Shrikhandi, a village of 2300 people, is perched on a little hill. It is eight kilometers from Raibidpura if one takes the tar road. Otherwise there is a four kilometer mud road which the locals avoid after 6 pm especially between September and February when the cotton crop is being harvested.
I spent the first two weeks of November in Raibidpura when the (Bt) cotton picking was in full swing. On this trip the main agenda was to introduce MiniBridge (as an intermediate step before Bridge) to the people of Shrikhandi. Not a single person here knew Bridge, although they do play games like Dehela Pakkad, Begum Pakkad, Chapait, Rummy and Teen Patti. In fact I was repeatedly told in Raibidpura:
“They play cards a lot more in Shrikhandi than we do here. Go there anytime, even during the day and you’ll see people playing cards.”
“What about work?” – I asked the people in Raibidpura.
“Well, they also work … but they also love to play cards.”
Midday in Shrikhandi
On my second day at Raibidpura, I went to Shrikhandi at noon and saw a group of older men playing cards on a large cemented platform under a shady tree in the village square. On seeing me the group interrupted their playing, but I asked them to continue. The Bridge Kisan Club that was inaugurated at Raibidpura in July earlier in the year had created quite a buzz in the neighbouring villages and many in Shrikhandi had expressed a desire to learn Bridge. A month before coming here, I was in touch with a couple of people in Shrikhandi on the phone. Giriraj Shah and JagdishVerma had independently told me that the month of November was in the middle of cotton harvesting season, and so not a good time to start teaching MiniBridge when everyone would be very busy.
The village square
Playing cards in the village square
Giriraj Shah runs a flour mill while Jagdish Verma is a respected school teacher at the primary school in Shrikhandi. During our conversation, I reiterated what I had told both of them on the phone – that should Bridge pick up in the next four months; if at least twenty adults and twenty girls and boys get hooked and play the game regularly, then, like with the Bridge Kisan Club, it would be possible to seek financial support from the Bridge community in India and in the rest of the world and establish a similar club in Shrikhandi too.
The group of older men had meanwhile stopped playing cards to join in on our conversation. Everyone assured me that getting hooked on a card game would never be a problem in Shrikhandi – if only a good start could be made. They were well aware that unlike other card games whose basics can be learnt in minutes, Bridge is a long haul.
From my first visit to Shrikhandi in late March, when I was comparing the culture of Raibidpura with two of its neighbouring villages, it was clear that alcohol and gambling with cards is a big problem here. I had to be careful with my choice of words. Lots of men are hooked on alcohol and gambling in Shrikhandi. Giriraj Shah and Jagdish Verma took me to the house they had located which would serve as a space for my introductory classes and as well as a temporary club where MiniBridge could be played by the adults and children. We could have the house for six months, I was told, after which time the owner would move in. At the time, there was no floor, window frames, most of the door frames had no shutters and cement dust was everywhere. But more importantly, it had a neighbour who was willing to let his power backup illuminate the club, since the house had no electricity yet.
I assessed the minimum needed to get done and various tasks were assigned to the enthusiastic volunteers. Rectangular metal plates covered with newspaper and propped by bricks would serve as bridge tables. A large plastic sheet covered the yet-to-be-tiled rough floor. Someone climbed on the roof to string a piece of wire between the neighbour’s and this house so that there would be light in the club. Jagdish Verma arranged for an old blackboard which was lying about in his school. After three hours of hectic work amidst incredible amounts of swirling dust, the ragged space somewhat started to feel like a club. Well … at least the change was dramatic.
Outside the temporary club
Timings for the classes were decided – children from 5.30 till 7.30 pm, then a half hour break for me to eat dinner followed by the adults from 8 pm onwards, or till someone felt it was enough. I was told again not to expect a big crowd for the adult sessions since everyone in the village was busy in the fields picking cotton. If only I could have visited a couple of months later, they said.
“No problem,” I told them. “It’s only a start, and I’ll come back again.”
Getting the first group of girls and boys was easy. A month earlier, by phone, I had told the Raibidpura girls to start speaking with their Shrikhandi classmates about MiniBridge; about how they were having fun playing it and how mathematics, especially, had become much easier – what, in fact they had told me and what had clearly been reflected in their latest grades at school. (When I asked the Raibidpura girls for more details, they said a visible change was that they had stopped counting on their fingers for arithmetic; instead they were able to work out a lot of computations mentally.)
I had also asked the Raibidpura girls to make it clear to the Shrikhandi girls that, if they wished to learn MiniBridge, they should first seek their parents’ approval since, according to the local tradition, only men played cards.
Twelve girls from eighth, ninth and tenth grades wished to learn, but not all of them had asked their parents. I decided to take Jagdish Verma with me to visit a few parents. From my experience in Raibidpura, Government school teachers are much respected by the parents and should a teacher suggest that it is good for students to learn MiniBridge, then parents would generally agree – which is exactly what happened in Shrikhandi.
At 5.30 pm, I had my first class with twelve girls and twelve boys. Most of the girls and a couple of boys had never even touched cards before – so in the beginning it was a sight to see them feeling the cards and giggling at each other. I taught them the English names of the four suits, the hierarchy within a suit, and the four – North, South, East, West – directions. Using simple double dummy situations, I explained the concept of the trick, the concept of partnership, and that of discard, by which time I got a call from Giriraj Shah inviting me to his house for dinner.
Fourteen adults attended the next session and by 9.30 pm, I was getting quite tired and requested to be dropped back to Raibidpura.
It was decided that for the next five days – the length of the introductory MiniBridge workshop – the adults would take turns to pick me up from Raibidpura on their motorcycles and drop me back. Accordingly, I was picked up by Narendra Gupta the following day at 5 pm in time for the children’s class at 5.30. On the way, I asked Narendra about gambling and Rummy and Teen Patti (a cousin of Poker) in Shrikhandi, since I had heard so much about it in Raibidpura.
“Don’t people gamble with Bridge?” Narendra asked me in return.
“Sure they do. But unlike your Teen Patti, Bridge was essentially not developed for gambling.”
“What kind of stakes do people play for?” Narendra asked.
“Well, it depends”, I said. “In Raibidpura, for example, the only stake they sometimes used to play for is that the losers have to buy tea for the winners. But ever since the players relocated to the new club, this has stopped because there is no tea stall nearby. On the other hand there is always a chance of a Mahabharat–like situation happening in the Bridge world.”
Narendra took some time before he asked his next question.
“How can you be sure that Bridge doesn’t become the next card game in Shrikhandi to gamble with?”
I too took some time before replying:
“One can never be sure. The Raibidpura converts to MiniBridge told me that they have stopped playing their earlier card games like Begum Pakad and Rummy because they are just not interesting anymore. Perhaps the same will happen here. If the gamblers of Shrikhandi get addicted to the Bridge, it will be a while before they can actually gamble with it, simply because it takes time to learn the game. This time away from familiarity, this gap is perhaps what is vital to move the mind away from lure of gambling and reorient it in seeking stimulation in another direction – towards the intricacies of the game itself, which can be altogether fulfilling.”
It took about twenty minutes for Narendra and I to reach Shrikhandi on the motorcycle where the girls and boys had already assembled outside the club. They told me that a girl from ninth grade had dropped out but the reasons weren’t clear. So, along with a couple of girls, I went to her at home which was just a few houses away from the club. I asked the girl if her parents were around, but they were not. When I asked if either of her parents had objected to her going to the club, she nodded her head, as if to indicate a ‘no’. When I asked her if she didn’t like the first class, she again indicated a ‘no’. Then I asked her if she would like to try one more class – and this time she nodded differently.
Everyone in Shrikhandi, as is the case in Raibidpura, seems to know about everyone else’s caste. During dinner, Giriraj Shah told me a bit about the girl whose house I had been to earlier.
“She is from the Bharud Yadav caste,” Giriraj Shah said.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Bharud Yadavs are a very conservative caste. They marry off their girls quite young, even boys. So their girls are not even encouraged to study much.”
“Is she already engaged?”
“Not yet” answered Giriraj Shah, “but she soon will be. I am sure her parents are already looking for a match. A Bharud Yadav boy from ninth grade, who is in the MiniBridge class, is already engaged to a girl from another village.”
After I got over my shock, I asked Giriraj why is it that in the Bharud Yadav caste they marry so early, and not, for instance, in his caste.
“Unlike our Gurjar caste, the Bharud Yadav caste is still living like the old times when marriages happened early in life.”
Giriraj’s mother, who was serving us the delicious dinner, didn’t seem very old, and she was already a grandmother to Giriraj’s two kids. Perhaps it is due the combination of ever increasing government bureaucratic demands and the effects of consumerism that in the last twenty-odd years people in rural India are becoming aware of their age. For an earlier generation, someone’s age would be noticed, not as a number but as ‘young’ or ‘old’, was if a woman, for some reason, remained unmarried or if someone died early. Moreover, in the older times celebrating birthdays was never a common event; rather it was the preserve of the kings and queens.
During the session after dinner, I was impressed how fast the Shrikhandi adults were picking up on the double dummy problems – a clear indication of their innate card sense acquired through regularly playing other card games.
They particularly loved this double dummy problem:
North: ♠K ♠Q ♠J ♦K
East: ♠9 ♥9 ♥8 ♥7
South: ♠A ♥6 ♥5 ♥4
West: ♠8 ♥A ♥K ♥Q
Objective: Starting North, win 4 tricks for North-South in No Trump.
It was the first time in their long card-playing career that the Shrikhandi folks had ever discarded an ace. In all their games, aces are always sacred, they said.
“What’s sacred in Bridge?” they asked.
“Everything and nothing,” I replied immediately, without really giving the question a thought.
“But what’s really sacred in Bridge?” they asked again.
“A partnership perhaps, since bridge is fundamentally a partnership game. You win, or lose together,” I replied.
“And what’s the absolute worst thing that happens in Bridge?”
“I would think – partnership abuse. It happens a lot in the world. Partners are rude to each other or give long stares or become cold and withdrawn.”
“But this never happens in Raibidpura …” they said.
“It’s true. It is what makes Raibidpura really special, because for those players – as I was told – Bridge is just a game.”
The second day’s MiniBridge session ended past 10 o’clock. Everyone looked tired. Some of them had been picking cotton the whole day, and a few of them needed to go back at this late hour to their fields to guard their crops.
Giriraj Shah and Mukesh Patil decided to drop me that day.
“Which route are we going to take?” I asked.
“The mud road,” Giriraj replied.
Mukesh Patil was the rider of the motorbike, Giriraj seated himself in the middle and lastly I got on, somewhat precariously on the edge of the seat. Three on a motorbike seems to be the norm in these villages. But on the way Giriraj explained,
“At this time of the night, I cannot travel alone back to Shrikhandi on the mud road. In fact, any time after 6 o’clock is not really safe.”
“What can possibly happen?”
“The tribals can steal your cell phone, cash and wrist watch – whatever they can find on you.”
“And your bike?”
“No, that’s safe, but only because the tribals don’t know how to ride it. Plus, it’s difficult to sell a bike and they certainly can’t hold on to it, unlike, say, my phone.”
“Have you ever been robbed?” I asked Giriraj.
“No. You have to really be unlucky to be robbed like this. The tribals are mainly looking to steal cotton. It’s only when they cannot locate an unguarded field, and happen to find someone on a motorbike, that they attempt to steal.”
“But aren’t they on foot, that you can just ride away on your motorbike?” I asked.
“No. Because that would be dangerous. Their ammunition is a collection of stones, which they choose carefully and store in a bag. They are excellent marksmen. They almost never miss their targets. Even their kids can aim well. They still hunt rabbits and jungle fowl for their meat with bows and arrows. So better to stop when they yell, than to get hit on the head.
“Look here; see how the road becomes narrow? This is the spot where they sometimes block the road with big stones and then ambush us. You never know with these thieves,” said Giriraj.
More or less at the halfway mark between Raibidpura and Shrikhandi, the wide mud road converged for a short stretch to little more than a walking path. That night, the moonlight was strong, and visibility was quite good across the vast open fields on either side of the road. Shrubs and wild grass were brushing against my feet as we rode. Due to the undulating nature of the narrow stretch of the road here, laying an ambush would be easy here.
Somewhere on the mud road between Shrikhandi and Raibidpura
That night no one appeared from any bush. Mukesh Patil proved to be a skillful rider, because at one point I should really have gotten off. But soon enough, the narrow stretch of the road opened out and we were back on the level mud road.
Giriraj, seeing how keenly I was interested in his story, continued to speak.
“There are not just a few tribals; rather a whole group, between twenty and fifty will arrive together; men right down to very young boys. They walk long distances – their villages, like Ambapura and Chippipura at the foot of those hills, are at least six kilometers away – they walk fast and that too without footwear, and without torches. Somehow they are able to see in the dark.
“A group of thirty you’d think would make some noise, but no. They can be near you but we won’t hear them, so lightly do they tread the ground.
“Generally they do not enter a farm when they see it is guarded. They will keep moving until they spot a farm where there is no one around. There are always unguarded farms to be found somewhere in the area.”
“What about sharing guard duties with neigbouring farms?” I asked.
“The tribals have told us, ‘We won’t steal from you if we see you on your land, but you shouldn’t stop us from doing our job elsewhere.’ So we have to keep quiet, else there can be problems for us. After all, there are atleast thirty of them – and, like I told you, they all very good marksmen, even their little kids.”
“How do they know where one farm ends and another begins,” I wondered.
“They’ve been coming here year after year ever since we started cultivating cotton, so the boundaries are generally known. But mistakes do happen – it happened on our farm – I was alone one night last year, camping under a tree, and just a hundred feet away, our cotton was silently stolen. I didn’t realize it until the morning.
“They are really efficient at picking cotton. They bring empty sacks with them, and carry them away on their heads, stuffed with cotton. In a night, depending upon the size of the group, they can steal anything from 200 to 600 kilograms of cotton from several fields – worth Rs. 40 per kilogram at today’s market rate.They don’t sell the stolen cotton at the market, but there are middle men who specialize in buying the stolen cotton, but at a much cheaper rate of course, say about Rs. 30 per kilogram. But it’s a good earning for those tribals for just a night’s work.”
Meanwhile the three of us had arrived at Raibidpura. Lots of thoughts were swirling in my head. Clearly, it was an unfortunate human situation – the farmers and the tribals. I had so much to say – so I asked Giriraj and Mukesh if they could chat for a bit. They said they were not on farm duties tonight, so they had time.
“Do you think thieves are born, or made?” I asked.
“Not born. But young tribal boys are trained to become thieves.”
“Let me say this right away – that I empathize with the tribal community, whom you call thieves. It is unfortunate that they steal from you – but stealing, as I see it, is a symptom of what has been happening to them since years and years.”
“What has been happening to them?” Giriraj asked, seemingly a bit confused.
“Do you know how long they have been living in those Satpura hills, and elsewhere?”
“Yes, for a very long time.”
“The tribals have been forest dwellers since ancient times, and are mentioned in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Ekalavya was a tribal boy from what is today central India. Look what happened to him because he dared to excel in archery, which was the exclusive domain of royalty. ‘How could a tribal boy be better than my favourite disciple, Arjuna’, the royal teacher Dronacharya must have thought. So he devised a devious, cruel plan asking Ekalavya to cut off and offer his right thumb as his guru dakshina. Since 1985, every year the Government of India gives away a Dronacharya award for the premier sports teacher in the land. Incredible, don’t you think! Dronacharya, whose actions were clearly manipulative, vindictive and violent; who clearly showed favouritism while maintaining the caste bias – has an award in his name? What was the Indian government thinking?
“For the tribals, Ekalavya is their hero – that is what I understood when I visited the hamlet of Ambapura during my first trip to Raibidpura. As a tribute to Ekalavya, whenever they go hunting with their bows and arrows, they don’t use their right thumb to hold the arrow, rather they draw the arrow while holding it between their index and the middle fingers, both pointing downwards.
“Now think of Shabari from the Ramayana. Think of her gesture and see how you would react if you were receiving such fruit from someone today. Even Lakshaman didn’t understand why Shabari would offer slightly eaten berries to Rama, and in fact said they were not fit to be eaten anymore. But Rama understood, and accepted them. It takes another kind of intelligence to understand where such thoughts and feelings are coming from, which we certainly don’t learn about in our school curriculum.”
A tribal house at Ambapura
I continued speaking.
“Traditionally, tribal culture is a collective culture. When they drink, for example, they all drink together – men, women and children, unlike our society, where alcohol is okay for adults but not for children. See, even stealing your cotton is done in a group.
“When I went to tribal village of Ambapura, and saw how, unlike your villages, no hut was touching another hut – I asked them about it. Their response was revealing, ‘We wish to live together, but not so close to each other that there could be problems.’ That is why when a man gets married, I was told that, he immediately moves out of his parent’s house, but within the same hamlet. What was even more revealing was how a new site for a house is chosen by a newly-married man. The newly married man looks around for a spot, generally a bit elevated, and when he finds a suitable spot approaches the person whose house is nearby – whose territory it is, sort of – to ask for permission. The permission is always given, and there the newly-married man will make his new hut.’
Two tribal houses at Ambapura
By now I was deep into the conversation, which usually means I was speaking rather loudly. Only when a bat fluttered past, did I notice how silent the night was. But there was still more to say and I continued.
“When I learnt that Hemant Kannongo was the government school teacher at a tribal school, I requested him to take me to the hamlet of Ambapura. The Kannongo family is a big landowning family in Raibidpura and on the way to Ambapura, Hemant Kanoongo showed me one of the family farms. I saw seven or eight beautiful, old mahua trees and a tribal family was collecting the sweet white flowers that had fallen on the ground. Mahua trees are held sacred by tribal people. Several parts of the tree are used for their medicinal properties and the fallen flowers, as you know, are collected for making wine.
‘Old mahua trees are worth good money,’ Hemant Kannongo told me. ‘I have already sold those trees and soon the wood contractor will come to cut them down and take them away.’
“I was distressed by what Hemant Kannongo had said. Can you imagine why?” I asked Giriraj.
“No, I can’t imagine. It’s Kannongo’s land. He can always sell his trees if he wishes.”
“This is the way the world thinks, I know. The person who owns the land can do more or less whatever he likes. But now think of the situation from the tribals’ point of view. For them, trees don’t have owners. The family that was collecting the flowers from those seven or eight trees will now have to look for new trees when these will be cut and sold. And perhaps the new trees will be cut too because mahua timber will have become even more valuable. And, like this, families and families of tribals who have harvested the same trees for a long time now have to look further and further away for mahua trees that are becoming less and less in number because valuable old mahua trees are being cut and sold by their ‘owners’.
“But since when did these owners of the lands and trees arrive? Think of the history of these lands from say, a thousand years ago. Think of how many different owners these lands must have had? These lands, which were once forests where the tribals lived, must have been conquered, re-conquered, exchanged among so many different kingdoms – both Hindu and Muslim. Then came British rule, and more recently, independent India. So not only were the areas which the tribals traditionally inhabited, shrinking, they had to adapt to ever changing ownerships of the land. Since every kingdom will naturally have its own laws, think of the number of times the tribals have to learn the new laws, each time these lands changed ownerships. It is understood from history how the kingdoms, which have taken over new lands, will bring their own people from other places and resettle them as a way of entrenching their power over the new surroundings – how perhaps the forefathers of the Kanoongo family got here.
“But what about the tribals who have always lived here? Who knows how the new rulers and their subordinates might have employed them, used them or misused them? Or how many resettled men needed to marry tribal women because not enough women got settled along with them?
“Mulchand Jawra, one of the senior Bridge players from Raibidpura, told me something quite revealing regarding the Patidar caste and the tribals. He said the Patidar caste has a problem because they don’t have enough girls for their boys. So they have to look for a match outside their caste. Their only option though is to find a tribal girl since no inter-caste marriages happen unless it is love marriage. But that’s not all that Mulchand Jawra told me. As an exchange for good money, the Patidar family asks that the girl maintain only minimum contact with her tribal family, which in a sense, is kind of a conversion, because the attempt is to cut her off from her own culture.
“Now imagine generations and generations of rulers, governments and castes imposing their ways, their culture and their laws on the tribals. Won’t it affect and change the tribal mindset? See how money comes into the tribal mindset when traditionally, tribal economy is subsistence oriented, based on food gathering and hunting, revolving around forests? See how tribal girls are being exchanged for money by their family?
“No, I am not blaming anyone; rather I am giving you an understanding of how vulnerable the tribal situation is. You need teak wood to make strong doors and windows, what I see in everyone’s house in Raibidpura and Shrikhandi. And you need it cheap. So you don’t go to a shop, instead you ask the tribals to cut it for you from their forests and smuggle it to you at night. See how you have introduced a new economy to them? When they come to deliver wood to you, you pay them money and naturally they would like to buy something. Since mahua trees have become short in supply since so many are being cut and sold, the tribals are making less alcohol and so perhaps they have to now buy alcohol, which is expensive. And since they now have to feed an expensive habit, they do need to sell more wood, or perhaps there is less risk and more money in stealing your cotton. Do you see the essence of what I am saying, even if everything doesn’t happen in reality as the way I have spelt it out? You want cheap wood from the forest; somebody wants to use the tribals as cheap, underpaid labour; somebody else wants one of their girls.
“Then they steal from you. And you call them thieves because they steal from you. But if you continue to call them thieves, they will continue to steal from you. Do you see what I am saying? Somewhere a break needs to happen in this cycle, a gap needs to be created, and the one who is stronger and in power needs to do it.”
Perhaps I had spoken too much, too soon. Giriraj and Mukesh were generous enough to wait and now they had to get back to Shrikhandi. I asked if they were going to take the mud road so late in the night, which they said they were. We shook hands, and they left.
I went for a total of five days to Shrikhandi to complete the introductory MiniBridge workshop. On the next day, I asked the Bharud Yadav boy of ninth grade if he was indeed engaged to a girl from another village. He was. When asked if he had met the girl, he replied that he had not even seen the girl, and that he was not likely to see her in the near future.
It might not have been the ideal time of the year for initiating the MiniBridge workshop at Shrikhandi because everyone was so busy in the midst of the cotton season. But a start had been made.
Meanwhile in Raibidpura, things were really happening. Since the twenty-four boys and girls had returned from their maiden Bridge-trip to Ludhiana (organized by the Bridge Federation of India), at least sixty new boys and girls were excitedly thronging to the club every evening. However bleak may be the appeal of the game among urban boys and girls across India, the future of Bridge is certainly assured here.
Equally, from the perspective of the greater common good, the real hope of this land and beyond lies perhaps in the hands of two enthusiastic beginners. Sachin and Sehwag, ten and eight years old respectively, are brothers who are not only the youngest among all the boys and girls, but also the first representatives of the tribal community. The name of our beloved game could not have been more apt.