Gulzar and Janta carom clubs in Dongri are among the oldest and still the busiest in the city
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Mohammad Imtiyaz eyes the red puck alias ‘rani’, aims, and then changes his mind to go for a white puck instead. He’s playing defensive. His opponent Mohammad Hanif has only two pieces left and clearing the ‘rani’ would ease his route to victory. Now Hanif will have to clear the ‘rani’ and another black puck in continuation to win. Imtiyaz and Hanif are both furniture dealers, both in their 40s, and friends. They’ve been meeting since their youth to play carom in the evenings, and the routine continues.
They’re playing at Gulzar Carom Club, Dongri’s second oldest, and still running a full house. Also full is Janta Carom Club, Dongri’s oldest. Begun in 1963, it earlier had six pocket carom boards with six players. “That has changed since,” says Mohammad Arif, who runs Janta Carom Club. “Just as carom boards earlier made of sheesham wood are now made of ply.” And just as carom clubs which were once seen at most Bombay street corners, are now replaced by pool and video game parlours. Dongri’s seven clubs is one of the last ‘pockets’ for the game being played as a community ‘time pass’ in the city. Shabbir Hussain, who with his father manages Gulzar Carom Club boasts: “Dongri is today synonymous with carom as Mumbai is with the Gateway Of India.”
Two dusty trophies bear witness to the great tournament winners who inhabited Janta once. They’re now dead. Shahwaas, a Maharashtra tournament winner, still inhabits Gulzar on some evenings. “When he does, the room is packed with people fighting to watch the game,” says Shabir. Such events serve as a hot spot for discussing and exchanging strategies and technique. While carom’s mechanics share a similarity with pool, many experts argue that the actual game is tougher, since here fingers are used instead of a linear cue, necessitating a greater degree of control. Also, pool and video games at approximately Rs 30 for half an hour, costs about ten times as much as carom where rates are stuck at Rs 3 in some clubs.
Yet, the reason for carom flourishing in this locality is simple. It’s an impoverished neighbourhood. The clubs operate in bustling Dharavi as well. The wealthier localities have given up on the game. Why? Carom club owners point out a reflection of a similar attitude in the way other indigenous Indian sports like mud wrestling, kabaddi and gulli danda are dying out. But the reflection goes beyond. The same attitude persists in today’s teenager being clueless about the closest Khadi Bhandaar while knowing about the Levi’s sale two months ahead. It persists in Narendra Modi, our symbol of ‘swadeshi pride’ smiling smugly not so long ago in his Bulgari glasses. Just as many of us take pride in the fact that Lakshmi Mittal lives next to the queen, and that we finally have our Mango showroom.
A nation’s sports are suggestive of its self esteem. Which is why baseball and ‘American’ football is backed by the world’s unipolar power. And why the UK, having spawned football, hockey and cricket, can get excited for either at will. Our aversion to sports we have created and our corresponding desire to compete in those others have, is no different from our craze for the latest DKNY or Louis Vuitton. Will we have to be impoverished to retain our right of identity? Perhaps not, for even in Dongri, this attitude seeps in. Next to Gulzar Carom Club, where Imtiyaz and Hanif play, has sprung up a videogame centre without a name! Ten year olds, not to be seen at the carom centres abound here. One shouts: “Arre uska chor. Mera picture le. Apun cool hai.”
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/xf6i