As the sun sets behind the tired façades of a bustling old city,a different world magically comes alive a world of heady conversations and quiet unwinding where the young and old like to spend many a leisurely hour indulging in their favourite pastime of pursuing and pocketing the red queen. This is the covert world of Delhis carrom clubs ruled by the sheer spirit to play.
Carrom khelne ke lie sirf do cheezen ki zaroorat hai dil aur dilchaspi (One requires only two things to play carrom heart and interest), says Muhammad Abror,who has been running a carrom club in Old Delhis Lal Kuan area for 11 years now. Abrors club is frequented not just by people from across the city,but is also the haunt of national champions. Many such clubs exist in the city,but most happen to be located in Muslim localities like Jaffrabad,Seelampur,Lal Kuan and Jama Masjid.
Spotting these clubs,though,is not easy. Most are hole-in-the-wall set-ups,accessible only through narrow back streets and winding alleys,and shrouded behind ragged curtains or dusty gates. The feel of the clubs is almost identical.
Whether in Jaffrabad or Jama Masjid,most resemble a vault or warehouse. The air is always thick with the smell of boric powder (used to smoothen the board) and kebabs. Low-lying headlights illuminate the boards,and cast a dim glow on players faces,who sit perched upon stools. Coins dart across the board,as players strike.
A feeling of mystery prevails. Music plays in some places. Occasionally,people break into claps and cheers,signalling a magnificent stroke.
Though most men who play here are tailors,daily-wage workers or shop assistants,the clubs also attract a lot of professional players. Like Jameel Ahmed,Delhis first and only national carrom champion who plays at Seelampurs Nadeem club. I started out like everyone else,playing at home on a board,but soon found myself playing at clubs and then at the national level, he recalls. Since then,he has won over a hundred medals in the span of three decades. So what drew him to the game or still does at his age (he is 50)? A crazy fascination with the board I guess, he jokes.
Ahmed is not the only one infected with this fascination. Many young people in the area swear by the many joys of the game. Like Muhammad Sameer,a player from Jaffrabad,who recently won the North Zone carrom championship in Kashmir. Carroms addictive. I was walking past the club some five years ago,when I saw some people playing. I sat down to try my hand at it and have been playing ever since, he recalls.
The game seems to be popular among kids too. Akram (13),loves to play with older men and is famous around these quarters for beating them at their own game. I start my game after they are halfway through theirs,and still always win, he says with pride.
So how has the game evolved? The game was longer and could last for
3 hours. Now,with the new rules,you wrap up in an hours time, Ahmed says.
People may love to play carrom,but the game is clearly not what it used to be. Pehle logon ke paas fursat hoti thi (earlier,people had time for leisure). Now everyones in a rush. So,the number of people playing has reduced, says Khaleeq,who runs a carrom club in Jaffrabad.
The dwindling numbers can also be attributed to more choice for youngsters,who,no longer content with carrom,want to try their hands at other games such as pool.
For the kids,video-game machines are a big draw,offering a cheaper and more technicolour form of entertainment. Then,there is fear among families of children getting into wrong company at the clubs. We stopped sending him to the club,because he was picking up a lot of obscene words. A lot of betting also happens at these places. We want to keep him away from all that, says Farheen,Akrams sister.
But perhaps the biggest reason for the loss of popularity of the game is a pervasive feeling that the game offers no opportunity for growth. You work hard and play well,and then what? You sweat and toil and keep playing in these lanes,and thats all there is to it, says Shahnawaz,who has now switched to pool after playing carrom for years.