Update – 16th June, 2014

A bridge teacher  from Hyderabad, C. D. Kumar, visited Raibidpura for three weeks to conduct a bridge workshop (for adults and children) in the heat of summer. The temperature in the middle of the day regularly peaked at 45 degrees Centigrade (113 degrees Fahrenheit) – so hats off to his commitment. This was his second workshop for the villagers.

The World Youth Teams Championships are to be held in Istanbul, Turkey from 13th to 23rd August 2014. Two boys and two girls from Raibidpura (selected by C.D. Kumar) will join juniors from elsewhere to be a part of the Indian contingent.

Prior to C.D. Kumar’s visit, Mr. and Mrs Vahalia from Ahmedabad had visited Raibidpura to conduct a bridge workshop during the first three weeks of April. This was their second workshop in the village too. (https://bridgebhasha.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/bridge-workshop-at-raibidpura/).

On 22nd and 23rd April, Larry Cohen’s Bridge Cruise was scheduled to dock at Mumbai. Larry had expressed an interest in meeting the Raibidpura villagers – the plan was for Larry to interact with the villagers and kids at Nashik (about 4 hours by car from Mumbai and 7 hours from Raibidpura) which, during this time, happened to host the Summer Nationals. The villagers were really looking forward to this visit, but unfortunately due to a combination of factors this meeting did not happen. Then much to their surprise, Larry sent them loads of his Bridge material. (This neatly packed parcel was photographed by Deepak Verma, who is ever willing to provide photos for this blog.)

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Other donations to the Kisan Bridge Club include a much needed room cooler given by Arun Jain and a set of bidding workbooks (Whirlwind Bridge) sent by Melissa Bernhardt and Patty Tucker. These well-organised workbooks form the foundation of C.D. Kumar’s teaching of SAYC to the villagers, and in fact a few of the books have been translated into Hindi, courtesy C. Dayal from Goa. Thank you all for your generosity.

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A Report on the Bridge Workshop (written by C.D. Kumar)

After a hectic journey (via Nagpur), I reached Raibidpura around 20.00 hrs. on 1st May, having started my sojourn on the 30th of April, 2014, at 10.00 hrs from Hyderabad. There was a night-halt at Nagpur on the 30th of April, 2014.

Deepak Verma & Sunil Verma picked me up from the bus-stop just prior to the ancient Jain town of Oon. On the same day, after dinner, it was heart warming to meet bridge-friends at the ‘Bridge Mandir’ (since for me it is not a club). As I was dead tired from the journey, I opted out to relax and so the workshop started the next day.

I was a bit perplexed to know from all of them that Mr. Parimal Vahalia taught them the Precision System. This, despite my sending an email as to what exactly I had taught them with respect to SAYC during my last workshop, hoping that he would pick up on SAYC where I left off.

I did have some deliberations with the villagers as to whether they wanted PRECISION or SAYC and unequivocally all of them wanted SAYC to be continued. Luckily, it took precisely 2 days to bring all the players back on track to SAYC and the actual classes started from the 4th of May, 2014, but not before a comprehensive review was conducted of what all had been taught during my last visit in January 2014.

A mutually agreed schedule was drawn up:

12.00 noon to 15.00 hrs.                              Classes for Junior Group [under 25]

15.30 hrs. to 17.30 hrs.                                Classes for Mini-Bridge Group

20.00 hrs onwards (unlimited time)          Classes for Senior Group

(50% of the time was catered to practical sessions)

I had drawn a detailed plan for the topics that need be covered together with a view to translating all the topics/lessons into Hindi, although I am…well, quite very poor in Hindi.

Theory & practical went hand in glove as planned (with all the participants enjoying my gender-free Hindi). It was totally a period of 18 studious, strenuous and focused bridge-sessions which I feel went fruitfully.

In between, we had an IMP-Pairs’ event with 6 tables [12 pairs] – a mixture of seniors and juniors – on the 11th of May, 2014.

A written test was conducted on the 20th of May, 2014 for the juniors. Finally, selection trials were conducted for the juniors on the 21st of May, 2014 on the basis of master-points-pair-event over a twin-session of 15 boards each [totally, 30 boards], using Howell movement. The ranking was given depending on the master points scored during the selection trials and accordingly, the names of the boys and girls pairs that topped in the competition were given to the Bridge Federation of India (as part of the Indian Junior team for the World Youth Championships in Istanbul).

Somehow, the Mini-Bridge group hardly turned up for the workshop, but that never came in the way of the other two groups [juniors & seniors] surging ahead.

Another amazing experience, what could be termed as a ‘micro-bridge’ batch, was seeing tiny newcomers (both boys and girls) who took 2 to 3 days just to learn to hold the cards together! MiniBridge was taught to them and that went on for quite some time. It was a bolt from the sky when this enthusiastic group asked then me to teach them bidding; when I was totally taken aback! Unfortunately, their earnest desire could be met for only one day as their request came on the day prior to my departure date from Raibidpura.

Before my next scheduled trip, I requested a few senior players to guide the juniors, promising them to send the requisite material – by e-mail or by courier. Further, with the Hindi version of the SAYC available with them, it will be very easy to communicate via phone as I have a photocopy of the same.

 Highlights of my visit:

The way they received me was an unforgettable event. Right from a 6-year-old through to the 60-year-old, you feel that warmth. This has been an experience of a life-time in spite of the language barrier.

I cannot possibly forget the hospitality that was extended to me. The temperature soared to 45 degrees Celsius and I was still very comfortable. How? Because, Kamal Verma & Deepak Verma looked after me with Karbuja-fruit & different juices to combat that intense heat and Shivaram Patelji, right through my stay, ensured that the room cooler always worked well.

When the junior batch could not attend the classes for a couple of days, they felt guilty conscious and repeatedly said ‘sorry’ to me. I could really feel their ‘sorry’, which no doubt came from the bottom of their hearts. So I am indeed lucky to have such students.

The practical sessions went off equally nicely, although there were some hiccups during the course of the bidding process.

I was presented with 2 CDs together with 2 text books of Mr. Larry Cohen, one on ‘Doubles & Re Doubles’ and the other on ‘The Law of Total Tricks’. I thanked them for the same and I want to thank Mr. Larry Cohen but, unfortunately, I have no access to his e-mail. Hence, I request my friend Mr. Amaresh Deshpande to thank the author on by behalf.

And if one wants to know how I could be there for 3 solid weeks, cheerful all the time, the credit goes to all of them in general & Devdas Vermaji in particular. Last, but not the least, on the day of my departure Mr. Devdas Vermaji, Kailash Vermaji & Mulchand Vermaji came to see me off right up to Khargone (22 km away) – and you want to know the time then? It was 6.30 in the morning!

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Article in a magazine

(This is the unedited version of my article which came out in the November 2013 issue of the magazine, MW)

Raibidpura is a nondescript village tucked away in southern Madhya Pradesh. A cursory walk through its narrow alleys will not reveal what lies hidden. Houses and people look just like those in its neighbouring villages, but spend time with a group of men who are known to each other as khiladi, and the difference is obvious. They come across as non-aggressive, thoughtful, articulate, assured and open-minded, and they all play a game called Bridge.

Bridge is not your everyday card game that one can start enjoying straightaway. It suffers from, what could be described as, ‘starting problems.’ Bridge takes at least a couple of months to learn even its very basics. And even then one cannot really start playing. So one must continue to learn through books/software and kibitz, i.e., watch other people play and try and ask questions between deals. But that’s not always possible because the players are often trying to argue their respective points of view on the just-concluded deal, while a new one is being dealt. In short: the initiation ceremony of Bridge is tough.

Ask any Bridge player and he (or she) will tell you that the benefits of playing Bridge are huge. It keeps the mind active; plus it’s a social game that should create a healthy camaraderie between its players. However, anyone who has observed a Bridge game might be inclined to think otherwise. Arguing about one’s point of view might be the norm, but yelling and abusing one’s partner at a bridge table is hardly an uncommon sight. Couples getting separated over Bridge has also happened – the extreme case being the famous Bennett murder story that happened in Kansas City on September 29, 1929. After a rather heated Bridge game, Myrtle shot dead her husband John Bennett. The ensuing court case caused a media sensation and caught the imagination of the American public. But incredibly, Myrtle Bennett – defended expertly by attorney James Reed, a former three-term U.S. Senator and onetime Democratic presidential candidate – was acquitted. A few years later Agatha Christie, herself a Bridge player, wrote ‘Cards on the Table’, a story of a lighthearted game turning fatal.

Closer to home in Sangli, Maharashtra, the story of Bridge couples is quite different. Players have remained happily married, and in fact Sangli may well have the healthiest male-female ratio of Bridge players anywhere in the world! It all comes down to how Bridge gets introduced to a community, and in the case of Sangli about forty years ago, a large-hearted husband and wife team of Mr. and Mrs. Gore introduced Bridge to some couples there. As a result, today there are about forty Bridge players in Sangli of which twenty are ladies. Unfortunately, this success didn’t get translated to the next generation; currently Sangli has only one young player, and he is a male.

Until the 1940’s in its home country of the United States, Bridge used to be a family game when nearly every second household had at least one active Bridge player. In fact, in 1938, three bridge books – ‘Complete Contract Bridge,’ ‘Culbertson’s Own New Contract Bridge’ and ‘Five Suit Bridge’ – made the New York Times bestseller list. However, the arrival of mass television spelt doom for the game because it prevailed as the social replacement for the Bridge evening.

In India, Bridge is played most commonly in the state of West Bengal. And in other states, Bridge tournaments are held regularly in all the major cities and across many towns, but like everywhere else in the world, there is a crisis. The average age of the Bridge player is going up every year. Thus, it is no coincidence that in today’s fast paced life, Bridge, with its old world charm, is experiencing a slow death. Even in the IITs, once a fertile breeding ground of top-notch players, Bridge is hardly played in its hostels anymore.

But the pace of life in the year 1965 was quite different, especially in rural India. It was the year Mohammed Zia Khan, a government veterinary doctor, was posted to the village of Raibidpura. ‘Khan Sahib’ was also an avid Bridge player. So he gathered a few men and started teaching them. Soon enough more and more joined in and within a couple of years the men of Raibidpura were regularly taking part in tournaments that were conducted in the areas of Madhya Pradesh (known as Holkar Estates) that were once under the rule of the Holkar dynasty. But a bunch of uneducated villagers playing against civil servants, judges, lawyers, police officials and professionals in clubs meant that some cultural understanding and adjustment was needed. Khan Sahib’s regular partner was Mansaran Pipaldia. Unlike today, participants did smoke their cigarettes and pipes at the table, and on Khan Sahib’s nod, Mansaran Pipaldia took out his packet of beedis. When his turn came to sign on the player attendance sheet, he asked for an ink pad so that he could imprint his thumb.

News of the exotic bunch of village Bridge players soon spread and more invitations to tournaments started arriving in Raibidpura. So impressed was the District Collector Naggar Sahib, that he sent out the government car to pick up the villagers for the tournaments held at Khargone.

By the 1980s though, Bridge was in rapid decline in the areas of the erstwhile Holkar Estates because the players were either getting old or were dead. However, in Raibidpura, the story was just the opposite. Bridge was not only thriving (because of a large pool of players in a small geographical area), in fact it just beginning to pass on to the next generation – but since they were receiving no more tournament invitations from elsewhere, the khiladi community of Raibidpura evolved in isolation.

On my first trip to Raibidpura in March 2012 when I was investigating the history of Bridge in the community, I was told by the older villagers (whom he taught) about Khan Sahib’s patient, amiable and sensitive nature. And like traditions pass on, there was a seamless transition of the khiladi culture (meaning ‘brotherhood’ in this context) that Khan Sahib set about in the first generation players to the next generation. Their particular inclusive way of playing Bridge has had profound effects on the community over the years – the most direct being the near absence of violence in the village. After a hard day’s work in the fields, unlike the villagers in the neighbouring villages, the men of Raibidpura don’t watch television or gamble or drink or beat their wives – they play Bridge. When I went to the nearby local police station in Oon to compare the crime record of Raibidpura with other villages, the inspector told me, “Don’t know why, but they don’t seem to fight in that village.”At the same time I was there, a man from another village had come in with a bleeding ear. On closer observation, I saw that the upper part of his ear had been sliced off. “See,” the inspector said, “This is what happens here.”

Raibidpura has been the pioneer of all the new cash crops in the area. Safed Musli, Dollar Channa, Gwar Gum, Saunf and Arandi have been first introduced in Raibidpura, before their success was replicated elsewhere. When the time comes for selling cotton (their main crop) in the wholesale market in Khargone, the Raibidpura villagers don’t immediately dispose of their produce – rather they pile up their stock at home and observe the fluctuations of the market. But as can happen, occasionally they do lose money in the process. When I asked them about this potential risk, one of them replied, “Well, it happens all the time in Bridge – sometimes we make our contract and sometimes we don’t. So we are used to situations going up and down.”

In the field of education too, Raibidpura is way ahead of its neigbouring villages, having a very high percentage of government teachers from its population of 5000. This year alone, fifty-five candidates got selected to teach in various villages around Raibidpura. Back in the year 1982, the villagers had pooled their resources and started a tutorial centre for their children which evolved into a full community school, the Gurjar Bal Shiksha Niketan, till 8th grade.

The effect of placing a premium on education has been bearing fruit for some time now. Every year at least one student from the village is admitted into the prestigious all-expenses paid Jawahar Navodaya (Boarding) School at Khargone – which once prompted a teacher there to ask a Raibidpura student, “What do you eat there, that so many children from your village get admission into our school?” Unlike neighbouring villages that send their children for college at most to Khargone, Raibidpura students have been going to colleges in Indore – the recent trend is to take a gap year after 12th grade and prepare for competitive exams to enter into the civil services, IITs, and the like. Moreover, the villagers make no distinction between education for boys and girls which explains why girls in Raibidpura are marrying late as they wish to first finish their education and get a job. Another emerging pattern is that girls from Raibidpura prefer to marry within Raibidpura, because previous experiences have shown that they find it hard to settle in other villages which tend to be quite conservative. Since the year 1982, Raibidpura started the practice of mass marriages so that the financial burden on the families may get shared. This year fifteen couples tied the knot, of which there were ten couples where the boy and the girl were both from Raibidpura.

One of the girls who got married this year is Deepika. On my third visit to the village, I had stayed in the house of her father, Kamal Verma, a primary school teacher and a bridge player. Deepika was then a part of the household, engaged to be married to a boy also from Raibidpura and waiting for the confirmation to become a government school teacher. As is the style of dressing with unmarried girls, Deepika wore the salwar khameez daily, and when asked, her father said that after marriage she would certainly have to change into wearing only sarees as per their custom. When I asked Deepika, she was less sure, and said she will take a call when the time comes.

On February 14th 2012, Deepika got married and a few months later got confirmed as a primary teacher in a tribal school, twelve km away. Deepika is among the very first in the village to continue wearing the salwar khameez after marriage and what is again a first time situation for women here, sometimes rides a (borrowed) two-wheeler to work.

Such open mindedness was on evidence from my first visit to the village itself. I had noticed that the youngsters of Raibidpura were not interested in Bridge and no attempt to pass the game on to them was made either. I pointed this fact out to the villagers (currently the second generation players in their forties and fifties), telling them that if they did not pass on the game to the third generation (the way they had learnt it from the first generation players), in about thirty years Bridge would die a natural death in Raibidpura. This certainly seemed to worry them. I discussed with them the idea of a Bridge club with computers and internet (hoping to entice the new generation), and told them that I could possibly raise funds for starting the club if they agreed to teach the young boys and girls of the village. Girls? Up until this time Bridge was only ever played among males in Raibidpura, and so they didn’t know quite how to respond. One of them made a hand gesture of rolling chapattis, but I assured them that it was not their wives that were going to be introduced to Bridge, so they need not worry about their daily meal. But on my last day when I visited the home of a senior Bridge player, Devadas Verma, he told me that when the school holidays start in summer, he would start teaching the game to his granddaughter and her friend.

This statement was just the trigger I needed. Next up was to collect some funds (for: renting and doing up the space, furniture, inauguration function of the club, laptops, installing wireless internet, power back-up via batteries/inverter) and I thought asking five thousand each from the numerous players in India would be easy considering that Bridge players tend to be well placed in society. Somehow, the idea of asking many people for less money didn’t work. Instead three Bridge players contributed substantially towards most of our budget of about two lakhs.

The Bridge Kisan Club (recently changed to Kisan Bridge Club) was inaugurated on 22nd July 2012. Printed invitations were sent out to nearby villages and at least a 1000 people attended. And soon enough the Club opened its doors for girls (and boys). For the first six months MiniBridge was taught and practiced (a simpler version of Bridge developed in Holland), and after a trip to Nashik for a workshop a few months ago, the first batch of ten girls and six boys have started playing Bridge. Recently a Bridge teacher from Gujarat held an eight-day workshop at Raibidpura, and many more girls and boys have since changed over to Bridge.

On 14th October 2013, I visited Raibidpura for the fourth time during which I have been asking the girls and boys what changes might have occurred in them as a consequence of playing the game. Many of them said that their mathematics scores have gone up. When I asked them to articulate, they made various statements like: “I am able to concentrate better”, “My grasping power has improved”, “I am no longer afraid of Mathematics”, “I am able to finish my homework faster”, “I don’t use my fingers anymore to do addition”. I asked Hariram Patel, a farmer and an influential person in the village, for his opinion. “Vidya (his thirteen-year old niece)”, he said, “Didn’t make eye contact with us elders (they live in a joint family) and hardly ever spoke, but now she is a changed person. She goes about confidently in the house, looks at us, I am able to chat with her, plus she is doing well at school. It is quite a transformation in one year.”

Bridge has also provided a platform for healthy interaction between the village boys and girls. Typically, beyond puberty boys and girls don’t interact ‘normally’ in rural India. They might attend a co-educational government school, but sit separately in classes, talk separately and play separately. Whatever interaction exists is mostly school-work related, in other words, rarely casual. (I am not writing about clandestine meetings because those would hardly be considered ’healthy’ in the sense that I am using the word.)

Since getting girls into the male bastion of Bridge in Raibidpura was already a huge cultural breakthrough, in the beginning I suggested that the Club have separate timings for girls and boys – 5 pm to 6 pm for girls and 6 pm to 7 pm for boys. Then a combined tournament trip to Ludhiana happened, courtesy the Bridge Federation of India. Post Ludhiana, their club timings were clubbed together – 5 pm to 7 pm for all the students. Still, girls partnered girls and played only against girls; ditto the boys. After their second Bridge-related trip to Nashik (for a workshop), it was observed that the girls were still partnering girls but started playing against boys partnering boys. I was present for their third Bridge-related trip to Goa – where I saw girls and boys being quite comfortable in each other’s company and (mildly) even tugging at each other on the beach. It seemed that the teenage girls were much more comfortable with the boys in public than the other way around. Their fourth Bridge trip was to Varanasi for the All India Interstate Bridge Championship, where an odd-numbered circumstance led to a boy partnering a girl.

It is not just a girl-boy dynamic that is changing; senior bridge players in the village had never yet played with and against children, although a couple of them do  mentor them regularly. During my last trip to Raibidpura in October 2013, a (duplicate) Bridge tournament was organized between pairs – one of whom was an adult male and other, a girl or boy under eighteen.

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Looking at the good that Bridge is doing for Raibidpura, I feel that our school authorities should look to use Bridge as an educational tool for students – both in rural and urban India. Bridge is an effective learning aid especially for those struggling with mathematics, a symptom that psychologically cripples so many students. Bridge stimulates both the left and right sides of the brain, improving skills in patience, concentration, logic, imagination, lateral thinking, articulation, memory, multitasking, visualization and social cooperation. In 1996, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) stated in a report:

Bridge can develop, as an awakening sport and through its factor of conviviality, one’s intellectual faculties and a better knowledge of others. It is for this reason that UNESCO accepts to give its help to the World Bridge Federation for all our work in ways to develop bridge at school and for young people.

Due to the commonly held view of cards being associated with gambling, it is not easy for Bridge to be accepted into our education system as it is for Chess. Indeed, it has been a struggle to break into ‘regular’ schools for conducting my Bridge workshops which I have done for elite (alternative and international) schools, rural schools, Learning Difficulty centers and for an orphanage. For these (one to two-week long) workshops for grades one to eleven, I have developed a methodology that breaks down the vast game of Bridge into a series of card problems, akin to endgames in Chess.

Students with math-related issues primarily use memory to do problems in their class, which is why they struggle because there is hardly any fundamental understanding of the subject on which to build. Since the card problems require (almost) no memory to solve them, those same students are now forced to logically think from first principles each time, thus removed from their vital crutch. The main objective of the workshop is to lead the student to the point when the process of thinking becomes internalized; when the mind is free to wander about without fear.

But above all, I feel Bridge is a tool for enabling social change. No longer should Bridge be viewed as an elitist pursuit played only by a few. Raibidpura has already shown the way.

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Bridge Workshop at Raibidpura

(Report written by Parimal Vahalia)

Prelude: I had first seen the villagers of Raibidpura play in the annual Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar Bridge Championship at Indore. They were conspicuously visible by their attire of white pajama/kurta and the headdress which was a sure sign of their village background. Seeing them play at the tournament tables in early 2010 I had instantly wondered about their bridge learning and background, made some checks with the local organizers and then talked to couple of them, expressing my desire to visit them sometime.

The wish was alive during the intervening period but many things kept the visit in abeyance. It was Amaresh Deshpande, who not only took up their cause but also spread the word around by his blog and recounts of his visits there. A common bridge friend, by chance, initiated me to an email correspondence with Amaresh in respect to some material for bridge coaching work he was doing in Goa. The email led to talk on the village and the visit there was urgently fixed for the end of September 2013.

I had some input from both Amaresh and then from Mohan Ukidave who had hosted some of the students for a workshop at Nashik in middle of 2013. Nayana – my wife, without whom my coaching activities are incomplete – and myself decided to undertake the journey for conducting a bridge workshop at Raibidpura. The villagers were consulted, and agreed to our dates.

Envisaged problems: The preparations started in right earnest. We were informed of absence of most of the regular city comforts; air-conditioning, fridge, frequent power disruptions, possibility of mosquito menace, absence of western toilets, lack of regular tables and chairs in the bridge club. The additional consideration for us was the non-availability of our style of food and snacks especially in view of Nayana’s ongoing diet restrictions.  We decided to change what we could and manage with what we could not. The travel to the village was itself a major issue that we needed to address differently. A state transport bus from Ahmedabad travelled on the Mumbai-Agra highway about 40 kms away from the village. We were advised to take that bus and get down at a specific point from where our hosts would pick us up and arrange to take us to the village. The journey was to take nearly 13 hours on roads less than perfect because of the monsoon damage. Absence of the students for each day up to about 4 p.m. owing to their school was also informed to us and we had to be prepared for almost 10 hours of inactivity daily.

Preparation: Western toilet was a decidedly major requirement for both of us with weak knees. We purchased and carried a medical chair with us (have left it there for others who will follow us in future). We carried khakhras (the ever fresh Gujarati snack as emergency food as well as change of taste) in large quantities along with some cookies and dry snacks and decided to find fruits at every opportunity for solving the food issue. We decided to forego the direct bus journey and instead took a night train to Indore from where we would hire a private car to reach the village about 150 kms away. The trip, due to the comfortable night journey by train, reduced the strain of the road journey by bus and allowed us to pick up an important teaching aid (a projector) from Indore.

For the bridge coaching I carried my extensive notes prepared over years along with all the coaching gadgets like score charts, bidding hands, system notes and specially designed worksheets. With practically not much briefing on existing level of competence of the prospective bunch of students there (except the fact that most of them were at the mini-bridge stage), I had to carry a lot of material. I also decided to carry with me simple registration forms for better interaction with the individuals who attend the sessions. Thus armed, we set out on the 23rd September for the adventure into an unexplored territory.

Arrival: The travel was uneventful and we reached the village by about 1.00 p.m. The secretary of the Kisan Bridge Club – Sri Deepak, along with a few others welcomed us. Lunch was arranged at the residence of Sri Devdas, President of the club. He also offered us a choice of stay, either 200 meters away from the club in his own vacant house (where his family had not yet moved) or in a further distant place where they claimed the accommodation was rather spacious and more comfortable. We opted for the nearby house from where we could commute to the club on our own.

Two cousin brothers of Devdas, with their houses next door, were entrusted with the task of providing us with drinking water, tea and hot water for bath during our stay there. None from these two families attended the classes, yet both families took very good care of us during the stay. They also gave good company during the spare hours – sharing tales and accompanying us to market. A true epitome of village hospitality.

Food: The members of the club took it upon themselves by turn to cook meals for us. Most of the villagers had their first meal by 9.30 a.m. and went their ways either to the farms for farming related work, or to the schools for teaching. They returned home by about 5.30 p.m, when they had their second meal of the day. The staple food in the village consisted of chapattis, dal and one dry subzi which was prepared with finely chopped vegetables and was extremely spicy for our tolerance. On day 2 we had to ask them to tone down the spice content considerably. Pickles and the dry peanut chutney provided the extra zing wherever and whenever required. Dal-bati a Rajasthani favorite and a special item for us Gujaratis was also available as a change menu at many houses. Rice was prepared whenever needed. Though the offering did not seem to have any frills, the food was wholesome, tasty and it served the basic purpose of keeping us well fed. Realizing that I was diabetic and Nayana was dieting (both used splenda as sugar substitute), we had a pleasant surprise when Mr Devdas asked for some satchets of splenda and personally prepared rabdi for us on the final day.

The classes: The village has a population of around 5,000 and boasts of a bridge population numbering above 200, a very impressive number indeed. Bridge enthusiasts of the village are distinctly divided into 3 groups.

Mini bridge group: The group mostly made up of new entrants and beginners – children of age 7-12 years. This group normally arrives by 4.15 pm after school and stays on till about 6.00 pm. They play mini bridge and practice only card play (no bidding).

Bidding group: This is the group of youngsters graduated out of the mini bridge group and who have been given basic training of bidding systems and methods. They start arriving around 5.00 pm and stay on till about 7.00 pm.

Seniors: They are the farmers and the service class people. They come to the club at 7.00 pm and play social bridge without entering any scores after deals and thus without any competitive element.

As soon as the mini bridge students arrived in the evening on our first day at the club, the registration process began. When the children started playing Nayana started the supervision, checking out on correctness of contracts and the play progress with inputs on some simple trick making plays, such as simple trump removal and finessing. The children seemed to be keen to acquire new skills in card play. As a small beginning, they were all made to gather in front of the blackboard and taught the basics of rank of cards, honor and positional values, etc. Bidding group members arrived next.  2-3 out of them seemed sharp.  Most of them had terminal exams & tuition classes on from 6.00 pm and had to leave early. The blackboard teaching consisted of 1 Major opening and its revised responses.

Seniors arrived after 7 pm, playing mostly with a strong club system akin to precision.  A short watch on the proceedings was enough to see that they had very few bidding gadgets and needed to upgrade their knowledge a lot for better results. Though a bit tentative, they joined the theory classes for blackboard coaching (probably their first time ever for bridge) when called. We started with a revised structure of 1 Major opening.

The upshot of the first day’s efforts was that they all had become students of bridge theory, sitting in the class in front of the blackboard and enjoying the new way of learning and the inflow of knowledge it brought.  It also resulted in quick spreading of word in the village and a rapid increase in attendance next day onwards. The use of prepared notes, Hindi as medium of instruction, translation of some notes into Hindi, display of copies of some written notes on the notice board and use of projectors all went a long way to add to the interest among the villagers, and the attendance and registration went up day by day.

A common feature of the classes in 3 different groups was that everyone was keen on learning theory and was happy to sacrifice the play for the same. The seniors, many of whom were teachers by profession for years, were all very keen students.

On Sunday the 29th, tournaments were held for all the 3 groups separately. We had 6 tables for mini bridge, 3 tables for the bidding group and an astonishing 8 tables for the seniors. Most surprising was the fact that the senior event attracted some 68-70 year old veterans who had taken part in many state tournaments. The fever had definitely caught on.

Timetable:

Date Group Bridge  teaching  & Activity Comments
24.09.13 Mini bridge Ways to make extra tricks  
  Bidding 1H/1S revised structure  
  Seniors 1H/1S revised structure  
25.09.13 Mini bridge Con 1.  1,2. HW 3,4,5,6, Std opg bids  
  Bidding Standard Opening bids, Leads & Signals Prepared and gave  Hindi version
  Seniors Leads & Signals Prepared and gave  Hindi version
26.09.13 Mini bridge Con 1. 3. Con 2. 7,8 HW9,10,11,12  
    Responses to 1NT  
  Bidding Scoring all formats, Precision opg bids  
  Seniors Scoring, all formats, Precision opg bids  
27.09.13 Mini bridge Con 3. 13, 14. HW Con 3. 15,16,17,18 List of participation on computer
    Responses to 1D Activity sheet on computer
  Bidding Double & Redouble, 1H/1S  responses Hindi write-up given
  Seniors Doubles & Redouble,1H/1S  responses Hindi write-up given
28.09.13 Mini bridge Con 4. HW  
  Bidding Cappelletti, DONT, 1NT responses  
  Seniors Cappelletti, DONT, 1NT  responses To be given in Hindi
29.09.13 Mini bridge Tournament 6 tables -5 rd Mitchell -10 bds  
  Bidding Tournament 3 tables -all play all 15 bds  
  Seniors Tournament 7 tables Mitchell -14 bds To install ACBL scoring and teach
30.09.13 Mini bridge Dup. scoring, Con. Chapter 5,6  
  Bidding Dup. scoring, 1C- 1D responses  
  Seniors Precision 2C onwards & 1D FBO, Cue bids Should practice some deals
    Dup. Scoring  
01.10.13 Mini Bridge Con. Chap 7,8, 9 All copies given to club
  Bidding 2C onwards responses. System notes in English given
  Seniors Responses to 1C, Lebensohl System notes in Hindi to be given

Bridge-related developments: The village boasts of a very high level educational sensitivity, what with over 300 persons engaged as teachers in schools, and lot of young girls going to colleges at distant places. The game of bridge surely has been a very positive influence on the village, with practically no quarrels and fights amongst the residents and no major cases of vices and addiction noted. The village has already attracted TV coverage for its bridge activities. ‘Times of India’, India’s leading national daily has featured the village in its Sunday supplement.

The success of the village in attracting media attention has not been lost on their neighbors. The residents of Shrikhandi, a village 4 kms away from Raibidpura, are also desirous of starting bridge there and came to meet us for the same. Something may be done to soon enough to initiate them to the game and produce some more players.

Outings: We visited the farms of Deepak and of his uncle Kamalji, travelling on a bullock cart. At the farm we saw the different types of produce being cultivated. We borrowed a motor cycle from Mr Devdas to go to the district headquarters, Khargone, where colleges and Government offices are situated. Then after the eight days stay at village, we visited Omkareshwar, Mandu, Ujjain, Bhopal, Pachmarhi – places of tourist interest in Madhya Pradesh.

To conclude: Everyone who came for the coaching classes was wishing the workshop could continue longer. Maybe this trip will be a precursor to many more. Maybe we have a future India player looming amongst Hariom, Rohit, Nidhi, Antimbala, Vidya, Mohit, Krishna, Sonali and other children of the village who have shown immense talent and affinity for the game.

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Varanasi

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A roadside temple in Varanasi

Varanasi, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities of the world, has been known by various names since ancient times: Avimukta, Anandvana, Mahashamshana, Kashi and Benares (or Banaras). The American writer, Mark Twain, once wrote, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” The British too stamped themselves into history here by setting up churches, a cantonment, and the Benares Club – where Whist, a forerunner of Bridge and a popular British pastime was, in all likelihood, thriving.

This year, Bridge arrived in a big way in Varanasi when the All India Inter State Bridge Championship was held at the Benares Club from August 22nd till 25th. Alongside the main event, a Bridge and a MiniBridge tournament cum workshop was organized for the juniors and sub-juniors. Invited were fifty one boys and girls from Raibidpura, ten boys from Salem and ten boys and girls from Goa.

I tagged along with Finton Lewis and Deone Menezes who were to represent the state of Goa. On arrival, we checked into Hotel Nirvana which had just opened a few months earlier. Among the first persons to greet us was Nirvana’s banquet manager.

“So you are from Goa!” Lawrence said excitedly. “I am so happy to meet you. My name is Lawrence Elias – and I am a banquet manager here. You can call me Lawrence. Welcome to Varanasi, but beautiful place, your Goa.”

“Have you been there?” I asked.

“No yet. I am a Catholic and before I die, I really want to visit Goa to see the body of St. Francis Xavier as well as visit the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. Any idea how things are there, Sir?”

Deone Menezes took over the conversation, the end of which only heightened Lawrence’s desire to visit Goa. Lawrence talked about how he wanted to become a priest but, having found the going too hard in the Seminary, quit and got married instead. His son though, he said, is training to be a priest in the southern city of Tiruchirappalli.

“Lawrence, do you know why we are here?” I asked.

“No Sir.”

“It’s a secret,” I said softly. “But I’ll tell you.” Then after making a motion of cards being shuffled, I said, “This why we are here.”

Lawrence seemed perplexed.

I continued speaking softly. “Cards … money, know what I mean? But shh …”

“Yes, yes Sir.”

“It’s going to be big this time. Big stakes! People from all over India are coming. You saw those two ladies who had checked in just before us? Others will be arriving soon, Lawrence.  There is more to tell, but later. Come to our room. But shh …”

Lawrence was soon there.

“So nice it is to meet people from Goa. One day I will certainly visit. Any possibility of work in Goa, Sir? Myself, I would prefer to work only for Christians.”

Deone, addressing him as Elias, asked, “Would you not work for a Hindu?”

This became a pattern – Deone addressing him as Elias, while I, as Lawrence.

“Certainly Sir, I can work for a Hindu. But he should be a good man.”

“How is your boss in this hotel”, I asked.

“Oh, though he is a Hindu, he doesn’t compel me to do any puja or anything like that. He is a good man. But some Hindu staff in the hotel tied rakhi on me today because today is rasksha bandhan day – what to do? I don’t mind. I know that Jesus is always in my heart.”

“Lawrence,” I said, “Remember what I whispered downstairs in the lobby? People are coming from everywhere. We need to talk, to get to know them, but you never know who they might be, and we have to be careful. So there is a code word. That’s how we know who are going to take part in the big event. That code word is: ‘Bridge’. But shh … the Boss will be very angry with me if he comes to know that I am talking so much. But I think you are a good man, so please don’t talk – you know – to other people. Next time you see a guest in the hotel, just look straight into their eyes, and ask, ‘Bridge?’” If you can spot a tiny nod without them even saying anything, then you know why they are here for. Some of them might even give you a strange look, but don’t worry about that. There is too much pressure on everyone you know, big money can never stand still.”

“I understand Sir. Actually I worked in the Benares Club for seven years. But I never saw anything like what you are saying.”

Lawrence was yet another indicator of how obscure the game of Bridge is to the average Indian in the street. He hadn’t a clue and I just could not help myself.

“These things need to keep moving around. Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore – big cities are sometimes risky. So sometimes we all move to smaller cities, like Varanasi. Things are quiet here and you don’t get easily noticed. When you were working there, did you ever observe anything really different in the Club?”

“Definitely Sir. I have seen our Parish Father sometimes in the Club, and I made sure he did not see me. I feel that he should not go to a place where people are drinking, although I never saw him drink. I wonder if he went there on some work, but what work could a Parish Father have inside a club?”

Meanwhile Deone just got a phone call and soon after, Finton Lewis left.

“Lawrence, know who just called? It’s the Boss! He always stays in a separate hotel. It’s better that way. Keeps it quiet. Hush-hush, you know. People like us are called tier two and all the Bosses are the tier one, and stay separately from us in the really nice hotels. All the tier ones need to have their own meetings you know, and discuss what’s going to happen. Sometimes things are decided beforehand, in which case we simply follow orders. The Boss says I talk too much. But Deone talks a lot too. And so does Finton. The Boss loves Finton though. See, Finton has just gone to meet the boss – maybe he wants to discuss a plan for tomorrow. Finton is our star. He almost never loses. In this game, timing is very important, and Finton knows exactly when enough is enough, and when to go for the kill. Our Boss is very happy with him, because you know … Finton brings in good money.”

“Sir, but what kind of a card game is this? I don’t understand.”

“Remember the code word I whispered – Bridge? That’s the name of the game. It’s very difficult, takes a long time to get good at it. You want to try, you know…putting in a bit of money?”

Lawrence’s eyes lit up.

“How much, Sir?”

“Well … people put in thousands, in lakhs – whatever they are comfortable with. It’s just a number.”

“No Sir, that is too much. I only earn 7000 rupees a month. I can try, maybe, 2000 or 3000. But I still don’t understand how it all works.”

“Finton, like I told you, is our star. Success with him is nearly guaranteed, but risk is of course there. If he wins, you get all your money back and split the profits 50:50, but if he loses, you get nothing. Same deal with Deone if he loses – but if he wins, besides your money back, you get a better split of the profit – 70:30 in your favour.  Let me tell you though that chance of Deone winning is much lesser than Finton winning. That is why Finton Lewis is our star. But it’s your money, so you decide on whom you wish to place your bet.”

“What about you, Sir?”

“Oh me? … I am just the accountant. I am very important to the Boss too, because, you see in this game anything can happen, and I have to be prepared. Like I told you – big money can never stand still. People come with a lot of money to stake on Finton – so I always have a lot of work.”

“You know, Lawrence, you can also learn Bridge. But it does take a long time. So you must be patient. Let us show you some books, so you get an idea of how vast the game is.”

Deone showed ‘Elias’ a tattered copy of Alfred Sheinwold’s book, ‘Five Weeks to Winning Bridge’ while I,  a brand new copy of Victor Mollo’s, ‘Card Play or the Art of Being Lucky.’

Lawrence flipped a few pages from both the books and seemed absolutely impressed. Deone said, “Like these two books, Bridge has thousands and thousands of books. We have to study them all the time.”

“Maybe I can try to arrange for a little more money, maybe 4000 rupees, Sir.”

“No hurry,” I told Lawrence. “The game only starts tomorrow and goes on till Sunday – so you don’t have to think about money right now. Let’s meet again.”

……………………

Thursday, August 22

The first day of the tournament. Prasad Keni joined Finton Lewis and Deone Menezes, but the fourth member of the Goa team, Mr. C. Dayal, called to say his train had got stuck about twenty minutes before Varanasi station because of engine failure, and that he’d be late. So I got added on as a last minute fifth member of the Goa team and played one round rather nervously. Luckily for everyone concerned, C. Dayal did manage to arrive just before the start of the second round. As he hurriedly explained, another engine from the Varanasi was summoned which pulled his train into the station.

Meanwhile the huge Raibidpura continent with 31 boys, 23 girls and 9 chaperones had arrived at the Club. A press reporter from the Hindi newspaper, ‘Hindustan’, Ravikar Dubey, was intrigued to see so many young faces and started chatting with them. Absorbed by the stories that he was gathering, later he followed them to the Jain Dharmashala (four km from the Club) where they were put up.

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Ravikar Dubey, from the Hindustan newspaper, with the Raibidpura group in the Jain Dharmashala

……………………

Friday, August 23

In a country where playing cards is often associated with men and gambling and alcohol, Varanasi and the rest of North India woke up to this sensational headline in the Hindi newspaper, Hindustan:

THERE EXISTS SUCH A VILLAGE WHERE MOM AND DAD SAY TO THEIR KID, ‘GO PLAY CARDS!’

The headline must have created quite a buzz, because several reporters started lining up to have their own chat with the Raibidpura contingent, and, as a result, over the next couple of days Raibidpura, as an unusual, card-playing village, was featured quite prominently in the press.

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The sensational headline in the Hindustan newspaper

…….…………….                     

Hamara School is an orphanage for about eighty children in Panjim, Goa. Most of them either have single parents (who, for various reasons, can’t look after them) or are outright orphans. (‘Hamara School’ is a misnomer because it is not a school; rather it houses the children who attend different schools in the city.)

In January earlier this year I had conducted a three-week MiniBridge workshop with some of their children. On one particular day there was a noisy gathering outside the room where we were playing. Commotions are quite frequent here, so I had gotten used to them as some issue or the other seems to constantly crop up – but since this involved a student who was a part of our workshop, I went to check. A boy (about fifteen years old) had broken out of his room in the middle of the night, stolen a motorcycle and gone for a long ride. He was caught by highway police and bought back to Hamara School. Presently, his day-interrogation was going on. Next day, seeing the boy alone I asked (in a consciously neutral tone so as to not sound judgmental) why he did it.

“I had just gone out for a ride, and they caught me.”

His matter-of-fact manner of speech gave absolutely no indication that he had done something wrong; he might as well have been picking some fallen flowers from a roadside garden. Mrs. Mangala Wagle, the remarkable lady who is a founding member of Hamara School – she was past the age of seventy when the project took off twelve years ago – explained thus:

“We send our children to regular schools in the hope that they will integrate with society. But that is going to take a long time. If, for example, anything goes missing in their class, the first blame always falls on the Hamara School children. Yes, certain incidences happen from time to time, but unfortunately all our children get labeled in the same way in their respective schools – that these kids have no parents, are picked up from the streets, and will definitely steal, etc, etc. Their particular backgrounds do mean that Hamara School kids are different, but society also keeps reminding them that they are different.

“A girl now in eighth grade was working as a domestic maid in someone’s house till a couple of years ago – a very bright girl, she is a keen learner, is very well-behaved and gets good grades in her school. Another girl was rescued when she was seen begging outside the nearby Caculo Mall. We found out that she is one among eight sisters. Her father, a drunkard, wanted a boy child, and after 8 daughters abandoned the family. Three of the sisters are with us – the others are just too young.”

Only time will tell if Bridge can become a tool through which these children find social acceptance. As a start, six boys, four girls and a lady chaperone from Hamara School arrived at Varanasi today to take part in the MiniBridge tournament. I went to receive them at the Mughal Sarai Station and onward to the Jain Dharmashala where we were greeted by Raibidpura group who seemed to have taken over the premises. Groups of children were running around, some were playing kabaddi in the courtyard while others were engrossed with Bridge/MiniBridge in their rooms.

After lunch Mohan Ukidave, specially invited by the Bridge Federation of India to conduct workshops with the Bridge and MiniBridge groups, arrived at the Jain Dharmashala. The Hamara School children were noticeably tired from their long train journey and, when asked, rightly excused themselves.

Creating a decent space for the workshop though was quite a challenge. The organizers of the tournament didn’t seem to have given it much thought, because the environment at the Jain Dharmashala was hardly conducive for holding a Bridge workshop for fifty odd students. Moreover, the Dharmashala authorities certainly had no prior intimation that an additional space that would be required. So I called one of the organizers at the Benares Club – which was a relay for him to call the authorities at the Dharmashala, and then call us back to assure us that things be organized shortly. (Bridge is perhaps the only sport in India where all the members of its governing body and the various tournament organizers are also active players.)

Accordingly, we were shown two large halls – one had good natural light and looked reasonably clean, but then we were told that it was already booked. The other (now available) one looked dingy and filthy. First job was to open all the wooden window shutters of the hall and get the space thoroughly aired and cleaned. Then we filled the floor with mattresses which were stacked up near the door. On the way to the Dharmashala from the Club, Mohan Ukidave, somewhat aware of the impending situation, had bought a rolling blackboard. My idea was to hammer a thin nail into a wall (not sure of the permission) which would attach the blackboard, but thankfully we found a hanging string to which we suspended the blackboard – and thus in short time we had transformed the empty space into a kind of a classroom.

It was a first time the MiniBridge group had played duplicate. We also introduced them to a new scoring system – since I felt that the Bridge scoring system is not really applicable to MiniBridge where you can never bid up to a contract; rather one can only choose between trumps and no trumps while the contract is decided according to a chart based on the combined high card points. Half an hour into the session, the Hamara School children also joined us. A few times shuffling of the cards did happen, but eventually everyone got the point of inserting their cards, un-shuffled, into the duplicate boards. Slowly, the table movements also started looking less chaotic. Mohan Ukidave then turned his attention to the Bridge group, reviewed the bidding that he had taught them and made them play a few deals.

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The boys pitched in to help create the space for the workshop

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Sabeena (red top and facing the camera) and Sajeena (blue and white top with her back to the camera) are two sisters from Hamara School

After Mohan Ukidave and I had left, the Raibidpura children and the Hamara School children and all the chaperones went for a long walk, visiting the Harishchandra Ghat and a few nearby temples. As I heard later, they were particularly impressed by the Tulsi Manas Temple, whose walls are engraved with verses and scenes from the Ramcharitmanas – a poem written in the Avadhi language in the 16th century by Tulsidas, retelling the events of the Ramayana epic.

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Saturday, August 24

Early morning I called Devadas Verma, the oldest chaperone from Raibidpura (his granddaughter, Nidhi was amongst the group) to tell him to take the Raibidpura and Hamara School group (in the two buses that were on call) to visit the famed Banaras Hindu University. I saw how much the Raibidpura group appreciated the public library at Panjim during their recent trip to Goa – so a visit to a university seemed like a logical extension. They saw the sprawling campus from the confines of their bus, and the only time they got down was when they saw a temple. The new Kashi Vishwanath Temple inside the campus is a replica of the original Kashi Vishwanath Temple which is the heart of the city. Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya established the Banaras Hindu University in the year 1916 because he considered education as a means of achieving national awakening while India was under British rule. In keeping with that spirit of brotherhood, the new Kashi Vishwanath Temple, built in the year 1966, is open to people of all faiths, unlike the original Temple where non-Hindus are not allowed in the inner sanctum.

By the time they got back to the Dharmashala, yet another press reporter was waiting to have to a chat with them. At 11 am, Mohan Ukidave and I too arrived at the Dharmashala to conduct a second trial round of duplicate Bridge – just so the MiniBridge players would be better prepared to handle the table movements for their pairs event later in the afternoon. After lunch, we set off for the Benares Club. By now the Raibidpura and Hamara School kids were comfortable with each other, and on the bus sang songs in their respective native languages – Nimadi and Konkani – to each other. The ten boys from Salem, who had arrived only at 9 am in the morning, didn’t participate in the singing. Most of them also didn’t know Hindi through which Raibidpura and Hamara Schools were communicating.    

Starting at 2.30 pm, Mohan Ukidave, assisted by the Salem coach, Balasubramanium, and myself conducted a twelve board pairs event for MiniBridge and a 7 rounds / 6 boards a round – team event for Bridge.

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Bridge and MiniBridge tournament in progress

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For all the four days of the main tournament, a buffet lunch was served in this space. The opening and closing ceremony also happened here.

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Sunday, August 25

The MiniBridge group had nothing to do at the Club since their pairs event had already concluded yesterday, so I suggested they visit Sarnath. Before they left I briefly told the story of the transformation of Prince Sidhartha to the Hamara School children and the significance of Sarnath where Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon.

The Junior Bridge team event, which continued from the previous day with 3 rounds yet to go, was won by the Raibidpura Boys team comprising of Hariom Gurjar, Rohit Lewa, Krishnakant Pujara and Sandeep Verma.

After lunch the hall, which was used earlier, was no longer available for the 14 board pairs event, so tables and chairs were arranged under the shade of trees in the Club’s open space. A Raibidpura girls’ pair, Antimbala Gurjar and Sheetal Gurjar and a Salem boys’ pair, D. Dhiyaneshvar and S. Gokul topped as East-West and North-South respectively.

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The Junior Bridge pairs event under the trees

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Monday, August 26

While the Salem and Hamara School group departed in the morning from Varanasi, the Raibidpura group stayed back an extra day to visit the (original) Kashi Vishwanath Temple, do some shopping and see the prayer that is offered to the river Ganga every evening. As I was told later by the chaperones, this was the first time they felt worried about managing such a large number of children. The children were made to walk in a long crocodile so that they could better navigate through the narrow lanes of Varanasi and the crowds. The next time there is a large group, it will be ensured that the children carry tall flags which they can raise if lost in the crowd. Making nice flags can always be a pre-journey project for the children.

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Getting ready to set off for a ride through the city

Just after the prayer to the river Ganga

Just after the prayer to the river Ganga

Monday was also our day of departure – and Lawrence had come to say goodbye. We hadn’t quite met him for all these days since we used to leave for the Club in the morning around the time his work hours began at the Nirvana Hotel and come back late in the night to our room – so we had a bit to catch up. Since Finton Lewis had moved to another hotel on the first day itself, it was Deone Menezes, Lawrence and I who had the goodbye chat. 

“How has it been for you Sir in Varanasi”, Lawrence asked.

“It was okay”, replied Deone Menezes.

“But it could have been very different if only …”, I added.

“What happened Sir?”

“Bad news. Finton was fired. Remember our star player, Finton Lewis – the guy who takes 50:50? Boss told him to go home. He talks too much. But sometimes, so do we all. In our business we all have to talk. We need to know what the others are planning. But misunderstanding can happen, and when we all reach home, it will be sorted out. Finton is much too precious. Our team needs Finton. Anyway, we have this bottle of whisky that our Boss left behind. Would you like it?”

“Very kind of you Sir. It looks like very good imported whisky.”

It wasn’t. But the cover and bottle containing the single malt must have looked impressive enough. Lawrence proceeded to fill the whisky in an empty plastic bottle, which made it look like petrol.

“My job doesn’t allow me to take things like whisky from the hotel Sir.”

A young hotel attendant was also in the room, having come to help with the baggage. He was trying hard not to look at the bottle.

“Share with him Lawrence”, I said.

“Yes, yes. He is my friend. We will share together. He is a good man.”

“Lawrence. Remember the code word! Did you ever get a chance, you know, to try it on someone?”

“Oh yes, I did. At this time, the guests in the hotel were not seen much, but once I saw a lady sitting by herself in the lobby. I have never done such a thing before, but I was so curious about how the code word works that I went up to her and asked, ‘Bridge?’ In the beginning she looked a bit surprised, but when I kept looking at her Sir, she started smiling a bit. ‘Yes, I have come for that’, she said, and then got up and left. I think she must have been in a hurry.”

….…………………

News travels really fast. A few days later, when I called Anil Verma, one of the Raibidpura chaperones – he told me how a stranger stopped them at Varanasi Station while they were waiting to catch their train home, enquiring if they were indeed from the village where parents encourage their children to play cards. Then, on two separate occasions on the train, they were asked the same question. When they got off at Khandwa station to board the bus that would take them to Raibidpura, they got a phone call from the village asking them to wait at Khargone (the district headquarters) because a few people from the press wanted to have a chat with them. When they reached Khargone, their bus was directed to come to the Government Circuit House, where reporters from four Hindi newspapers and four Hindi television news channels were waiting. The various interviews with the children and adults lasted about two hours, which included a demonstration of Bridge. Next day, one of the television channels, Sahara Samay, sent a couple of staff to Raibidpura to shoot some video footage on the Bridge scene in the village. As a result, a fifteen minute documentary was aired the following day. 

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Interview at the Government Circuit House, Khargone

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This reporter seems to be conducting the interview on behalf of two television channels, as can be seen from the cosmetic change on the microphone

We all know how journalists hunt in packs, ever on the lookout for sensational headlines; but taking into account the delicate situation Bridge currently finds itself in, any sort of publicity should be welcome. However, considering that about half of those playing MiniBridge had started learning the game not more than a few months before, I just hope the children of Raibidpura didn’t get too carried away by the passing storm.

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Goa

On the 18th of July 2013, four boys, eight girls and four chaperones travelled from Raibidpura to Panjim to take part in the annually held Goa Bridge Festival. The first leg of the journey began just after midnight in two crowded jeeps, taking a good three hours to reach Khandwa, the boarding station for their 5 am train to Goa. Between the sixteen of them, they had just one confirmed ticket. So in the beginning, the eight guys stood for a four full hours in the aisles while the eight girls somehow managed to huddle around the group’s one seat. As the journey progressed, seats began to become vacant but at 9:30 pm, the train got full again which meant the guys had to stand till 11:30 pm, when finally everyone was able to procure berths to sleep on from the ticket master.

Next day morning at 8 o’clock, after a total of thirty two gruelling hours of travelling, the group arrived at Panjim where Deone Menezes and I were waiting to escort them to the Roopali Guest House, a short distance away from the Club Tennis De Gasper Dias – the venue of the tournament.

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Clube Tennis De Gasper Dias

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Morning calm inside the Club before the start of the tournament

DAY 1

After breakfast, we walked along the Bandodkar road to reach the Club. Since their fellow participants in the sub-junior category were scheduled to only arrive in the afternoon, the tournament director Avinash Chitale, had organized a small tournament of twenty-five deals amongst the twelve of them. When we went later to the Miramar beach opposite the club on the Arabian Sea, they looked absolutely astounded. Never had anyone of them seen such a vast expanse of water. Soon though, the rains intervened and we had to rush back to the Club.

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First day at the Miramar beach

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Meanwhile the other group of participants had arrived by train from Salem. When asked, they said their journey was absolutely fine. This group had eight boys from grade nine and two who were in college. Balasubramanium, one of their two chaperones, was the man responsible for getting the Bridge initiative started at the Salem Steel Plant for the children of the employees.

Immediately some awkwardness arose. Balasubramanium wanted his students to play in the open category reasoning that since they had been playing Bridge for two years, they shouldn’t be competing with children who have only learnt the basics of bidding a month earlier, having moved up from MiniBridge. If fact, he said he wasn’t even aware that there was going to be a sub-junior event.

After observing them play a few deals, Avinash Chitale, the tournament director, argued that their participation in the open category would skew up the field, and besides, being sub-juniors, they should stick to that age group. The final call on the matter though was the organizers to take, he added.

It was decided by the organizers that the two college students from Salem along with their chaperones would take part in the open category, while the rest would play with the Raibidpura group in the sub-junior category.

Avinash Chitale and I then requested Balasubramanium if he could ask his boys to play the basic SAYC system – with just Stayman, two-way transfers, and simple Blackwood. It was their first time at a proper Bridge tournament, I told Balasubramanium, so to ensure some sort of a balance between the contestants it would be fair if everyone played the same system. Plus, communication between the two groups was certainly going to be an issue since the Salem boys knew Tamil and English, while the Raibidpura group only spoke Hindi.

Balasubramanium was not happy at all, arguing that this would demoralize and confuse his well-prepared boys who were playing Bergen raises, Michael’s cue bid, Unusual No Trump, 0143 Blackwood and Gambling No Trump. There seemed to be no immediate meeting point, so for the time being our disagreements stood.

Later I met Mohan Ukidave, the person responsible for teaching the Raibidpura group the basic SAYC system during the Bridge workshop that was organized in his hometown of Nashik, about a month ago.

“No Problem. Let them fact the music”, he said when I told him about the bidding system stalemate. “I’ll be happy to sit with the group and teach them those gadgets – the minimum that they need to know for the tournament.”

Mohan Ukidave met Balasubramanium, found out in detail what system the Salem boys played and assured him that his boys can indeed play all the gadgets that they are used to. Then in the evening Mohan Ukidave had an intensive class with the Raibidpura group, explaining the meaning of new bids that could come up in play during the competition as well revising the basic SAYC system that he had introduced to them. He signed off telling them to respect the opponents and being nice to one’s partner.

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Mohan Ukidave giving a crash course on the new bidding gadgets

Vanaja Mathan from Bangalore, who has close connections with the village having visited it twice, offered to give each of the Raibidpura boys and girls Rs. 500 as pocket money to spend in Goa. But the manner of distribution of the money came as a shock to me.

Prasad Keni (the chief patron of the Goa Bridge Festival and one of the Vice Presidents of the BFI) and Anand Samant (Treasurer of the BFI) were requested by the Raibidpura chaperones to hand out 500 rupee notes which had the distinct feeling of a prize-distribution function. No doubt the show was well-intentioned on the part of the chaperones, meant to voice their sincere appreciation to Vanaja, but after the event I asked them to consider this:

“What do you think the kids who were receiving the money will make of this? Is this a prize they have won – because the ceremony did have that look. It was a nice gesture of Vanaja no doubt, and she should be thanked in some way – perhaps some kids could call her to tell what things they bought in Goa, but such focus on the money, would I think, elevate it wrongly in their minds. In future tournaments, they may well subconsciously begin to think of handouts and start judging people and situations accordingly. That’s how corruption enters, and we certainly don’t want their vulnerable minds to mix up money and Bridge!”

I told them it is quite possible that the kids wouldn’t have even remotely thought of the way I had suggested to the chaperones.

“But still”, I said, “We have to consider all that could happen.”

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Distributing 500 rupees to each kid

After dinner, Marianne Karmarkar, who had represented India, spoke to them in her characteristic Hindi. “The three most important requirements for getting better at Bridge were”, she said, “practice, practice and practice.” Then motioning with her fingers as though wiping sweat from her brow – (indeed she was sweating) – she told them, “Pasina aana chahiye.”

DAY 2

The sub-junior pairs event started at 10:45 am in the Bridge room of the club – ten pairs, nine rounds, three boards each round. There were no arguments at the table, in fact only politeness. Around 3pm, the match got over when they all went to the beach for a few more cat and mouse games with the Goa rains.

Meanwhile the four Raibidpura chaperons entered the open event in the two halls on the ground floor – Mulchand Jawra partnering Baliram Verma and Deepak Verma partnering Natwar Jawra. While both the pairs finished in the top thirty-three percent, the event was won by Mohan Ukidave and his partner.

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Raibidpura pairs playing against each other

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Since space in the Bridge room was inadequate, the Rummy room next door with its round tables was used

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Raibidpura team of Mulchand Jawra and Baliram Verma (with the cap) playing in the open pairs event

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The other senior team of Deepak Verma and Natvar Jawra. Both are in light shirts

However, the eager sub-juniors had to wait for their results until the following day because the person tirelessly relentlessly entering the open event scores into the computer all day was too tired to additionally feed in the scores of the kids.

In the evening, two boys from Raibidpura and two from Salem decided to play some Bridge with each other. This session, away from the glare of competition, was jovial and lighthearted. It was a sterling lesson for us adults to see how kids, not speaking a common language and in the absence of adult interference, can so comfortably get along with each other.

Prior to dinner, Krishna Pirag, a 10th grade girl from Raibidpura, noticed that her phone was missing, and immediately panicked. Everyone asked everyone, looked everywhere, but to no avail. I had an idea: if all the twelve boys and girls who had received the gift of Rs. 500 from Vanaja contributed Rs. 200 each, we could buy a new phone for Krishna exactly like the one she had lost. Everyone agreed. It was close to 9pm, time for the shops to down their shutters, when I told the chaperones that we should get the phone now. “Tomorrow” was what they suggested, but looking at Krishna’s distraught state of mind, I thought better sooner than later. Accordingly, Deepak Verma and I borrowed a car and rushed to the Panjim Market to purchase a white Samsung phone for Rs. 2300.

Krishna did look somewhat relieved, but seemed unsure of what to make of the situation. Everyone else looked quite excited looking at the new phone. I told them that we should call the donor Vanaja the next day to tell her what the group did with part of her gift.

One of the chaperones, Mulchand Jawra, joked as to what would happen if he were to lose his phone.

DAY 3

After our breakfast at the Club, Prasad Keni, the chief patron of the tournament, came up to the Bridge room asking if anyone had lost a phone. There was now no need to call Vanaja as was planned, but we still had this extra phone. We could have returned it perhaps although shops in India tend not to take back goods that are sold. Baliram Verma, the only parent among the chaperones (two daughters were in the group) offered to buy it for his third daughter who had just joined college in Indore. He was anyway planning to get a phone for her soon, he said, instead he’ll buy this one.

This was the first day of the sub-junior team event – three teams of boys (Raibidpura A, Salem A and Salem B) and two teams of girls (Raibidpura B and Raibidpura C). Three rounds would be played today and two tomorrow. Since there were the odd-numbered five teams needing to play each other, every team got to play four rounds and had to sit out on one round. The players on the team with a bye either kibitzed on the sub-junior tables in the Bridge room, else in the open event in the two halls downstairs. Kibitzing on a table where the Raibidpura girls were playing the Salem boys, I noticed that one of the girls took a while before making her bid. The time was not really the issue; rather that she glanced at a kibitzer, a boy from Raibidpura sitting next to her, wondering whether she had a bid. No obvious gestures were made that the opponents could pick, but eyes and necks did move ever so slightly. I waited for the deal to get over, went outside the bridge room, motioning the kibitzer to come out. Gathering together his teammates, I spoke about the ways that one could cheat at Bridge table. At first he denied any wrong doing, but then accepted when I told him specifically what I had just witnessed. I told him that in my book the one who aids a theft is also a thief.

“The right thing to do in such a situation would be to walk away from the table and confront the primary culprit later. While remaining passive, but continuing to stay at the scene, there is always a chance for more unethical actions.”

I didn’t talk to the girl later, not knowing how she might take it, but asked the boy to sort it out with her in a nice way.

In fairness to the kids, we adults sometimes push them too early into competition. Winners are glorified, and naturally everyone wants to be one. The danger ever lurks in the attempt to get there.

At the end of the three rounds, the standing of the teams were:

Salem A,

Raibidpura Boys,

Raibidpura Girls A

Salem B and Raibidpura Girls B (tied in last place)

Results were announced for the Pairs event that was held the previous day. Considering that they had just started learning to bid about a month ago, it was quite an achievement for a Raibidpura Girls pair to stand first. The second and third places went to two Salem pairs.

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Raibidpura Boys team versus Raibidpura Girls B team

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Salem A team versus Salem B team

During the meals we had together, I noticed that all the kids served themselves a lot of white bread, but never chapatis. They don’t get bread in their village and moreover the chapatis that were served here were not a patch on the chapatis that are made everywhere in Raibidpura with their own home-grown wheat. Dessert was the other favourite, especially when there was ice-cream.

After dinner, two friends Juhi and Charles who have recently began to learn Bridge took the Raibidpura group to the Kala Academy for a lovely classical piano concert of Julian Clef, a pianist of Indian origin but based in Britain. He played works of Bach, Beethoven, Kapustin and Chopin. The remarkable fact about Julian, what was written in the program notes, was that he was entirely self-taught until the age of sixteen.

DAY 4

The Goa monsoon has been relentless and today was no exception. Two rounds remained in the sub-junior team event. I noticed the kids had already begun to develop their own particular style of arranging tricks. Having decided on the opening lead, some of them began to imitate what they observed while kibitzing in the open event – i.e. to keep the opening lead facing down on the table, wait for the dummy to be opened before revealing the card.

The final standings at the end of the Team event were:

Salem A

Raibidpura Boys

Salem B

Raibidpura Girls A

Raibidpura Girls B

Thus, after four eventful days, the Goa Bridge Festival came to a close with the prize distribution ceremony.

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Raibidpura Boys team receiving their prize for standing second

DAY 5

I had requested my friend Anjuli to plan an interesting outing for them in and around Panjim. I had also asked her to give the group a talk on history, a subject she had taught in Bombay, Kodaikanal and Mulshi for many years. Another friend Nandita had organized a bus that would take us around. The driver, Mr. Gonsalves, was most eccentric. He wore what looked like a smaller version of a sombrero that certainly wouldn’t have looked out of place in Mexico. Mr. Gonsalves, as he introduced himself, came to our guest house a little after 9 am as planned. First stop was the main church of Panjim which was unfortunately closed for renovation. Second stop was the Mahalaxmi temple, a short walk away. Next we visited the Goa Central Library. I wasn’t sure how long they would like to be here, but I was pleasantly surprised. They absolutely loved the ambiance, probably one of the finest public libraries in Asia. We browsed through books (which were in Konkani, Hindi, Marathi and English), saw a short Hindi cartoon, Chhota Bheem, in the library cinema hall and got a sense of the Goa liberation movement through the big black and white prints that were on display. Besides, there were plenty of computers to browse, public art to see and five floors to take the elevator up and down (since that too was a new experience for most of them). They were most impressed that a totally free public library could be sparkling clean, centrally air-conditioned and be staffed with such friendly people who were patient in answering all their questions. I asked them if they would consider coming to Goa for college so that they could spend as much time as they wanted in the library – it was a unanimous “Yes!” Unlike its neighbouring villages which mostly sends its students for college education to nearby Khargone (25 km away), Raibidpura already has a tradition of sending their boys and girls to Indore (about 160 km away) which has considerably better colleges. So, who knows?

Meanwhile one of the chaperones checked the internet to find out about the status of their train reservation for the journey back home, but all their tickets still remained unconfirmed.

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Public art (made of used tyres) inside the Goa Central Library

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Leaving the library

Next stop was the jetty from where boats ferry people and their vehicles from one side of the Mandovi river to the other. People are not charged, but since vehicles are, Mr. Gonsalves thought it better to drive across the bridge and wait for us on the other side. Twenty minutes later we boarded the bus again on route to the Reis Magos Fort, where as planned, Anjuli, Nandita and Nandita’s family were waiting for us. After the introduction, the group seated themselves on the steps of the lower entrance to the fort, which provided a lovely setting for Anjuli’s history class.

For benefit of this blog post, I requested Anjuli to write a paragraph about her interaction with the Raibidpura group, and this is what she emailed back:

“I met the students and teachers from Raibeedpura at the Reis Magos Fort in Goa.  Unfortunately the upper sections of the fort were closed (being Monday) but we wandered wherever we could.  We talked about history as the past and as the record of the past.  That the knowledge of the past is neither fixed nor certain was explored through questions and provocative statements.  We also tried to understand why there are so many versions of the same ‘history’ and the role played by history (albeit dubiously) in nation building.

“The students were rather shy at first, but a few dared to voice their knowledge and perspectives.  I learnt that they did not know much of their own region’s history, but they knew a little of north Indian history.  I told them about the Adil Shahi dynasty and the Portuguese who had ruled Goa and left their mark on the surviving buildings, customs and manners.  They were also introduced to the idea of social history: the lives of ordinary people, their occupations and habits, languages and religions, and most importantly their interactions.  The attempt was to expose them to the idea we know less about the past than what happened in all the past ages of humankind, that human relations are complex (both in the past and present), and that an open minded and critical approach is essential for a better understanding of all things.”

It was time for lunch. Good vegetarian food is generally hard to find in Goa since fish is an integral part of native cuisine. Although the restaurant Nandita selected, Bhojan, serves non-vegetarian food as well, she had pre-ordered a special vegetarian meal for all of us, knowing that the Raibidpura group is strictly vegetarian. Naturally we also invited Mr. Gonsalves to join us. When the impressive looking thalis arrived, we all dug into them, but not Mr. Gonsalves.

“I won’t eat”, he declared, “When it is only vegetarian!”

Anjuli and I looked at each other – I nearly said, “Okay”, when Anjuli had the presence of mind to ask him to sit alone at another table and order whatever he wanted – which was a fish meal. I then remembered Anjuli telling me on an earlier occasion –– that a day when there is no fish in the market in Goa is a like day of catastrophe. I never quite accepted that statement, but I now began to see what fish means to a Goan.

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Anjali’s history class

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Mr. Gonsalves, with his Goan sombrero

After lunch, Anjuli, Nandita and Nandita’s family left while we proceeded to Calangute beach, which Anjuli had said was one of the very few beaches in the midst of the monsoon season where shops would be open. At Calangute, the water was really wild and the life guards kept warning people to avoid going too deep. Some shopping happened, trinkets and hair bands but incessant rain meant we couldn’t wander from shop to shop.

Last stop on the tour was the Mapusa market. The girls absolutely loved the rows of footwear shops. What particularly caught their common eye were the plastic slip-ons, clearly Chinese made. I tried to bargain with a shopkeeper while they were busy choosing their choice of colour, asking him to give the girls a discount because they were from a village. “I too am from a village”, he replied. Cheerful and good humored he certainly was, but he gave us no “village discount” – only “fixed price”.

Our deal with Mr. Gonsalves was to take us around wherever we wanted between 9 am and 6 pm for Rs. 3000. It was already 7.30 by the time he dropped us back to our guest house, but nice of him that he didn’t charge us any extra.

DAY 6

Juhi, who had gotten to know the Raibidpura group through her visits to the Club during the tournament, had invited them to her beautiful hundred years-old Portuguese house for breakfast. The visit almost didn’t happen. Towards the end of our trip on the previous day, I had asked Mr. Gonsalves if he would consider taking us to Juhi’s place and back – half the price for less than half the time. I don’t think he understood me correctly because he said Rs. 3000. I repeated, but he said Rs. 3000 again. He had understood me correctly. When asked for an explanation, he said, “What will I do for the remaining half of the day?”

“Are you booked by someone else for a whole-day trip tomorrow?”

“No.”

“Isn’t half the money better than no money at all?”

“I’d rather just stay at home”, he said.

Again I was reminded of something that Anjuli had said – that Goans have their particular way of doing business. It’s not so much that they are lazy, she said, but that they are laid back, usually content, sometimes complacent. The Konkani word, susegad, is used to describe this attitude – which is changing, but slowly.

……………….

Taxis are expensive in Goa and we would need at least four considering the size of our group. So we almost decided against going. But Juhi requested Kapil and Deone, two common friends, to somehow get us over to her place, which they did in three squeezed cars.

Juhi had organized quite a spread – juice, upma, pav-bhaji, cake, fruit and rasgulla.

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Breakfast at Juhi’s place

During breakfast, Kapil wondered aloud about the possibility of Raibidpura hosting a Bridge tournament which Deone picked up, saying, “Let’s have a national level kids’ tournament there.” So many Bridge players had voiced an interest in visiting Raibidpura, so this occasion would be a good reason for them to come. There could be two tournaments for the kids – Bridge and MiniBridge and an open tournament for the adults. The tournament could be hosted in their community school which has a large space, and the participating kids from elsewhere could certainly camp in the school class rooms.

Then one of the chaperones said, “Feeding all the people would also not be a problem as we can rely on our community help, but what about accommodation for the adult visitors. We only have squat toilets in the village, and anyway, where will they stay? If people are willing to adjust, many families in Raibidpura will be happy to host them, but our houses are not going to even remotely provide the kind of comfort they are used to.”

I said, “It’s your village they are coming to experience, not a town or a city. We will make it clear what facilities we can provide, and the call is theirs. If some people wish, they can always stay in hotels in the nearby town of Khargone – we can arrange for vehicles to ferry them back and forth. After all, it’s only a question of a couple of nights. The tournament, with all the buzz around it, will undoubtedly provide an ideal platform for promoting the game in the surrounding villages. Alongside the tournament, we can have introductory Bridge sessions for the uninitiated.”

I managed to assure them, but only just. They said they would go back, discuss with the others and see how to move forward. I could tell from their expression that the idea had certainly appealed, and now the logistics had to be worked out. January is a good time to have the tournament, they said, because the weather is good and farming activity is low.

Bridge, as many people have said, is a dying game. Others have gently observed that the average age of the Bridge community is now going slowly up every year. In the age of instantaneous gratification, the old-world charm of Bridge just does not have the appeal that it had in a previous generation. But even though Bridge cannot possibly compete with Facebook, video games and poker – what our over-stimulated urban youth seem obsessed with – there is still hope. That hope lies in small-town and rural India. Once the domain of the elite of England, cricket has transformed itself over the years into a street game for the common man in India. Likewise, I feel the same about Bridge.

But that is a subject all by itself. For now, there is a train back home for the group to catch, and we need to say goodbye to Juhi’s hospitality. Plus, there was a slight worry on the chaperones’ mind since all their train tickets were still wait-listed.

On the way to the train station at Vasco, Deone gave a nice finishing  touch by ordering t-shirts and track-suits for all the kids at a sports shop with the twin logos of the ‘Kisan Bridge Club’ and the ‘Goa Bridge Association’. The shop owner measured everyone’s sizes and promised to deliver the goods within a month.  And, as a perfect farewell to their thoroughly enjoyed visit to Goa, we found out at the Vasco railway station that all their train tickets had finally been confirmed.

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Looking outside from the train, somewhere along their way home

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Bridge Workshop at Nashik

Deone Menezes in Goa and myself in Kodaikanal, on endless frustrating phone calls, were still working out how on earth we could get the Raibidpura contingent to Goa – until Prasad Kini had this idea of shifting the workshop to the relatively nearer town of Nashik (250 km away) – since a few Bridge players from there had already taught the kids and the adults of the village on a couple of occasions.         

 The workshop was originally going to be held at Goa in the month of May, but since it was a bit of a last minute idea, there was no way to get train reservations during the summer holiday rush. It was also not possible to get twenty tatkal train tickets on the two daily trains between Khandwa (nearest train junction from Raibidpura, about 110 km away) and Goa.

We explored the possibility of hiring two jeeps, but Prasad Kini, the generous sponsor of the Bridge workshop, wasn’t comfortable with the idea of sixteen kids and four chaperones, tightly squeezed and driven across the 1000 odd kilometers to Goa by unknown drivers.

Another option was to get an overnight bus from Indore to Mumbai or Pune and then another overnight bus onward to Goa. But again twenty tickets on a single bus were not available. We enquired about hiring a mini bus, but none had an interstate permit to travel across two state borders.

When I called Mohan Ukidave and told him about the situation, he immediately agreed to shift the workshop to Nashik. Dates got fixed, and advance bus tickets were bought at Julwania – the boarding point for the bus on the highway to Nashik, 30 km from Raibidpura.

This was the list of the group of twenty that I had sent to Mohan Ukidave:

GIRLS
Vidya Patel                12 years
Shivani Patel            13 years
Nidhi Patel                16 years
Krishna Pirag           16 years
Chetna Patel             16 years
Radhika Patel           16 years
Krishna Gurjar         17 years
Kalpana Gurjar         15 years
Sheetal Gurjar           16 years
Antimbala Gurjar     17 years

BOYS
Soham Gurjar           17 years
Sohan Gurjar            17 years
Rohit Lewa                14 years
Hariom Patel            16 years
Krishanlal Patel       16 years
Sandeep Verma        16 years

CHAPERONES
Kamal Verma
Kailash Verma
Sunita  Verma
Uma Verma

On morning of June 6, the guests arrived. They were put up at a Government guest house in four large rooms. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were arranged via a tiffin service so that food would be delivered to them – morning and night in their rooms and lunch at the Mitravihar Club, the venue of the workshop.

Vinod Kapoor, the Mitravihar Club president inaugurated the workshop and after lunch, the first session started.

It has been ten months since the boys and girls had started playing MiniBridge and time was ripe for them to be introduced to the Standard American Yellow Card (SAYC) bidding system – which was the purpose of this workshop.

Mohan Ukidave, who supplied the Bridge-related material for this post, was the main teacher during the workshop with support from Vishwanath Paranjpe, Dilip Gosavi, Sharad Takne, Shirish Alurkar, Hemant Pande and Bhalchandra Kulkarni.

…………………….

A typical day at the workshop:

8am:                           Breakfast served in their guest house

10am:                         Arrive at the Mitravihar club, a short walk from the guest house

10.30am – 12pm:   (SAYC) bidding theory

12pm – 1pm:             Supervised play

1pm – 2pm:               Lunch

2pm – 3.15pm:         Bidding theory

3.15pm – 4pm:         Supervised play, and tea

4pm – 5.15pm:         Bidding theory

5.15pm – 6.30pm:   Supervised play

8pm:                           Dinner served at their guest house

…………………….

During first five days the following topics were covered:

1) Hand evaluation & number of points required for making Game / Little Slam / Grand Slam.

2) One in a suit Opening & Responses and further continuation.

3) 1NT/2NT/3NT Opening & Responses

4) 2 Club Opening & Responses

5) Preemptive bids & Responses

6) Blackwood & Responses

On the day 6, the Raibidpura group went for a day long sightseeing trip in and around Nashik.

Day 7, day 8 and day 9 were spent learning the following topics:

1) Competitive bidding – basic requirements for Overcall, Free Bids, Negative Doubles and Penalty Doubles

2) Basic Techniques of Play & Defense

3) Opening Leads – against No Trump and Trump Contracts

4) Scoring in Duplicate Bridge, including penalty calculations

Also on day 8, a Team match was organized after dividing the sixteen boys and girls into four teams.

On day 9, two more events were organized – a written test and a Pairs match. The eight pairs played fourteen boards using the Howell movement.

The workshop ended with a prize distribution ceremony.

……………………

This was the written test (to be answered in fifteen minutes):

1) On the following hand, what will you open?

♠Kxxx  KQxx Axx Jx

2) What is your response on the following hand if partner opens 1and opponent passes?

♠KJx  xx xxx Axxxx

3) What are the conditions for a 1NT opening?

………HCP

………Shape

4) Your partner opens 1NT, and opponent passes. What would be your bid if you hold this hand?

♠KQxx  Jxx Ax Jxxx

5) Your partner again opens with 1NT, opponent passes, and you hold this hand. What would you bid?

♠J10x  Qx xx K10xxxx

6) For opening 2♣, what are the requirements?

……..HCP

……..Shape

7) You open 1 and your opponent overcalls 1. What should your partner bid from the given hand?

♠AJ10xx  xx Qxx Kxx

8) You are sitting in East, and the bidding goes as follows:

N          E         S           W

1NT     Pass   3NT     Pass

Pass    Pass

What would you lead, if this is your hand?

♠KJ109x  Ax Kxx Jxx

9) How many times will you hold-up Ace from Axx if you and your partner hold a total of five cards in the suit?

10) What are the conditions for a 2opening?

……HCP

……# of Honors in Hearts

Results:

Thirteen out of the sixteen students scored at least 70%, while a boy, Sandeep Verma, scored 100%.

In the Pairs Tournament it was the girls all the way, with Shivani Patel and Vidya Patel coming first, Antimbala Gurjar and Sheetal Gurjar coming second, while Kalpana Gurjar and Krishna Gurjar stood third.

……………………….

On day 10, the group travelled to Shirdi for seeking Sai Baba’s blessings and on Sunday early morning at 4 am, after an overnight bus journey, they were back at Raibidpura.

But out of all the delightful stories of the workshop which I heard over the phone, the one most reassuring for me was to know what happened later that same Sunday evening at 7 pm in Raibidpura – a first ever Duplicate Pairs tournament was organized for the sixteen boys and girls by the two Nashik chaperones, Kamal Verma and Kailash Verma, on the lines of the tournament organized at the workshop.

The transition from MiniBridge to Bridge had well and truly happened.

………………………

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The Farmers and the Tribals

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.

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Entering Shrikhandi

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In Shrikhandi

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.”

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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.

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The village square

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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.

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Outside the temporary club

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MiniBridge classroom

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 Mahabharatlike 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.”

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Gambling den

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.

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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.”

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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.’

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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.

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