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.

…………………

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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