“Are you sure I am the oldest member of this Asian Games contingent?” asks 79-year-old bridge player Rita Choksi. Being part of a 24-member team of card players that has an average age of about 60, of which four are 70-plus, Choksi’s question is justified. With the cerebral game set to make its Asiad debut in Jakarta next month, Choksi will be among the handful of athletes who will add a unique shade to India’s squad of close to 550.
Choksi has had a long association with the Asian Games. For years, she has been living at the National Capital’s upmarket Asiad Village complex, the one built for the 1982 Games and later sold commercially. Now she gets a chance to get a real Games experience and share space with athletes from several countries.
“It is not common for a 79-year-old to go to the Asian Games and have an opportunity to win a medal. I have been told that we will be staying at the Games Village along with other athletes. It will be great to be part of the Indian team at the village. But I hope I don’t look my age,” she chuckles. Actually, she doesn’t.
Regular exercise — morning walks, breathing exercises and yoga — and a healthy diet of fish, broccoli and salads, and a polite refusal to all eating-out dinner invites are reasons for Choksi’s active life and her almost five-decade long bridge career. “I don’t have any ailments which are associated with people of my age. I pop Ayurveda pills but that is a preventive measure,” she says, pointing to a bottle with the label ‘Mental Clarity’.
Her team mates, though, have much longer prescriptions from doctors. And this had got the team manager Maneesh Bahuguna worried. “Seven players take medication for mild blood pressure. So I reached out to the World Bridge Federation and the National Anti-Doping Agency just to be sure there was no ban on bridge players taking atenolol, a beta blocker commonly used to treat blood pressure. Atenolol is banned in golf and archery, but in bridge it is fine,” says the manager.
Choksi and other senior citizens on the Indonesia-bound squad, say they never imagined that the recreational game they pursued for years would one day become highly competitive and a medal sport.
Choksi’s association with bridge has been long and eventful. It has taken her to places and helped her meet interesting people — her second husband being one of them.
She can’t recall the exact date of her first nationals, but a well-preserved newspaper cutting that has her name suggests that she has been into serious bridge since 1970. “I used to play table tennis and badminton but got interested in bridge after seeing others play. I haven’t stopped since the 70s,” Choksi says.
There was a phase, in her early 20s, when she was tempted to change track. But parental opposition nudged her back to the deck of cards. “I had offers to join the movies, but my father put his foot down. He encouraged me to play bridge. He was proud of me,” Choksi says.
It was on the bridge table that she met her now departed second husband, Dr Haren Choksi. Both were married when they crossed paths but they seemed to be fated to be together. “He first saw me at a bridge tournament. We played together. It was love at first sight for Dr Choksi. Where else could he have met me, I have been playing bridge for donkey’s years,” she says.
After the death of her first husband, the two bridge players decided to be partners off the table too. Tragedy struck again, Dr Choksi died in the early 90s. It’s the period of life she isn’t too keen to talk about. With her two sons settled abroad, she now lives alone. But there is always bridge for company.
Choksi plays close to three hours every day. She has moved with the times and is very active on Bridge Base, an online community of players. “I just log-in via my smartphone and play. One has to stay updated with technology and the brain must be ticking. In bridge you can’t afford for the mind to get rusty,” she says.
For the last few days, she has been anxiously following the news. With the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) taking time to clear the bridge team, she was restless, there was also the suspense of the elections in Pakistan. Now, she is relieved: the team cleared and Imran Khan has won.
“I had met Imran at a club in London during a bridge tournament. He was very interested in the game and asked us a lot of questions,” Choksi says. “That is why I wanted him to win.”