Huddled over a fading carrom board, under the glow of a yellow bulb, 18-year-old Ajay Chauhan creases his forehead and takes aim at a circular black piece which smoothly slides into the opposite net. He strikes again, twice, and pockets three black pieces. Next to him, young Lakhan Chauhan (10) observes his every move. Once he learns, he says, he will also start playing.
In the tapered lanes of Ambedkar Nagar slums, in South Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade, the lack of space to play cricket and football — the popular sport in this area among boys — has meant that an indoor game is what has attracted both children and adults. In 100 square feet rooms, which are easy to find at every turn, people pay Rs 10 an hour to play carrom.
By night, the men in the slums take over the board and play while chatting, with cups of tea being served regularly. “It is a stress reliever after a hard day’s work,” says Rajesh Shengde (48), who started a carrom playing room a quarter of century ago with two boards. “Earlier, I had a grocery shop. Then I met a national-level carrom champion and he inspired me. I realised that kids needed to learn some sport, and that there must be facilities for it,” he says.
Shengde opens the white plastic door of a room painted green at 10.30 am every morning to a waiting crowd of young boys who have just returned from school. Lakhan, who started dropping by a fortnight ago, cannot afford to spend money without learning the game. So Shengde allows him to sit and observe. Every day at 3.30 pm, Lakhan quietly comes and takes a chair. Ajay also comes around the same time.
“I lost my job in Regal cinema. So, now I come three or four times a day to relax until I find another job,” he says.
Mothers are happy to shell out the money, finding this a constructive pastime even if children play for hours.
A few blocks away, Shyam Gaikwad (50) has a similar enclosure. Every day, 100 children turn up at his garage-turned-carrom room. A carrom player himself since 1975, he trains children to participate in tournaments. “They come at a young age, excited to play something. But this can also be cultivated into something bigger,” he says.
Shankar Chauhan has been coming here to play carrom since he was 10. His childhood fascination soon turned into passion. “I am hoping to play it professionally,” he says. He has participated in three tournaments already. As a bunch of boys play carrom, he is quick to provide suggestions: “Nazar udhar, hath aise, ye angle se maar (Aim there, position your hands like this, strike with this angle).”
Shankar came third in the Mumbai District Tournament two months ago. His success has encouraged several local boys to take to carrom, if only for fun. “Schools focus only on education. We need a balance. So many boys can do well in sports, but they do not get a chance,” trainer Gaikwad says.
A single game lasts for 13 to 15 minutes, and then another group of boys in queue take over to play. During summers, the day rush is more. “There is no space to even stand. Everyone cheers and plays,” says 16-year-old Tejas Chauhan, a ninth class student of Colaba Municipal Higher Secondary School.
He started spending the entire day after school to learn carrom. Now, he “plays well”, and everyone pats him on his back. In these tiny lanes, they dream big. “I love football and cricket, but I want to become a carrom player,” Tejas says with a smile.