The transformation is quick. Seconds before Ghatkopar railway station approaches, the space between the two rows of seats in a compartment of the 10.04 am CST slow local was a regular cramped space. But as office-goers rush in at Ghatkopar, the little space, not even a couple of feet wide, has suddenly turned into a card playing area. All it required was a black briefcase, a very large rubberband, a deck of cards and, of course, the players. By the time Vidyavihar station approaches, the first round is already underway.
Of the several sub-cultures, mostly legal and some winking at the law, that have come to mark Mumbai’s suburban railway network over the
years, the card-players are an important one.
Dominated by Gujarati and Marwari traders though not limited to any community, the card-playing on local trains has attracted the interest of several others, some who see it as an entertaining way to kill time, and a few maybe to make a quick buck.
Today, as four regular players board at Ghakopar, they join two others who are already seated. Two find seats while the other two will remain standing as they all play a hand.
The game is usually teen patti, though a few rounds of rummy are known to take the edge off when things get sharply competitive. The black briefcase is quickly placed on the knees of a seated player, a rubberband and the deck of cards removed from the briefcase. The thick band is pulled across the case, until rests in the middle of what is now the playing board. One man starts to deal. That done, the rest of the deck is stuck under the rubber band, to prevent them from sliding off in the moving train.
After the first round, one of the six men is not interested any more, having lost a bit. “Himmat Bhai, em na thai.” (That is not done Himmat Bhai) say two others. The cards are shuffled, dealt again, and everyone picks up their cards, including Himmat bhai. This continues until most of them alight at Masjid Bunder.
The Railways do not take too kindly to these games, so the players are unwilling to be photographed or give their names. In fact, the Railway Protection Force (RPF) has charged card players on board local trains several times under Section 145 of the RPF Act that deals with creating nuisance on trains. If money is involved, the players could also be booked for gambling.
While RPF men have said there are complaints against the card clubs on board local trains, the players disagree.
“There are three kinds of players,” one explains. “One group will play cards just to kill time and obviously do not maintain any records. These are mostly those going short distances.”
A second kind will maintain records after each game with one person assigned the task of adding a plus or minus sign against each participant’s name. The record will normally be a small chit of paper with tiny lettering. Normally, these are played when distances are long, including on the Mumbai-Pune trains. “Here the amount involved is not too much. It is as little as 50 paise or 1 rupee and the winner by the end of the journey may win something like Rs 30-Rs 50. The money factor is introduced just to add to the fun element.”
It’s the third group that the railways really take objection to, those that see card-playing on trains as a money-making exercise, exchanging money after every round — no records, just cash. “Normally by the end of the trip, a person may win up to Rs 500-Rs 700 on a good day,” the player explains.
Ask them about card playing being illegal on trains and players say most officials actually have some understanding with players who do not create a commotion or any other nuisance.
“A few days back a special squad raided one such group,” one regular says.
“Those playing told the policemen they leave their houses early in the mornings and slog all day. This is the only form of entertainment on weekdays.’’The officers simply asked them to throw away the deck and stop playing in front of policemen.