City Hangout – Carom Clubs, Around Town
Players of the underbelly.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
In the famous Premchand short story, Shatranj ke Khiladi, the chess players continued playing chess and lost the city of Lucknow to the Brits. Something similar is the story in ever-changing Delhi. Pizza parlours are gradually invading the kebab lanes of Matia Mahal, the free flowing Daryaganj’s Sunday Book Bazar stands squeezed into Mahila Haat, the TikTok dudes are dumping Lodhi Gardens for Sunder Nursery, but Delhi’s carefree men keep chasing… err, striking the red queen — of the carom board.
Back streets, sunless alleys, and basements are the only way to reach the magical world of the city’s carom clubs, which, for some mysterious reasons, are to found in super-congested localities such as Farash Khana, Jaffrabad, Ballimaran, Julaina, Chirac Dehli, Lal Kuan, Seelampur, Okhla and Nizamuddin Basti and Majnu ka Tila, the Tibetan refugee camp near Kashmere Gate. Though sometimes, as an exception, you also see young boys playing carom in the plaza outside Palika Bazar in Connaught Place.
One possible reason for the existence of carom clubs in these cramped localities could be that there is hardly any space to play cricket or football. And they are tough to spot—with 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 almost 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 players—who are always 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 students. Some are unemployed men with hours to kill. For you, carom might be a good excuse to hang out with these people and get a direct peek into the inner rhythms of Delhi’s underbelly. Best time for exploration is late afternoon or late at night. Some other places to look for carrom halls are in Old Delhi’s Chawari Bazar and Pahari Bhojla, as well as Rangpuri village in south Delhi’s Mahiialpur. And, who knows, may be in your own neighbourhood too.
All the queen’s men