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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.