Your entry into the cityâ€™s underbelly.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
In the famous short story, Shatranj ke Khiladi, by Hindi writer Premchand, the chess players continued playing chess and lost the city of Lucknow to the British. Something similar is the story in Delhi. Cricketers have invaded the Ram Lila Maidan, Chandni Chowk has banished rickshaws, McDonald’s has reached Lal Qila, but Delhiâ€™s carefree boys keep chasingâ€¦ err, striking the red queen â€” of the carom board.
Back streets, sunless alleys, and basements are the only way to reach the magical world of Delhi’s carom clubs, which, for some mysterious reasons, are to found in the cityâ€™s Muslim localities such as Farash Khana, Ballimaran, Lal Kuan, Matia Mahal, Seelampur, Okhla and Nizamuddin Basti. (Majnu ka Tila, the Tibetan refugee camp near Kashmere Gate is an exception. Sometimes you also see launda-boys playing carom in the parks of Connaught Place.)
One possible reason for the existence of carom clubs in these congested localities could be that there is hardly any space to play cricket or football. And they have such hole-in-the-wall entrances that you won’t know when you have walked past one.
If you have a sharp eye and a willingness to stop the locals for the directions to the nearest club, you will soon find yourself in one. They always look like a cellar. The temperature is always a tad cooler than it is outside. A cloak-and-dagger mood lurks. Lamps hung low to cast orange glow on carom boards. A bit of light bounces back on to the playersâ€” they are almost always all men. Their eyes glow. The air smells of a mix of boric powder, used for smoothening the plywood boards, and mutton kebabs. White and black carom men slide left, right, up, down and across the plywood. Sometimes they fall into the corner pockets and players cry out ‘wah’, ‘kya maara’ (what a hit), and ‘bahut khoob’ (great going).
Most of these men may play like a pro but in real life they are usually embroiderers, shop assistants or madrassa students. Some are unemployed men with hours to kill. For you, carom is a good excuse to hang out with these people and get a direct peek into the life of Delhiâ€™s underbelly.
The park above Palika Bazaar Parking, Connaught Place
Ballimaran, Old Delhi
Strike the queen
Will he get the queen?
Bunking your school?
The queen is mine
Go on striking