

Similarly, the reason for the murder of businessman Ashok Verma was twisted by the police, whereby they lodged an FIR saying that he had been murdered by his servant after a Rs 50 lakh deal between them went sour.

As Diwali approaches, the stakes just keep getting higher with the phenomenon reaching a crescendo a few days before the festival. The spike in betting is attributed to the real estate boom that has propelled a new league of nouveau riche with enough spare moolah to indulge in gambling binges. While most of the gamblers keep a tab on their bets, many go overboard and feel the pinch later.

“We come to the party with a fixed amount and later bet with the winnings. But there are people who never stop. One of my family friends gets up from the game only if there is some urgent business,” says Shweta Malhotra. “Teen patti is a great way to bond with friends and relatives. But these days, players are like drug addicts. And when something unfortunate happens, nobody wants to talk about the issue because it is not just the gambler but his entire family whose reputation is at stake.”

Thanks to the recent real estate boom in Ludhiana, many realtors are known to bet big on their properties. Some play properties and imported cars when they want to add to the excitement of playing with hard cash and counters. Putting wives at stake, a la the Mahabharata, seems to be passe but Ludhiana’s betting ways are slowly turning into a major law and order problem with the newly rich and the aspiring class jumping in to bet with resources beyond their means.

And don’t forget that this is the city where kids enjoy the highest per capita of pocket money in the country.

Some names have been changed to protect their identities.

Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
sai.manish@tehelka.com

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