Ludhiana

On November 1, twenty children  (including ten girls and two tribal boys), four young adults and four escorts traveled to Ludhiana to take part in an all-expense paid trial tournament organized by the Bridge Federation of India (BFI). The idea was the brainchild of Arun Jain, Vice President of the BFI. None of the twenty four participants had traveled so far away from home, and only one of them had ever sat on a train.

According to the original plan, the entire Raibidpura contingent was going to play in a trail MiniBridge tournament.  However, on the previous day of the tournament, the organizers told the four young adults that if they knew bridge, they could take part in the junior tournament (under 25 years). Since the two of them, Sohan Gurjar and Kundan Verma, had been playing the Raibidpura Strong Club system for about two years, they agreed. The third and fourth members of their team were going to be Manish Patil and Sunil Patel, who had been playing MiniBridge for three months. Then in four hours extending deep into the night, Sohan and Kundan crammed in their Strong Club system into Manish and Sunil.

The next day morning, the makeshift Raibidpura team entered the junior tournament which featured four other teams from around India. Being overawed perhaps by their maiden tournament appearance – and not entirely realizing that they could ask the opposition the meaning of the bids each time – they bid and played, assuming their opponents’ bids to be natural or close enough to being natural. Certainly they had never heard of Stayman and Transfer – and when they marked their opponent for diamonds which weren’t there, it inevitably meant a poor score for that board. Yet at the end of forty deals, the Raibidpura team somehow finished a creditable third.

Meanwhile, the twenty girls and boys in the sub-junior category sat patiently at their table, in pairs, for their turn to be tested on three deals by Avinash Chitale. The opening lead and HCPs of the East West cards was given, and Avinash Chitale asked each one of them to plan their line of play. The ten girls, who had hardly missed a day since they enthusiastically took to learning MiniBridge three months ago, did much better than the boys. Then after three hours, all of them got to play six deals of MiniBridge on which they were judged.

On November 4, the Raibidpura contingent left for Amritsar in a bus provided by the BFI. After staying two nights at the Golden Temple, and a visit to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre site and the Wagah border, they boarded their (rather slow) train for the grueling 34 hour journey till Khandwa followed by a three hour road journey back to their village.

Departing from the Indore railway station

Being welcomed at the tournament venue, the Sutlej Club, by the organizers

Avinash Chitale, the tournament director, with Antimbala Gurjar (age 16) and Sheetal Gurjar (age 15)

Shivam Verma (age 14) and Rohit Leva (age 15). Hariram Patel, dressed in all-white, was one of the escorts

The two tribal boys, Sachin Devde (age 10) and Sehwag Devde (age 8), were the youngest participants. The brothers were initiated into MiniBridge by their teacher, Kamal Verma, a senior player from Raibidpura. Little Sehwag (looking at the camera) warmed everyone’s hearts

Sachin (with men around the bat)

Krishna Gurjar (age 16) and Kalpana Gurjar (age 14) playing MiniBridge against Antimbala Gurjar (age 16) and Sheetal Gurjar (age 15)

Krishna Pirag (age 15) and Nidhi Patel (age 15) playing MiniBridge against Radhika Patel (age 15) and Chetana Patel (age 15). In the background are Mamta Gurjar and Uma Gurjar, the two lady escorts

Sohan Gurjar (age 19) and Kundan Verma (age 20) – with the striped shirts – playing in the junior category against a team from West Bengal

Back at the Circuit House, where they were put up by the BFI

Inside the Golden Temple premises

The girls with Sachin and Sehwag in front of the memorial for the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre

The boys with Sachin and Sehwag

Start of the long journey back home

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Inauguration of the Bridge Kisan Club

When I arrived in Raibidpura on July 15th to a warm welcome, the monsoon – barring a couple of showers in early July – hadn’t yet set in, causing an air of anxiety in the village. I too had been anxious on my journey from Bangalore … about the bridge club. So upon arriving, I immediately went to see how the arrangements were shaping up. It was supposed to have been thoroughly cleaned and re-painted, on the lines of how it looked earlier.  The job, by Shivram Chaudhari, a bridge player, was essentially well done; if one didn’t look at the floor. He goes by the name, Painter. Removing the paint spots – in this case from a beautifully aged stone floor –  is often not seen as a part of the painter’s job in India, so others had to pitch in to do the vigorous cleaning. Dried paint takes some time to get scrubbed off.

Painting by Shivram Chaudhari at the entrance of the club

Looking around, I could see two batteries, an inverter and a couple of wall-mounted fans with some temporary wiring. These and some other items were already bought by the villagers with the money donated by the supporters of Raibidpura. To facilitate transparency for the incoming funds, I had asked the villagers to open a bank account in the name of club, which they had named, Bridge Kisan Club. The account was opened with the Bank of India in the nearby village of Oon. A club committee was formed with Kailash Verma appointed as President, Pandhari Bhatania as Treasurer and Mulchand Jawra as Secretary.

Much work lay ahead before the club inauguration date of July 22nd. The wall mounted fans were partly obscuring the beautiful mythological images on the walls, so they had to be relocated. The entire wiring of the club needed to be worked out according to the placement of the low bridge tables, low laptop tables, wall-mounted fans and lights. Five bridge tables and five computer tables (made of teak wood) had been ordered nearly two months earlier, but weren’t ready. The nice space above the computer room was currently a dumping room. When I asked them why we couldn’t do up the upstairs room as a resting place with a couple of traditional jute-woven wooden cots, they giggled. While I looked around the room to take note of what needed to done to make the room usable, they continued giggling. Then one of them said,

“This room was used by the couples of the house who wish to be private with each other.” You see, he continued, “We live in joint families, which means there is never any privacy, especially for a newly married couple. The upstairs room, which is present in all the houses, works well for this purpose.  Besides, it also doubles up as a store room.”

There were six days to go before July 22nd. We needed to buy grass, coir and rubber mats, more fans, yellow CFLs (since the white CFLs that they had earlier bought didn’t offer the right ambience), blackboards, matkas for drinking water, a water storage drum, clay pots, ornamental plants and vessels.

The next day I took my first trip to Khargone, the nearest town about twenty kilometers away. Five of us went on two motorbikes, and came back late in the day, quite exhausted. At the end of the second day I finally realized how different our priorities were – all they wanted was a functional bridge club, while for me, function couldn’t be separated from its form.

As much as possible, I told them, we should avoid buying items made of plastic and plywood; rather we should look for materials like wood, metal, stone, cloth and clay. On the list was a toilet brush which should have been easy to buy. But after going to several shops, I still couldn’t find the right toilet cleaning brush with a wooden handle.

“Everything is in plastic! This is just madness,” I said slightly aloud in exasperation.

They stared at me for a moment, then looked at each other … and mildly agreed, nodding their heads in unison but rather slowly.

The inauguration party was being planned for a thousand people, but we knew more would arrive. The villagers were debating as to who should be invited as the chief guest. Why isn’t everyone a chief guest, I said. By now we were used to each other’s long stares. In the end it was decided that there would be no chief guest.

Invitation for the inaugural function

The menu, after yet another debate, was essentially going to be: something salty, something sweet, bananas and tea. The toss-up for the savoury snack was initially between two samosas and two kachoris per guest.

“But what if some people wanted more than the two we served them?” I asked.

“Given a chance, the kids in the village would want a lot more than two,” someone said.

“There should be a time-slot just for kids, so that things would be under control,” someone else said.

“Why should we need to control”, I asked, “Isn’t there a snack that people could even make a meal out of, and could be economically viable?”

It was decided to make poha for the savoury. They especially liked the fact that even if more people showed up, poha could always be cooked in a short amount of time.

I had no say in the choice of the sweet snack. It was going to be the local specialty, besan barfi. If this ran out, there would always be plenty of bananas.

Helping hands at the neighbouring house that belongs to Shivram Patel, our club manager

Poha being washed. Sukhdev Gurjer (center) was in charge of the cooking operation

Sukhdev Gurjer (back to the camera) supervising the chilies and onions being tossed in oil

Dr S.S. Chouhan is a government medical officer in Khargone. He told me he last played bridge twenty five years ago, but after hearing about the bridge club remarked, “I would love to go to Raibidpura on Sundays, but when do I find the time?” He also sees patients privately in his house outside his government working hours, and says often he has had to lock his front door, just to keep people from queuing up on Sunday morning. “They know that they are not supposed to come before 2pm, but what can I do? Sunday morning is the only time I get some time by myself. But some of them come from such long distances that it is difficult to turn them away.”

Dr Chouhan had arranged for us to meet the Khargone office of the Hindi newspaper, Dainik Bhaskar.  He was keen for the local press to cover the club’s inauguration. Accordingly we went to the newspaper’s office and met a reporter, Vinay Pandey. He was keen to spend time with us, but only wanted short answers for all his questions.

“Tell me in two lines about bridge”, he asked.

I told him it was a bit like asking me to tell the story of the Mahabharata in two lines. He asked me the same question again.

“What can I tell you about a game that can take a few months to learn even the basics? Visit Raibidpura on your off day”, I told him. “We can talk at leisure and you can get a small demonstration.”

Then Vinay Pandey asked me if we had spoken to another newspaper. He said it is important that only Dainik Bhaskar broke the story. There were no plans to go elsewhere to another newspaper, but anyway we offered Dainik Bhaskar the exclusive rights for breaking the story. On our way out, Hariram Patel, among our Khargone shopping group, told me how one of the reporters from the office took a couple of them aside to ask for money. This other reporter explained to them the way how the appearance of bridge story in their newspaper could be ensured. Hariram Patel flatly refused, telling him that they didn’t care if the story appeared or not.

On 19th July, the Khargone edition of the Dainik Bhaskar carried an article on bridge-in-Raibidpura with this (translated) headline, invoking a famous Bollywood film:

‘RAIBIDPURA IS PROUD ABOUT ITS LAGAAN TEAM OF BRIDGE’

Our next project was to get broadband internet in the village so that bridge could be played online. Arun Jain (Delhi), one of our main sponsors helped us to get our second generous sponsor, David Smith, co-owner of Bridge Base Online (BBO) – the world’s largest bridge site. David Smith was keen on getting the villagers to play on BBO, and sent us 850 dollars. (In addition, he also sent us all the three levels of Bridge Master software).

The meeting with the Telecom District Manager, Rajkumar Chhanena, at the BSNL headquarters in Khargone was most encouraging. Although there were other people waiting to talk with him, he was patient with us and listened keenly to our story. He did tell us that it would never be economically feasible by putting up a whole internet apparatus to provide the village with just one connection – what we wanted – but that he would organize it anyway. We thanked him immensely knowing well that private telephone companies would never do such a thing.

(At the time of writing this post, BSNL has already installed broadband at the club, and the villagers are enthusiastically logging on to BBO every evening).

On July 21, while our preparations for the inauguration day were nearing completion, three guests arrived from Bangalore – Manoj Kumar, Vanaja Matthen, and her son Poulose. Arrangements for their stay were made in the Jain dharamshala at Oon, five kilometers away.

My own accommodation was provided by Kamal Verma, a bridge player and a teacher in the government primary school in Raibidpura. I was given a separate room on the upper floor in their newly constructed concrete house. Two brothers, Kamal and Mahesh are married to two sisters, Uma and Rama respectively. Both the couples have a son and daughter each. But as is the culture of joint families, all the four sibling address Kamal as bade papa (older father) and Mahesh as the chhote papa (younger father). All the members of the Kamal Verma household, including his aged mother, were extremely generous with their hospitality, and I can never thank them enough for especially accommodating my sometimes demanding personality.

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Although the clouds had been slowly gathering, it still hadn’t rained when the day of the club inauguration finally arrived. The wealthier farmers had a drip irrigation system installed in their fields, but the rest were totally dependent on the advent of the monsoon which was already delayed by about a month. Most of the open and bore wells were either very low or had entirely dried up.

On the morning of the 22nd, Manoj Kumar, a tournament player from Bangalore, sat for two hours in the upstairs room of the club with some of the local bridge players in order to document their particular strong club system which had orally passed down from the previous generation. Two teams from Raibidpura were invited by the Karnataka State Bridge Association for their golden jubilee tournament to be held in Bangalore the following weekend, and for the benefit of the other participants, a documentation of their system was necessary.

At 10am, the upstairs room was the only quiet place in the club to have a discussion. The cow dung on the floor and walls of upstairs room had only been applied two days earlier, and the room had a lovely fresh look to it. But later it started getting increasingly noisier because curious onlookers were arriving in increasing numbers up the stairs to watch Manoj’s interaction with the local players. Meanwhile, the big crowd was already beginning to assemble downstairs.

Raibidpura strong club system being documented in the upstairs room

The actual time of the inauguration function was fixed between 3 and 6 pm, but it worked out well that the 1000 and more guests (from Raibidpura, nearby villages, Khargone and Indore) didn’t all come within those three hours. However, just before 3 pm everyone was herded out of the club, and (roughly) at 3 pm, the orange ribbon tied across the doorway of the club was cut by Kalpana Gurjar, a seventh grade student from Raibidpura.

And as the crowd was squeezing itself through the double-door back into the club, incredibly the heavens opened up and it started to rain. The joy in the tightly packed gathering was immense. Everyone felt that there couldn’t have been a better omen for the inauguration event.

Kalpana needed a few tries because the scissors were rather blunt

“Now what do we all do?”

That’s what Jitesh Agarwal, a bridge player from Indore asked me, much to my surprise. Besides the food and the invitations, we hadn’t really planned on doing anything. Soon Jitesh took charge, asking people to sit down. A speech was hurriedly prepared and read out by Kaluram Verma about the history of bridge in Raibidpura. Mohammed Shakeel Khan (son of Khan Sahib who had initiated Bridge here way back in the year 1965) and his family who had come all the way from the village of Dharampuri were honoured in the gathering.  The second speaker was Jitesh himself who talked about the advantages of playing bridge, especially when introduced to children. Then V.C. Kothari, the secretary of the Madhya Pradesh Bridge Association, assured the Raibidpura players of any help they might need to sustain their bridge endeavor. Kailash Verma, a local bridge player, was the fourth speaker. He started by apologizing on behalf of the Raibidpura bridge fraternity to Ravi Raman (from Mumbai, and not present in the gathering) who had funded a series of bridge classes to be taught by Rajesh Tibrewala (from Indore), a year earlier.

“Unfortunately”, Kailash Verma said, “We could not really attend those weekend classes regularly. No doubt we were busy in our fields and our time was at a premium, but equally we were just not ready to be coached.”

He ended his speech by thanking the guests for coming to Raibidpura on this day to support the club.

Following the speeches, snacks were served in the two neighbouring houses. Since everyone couldn’t possibly eat at the same time, some of the guests got their maiden experience of kibitzing at a bridge table on which the senior players dealt a few hands, while others were introduced to the Bridge Master Software in the computer room. Dr S.S. Chouhan, the government medical officer from Khargone, told me excitedly how – in spite of not playing bridge at all for twenty five years – he went just one down after playing the first deal on the software. Spiritedly, I quoted the old bridge adage: one down is no down.

By around 6.30 pm, when most of the (male) guests had left, it was the turn of the girls and ladies of Raibidpura to visit the club. The food had run out by then, so we requested the girls and the ladies to hang around till more poha could be cooked in the third neighbouring house. During this wait, ad hoc I conducted an introductory bridge session with some of the girls and the ladies, a first ever for the women folk of Raibidpura.

Waiting at the bridge table for food to be served

Their first bridge class

It was still drizzling when the last impromptu event in the evening started – an exhibition bridge match between Raibidpura and Bangalore. Raibidpura was to be represented by Kamal Verma and Mulchand Jawra while Vanaja Matthen and Manoj Kumar represented Bangalore. It was nice in the context of the Club that the women of Raibidpura could see a woman bridge player playing alongside the men.  Meanwhile, freshly made hot poha served on paper plates was being passed around.  I was asked by Manoj to give a running commentary on the trick score but this didn’t last too long, not only because the poha was absolutely delicious and needed full attention, but also because I just wished to soak in the wonderful atmosphere. In the end, I did declare the match a tie. At well past 10 pm with almost everyone gone home, the last few of us walked out of the club, exhausted, but with a feeling of hope and well being.

Raibidpura versus Bangalore match in progress. (That’s Vanaja, with a plate of poha on her lap)

When I entered the house of Kamal Verma, the entire household was already asleep in the living room. I tip toed the stairs up and by the time I hit the bed, the rain started thundering down heavily.

Thus it happened on the 22nd of July – the day the Bridge Kisan Club was inaugurated – that the much anticipated south west monsoon had finally arrived in Raibidpura. Now, even the gods were on our side.

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Children of Raibidpura learning to play MiniBridge

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A visit to the bridge-playing village of Raibidpura

Who would have imagined that the game of bridge would be thriving in a remote village in central India; where largely illiterate farmers would proudly become the first generation players of this rather elite game?

This remarkable story began in the year 1965 when a certain Mohammed Zia Khan came to Raibidpura (in the state of Madhya Pradesh) as a government veterinary doctor. Khan Sahib loved bridge, but whom could he play with? So he gathered a few people and started teaching them. Among his students was the promising Mansaran Pipaldia, who was totally illiterate. Eventually he became one of the legendary players of Raibidpura and Khan Sahib’s regular partner in bridge tournaments. Perhaps, due to the absence of television in the village, and no doubt due to Khan Sahib’s gentle, persuasive teaching, his students were steadily growing in number. The women, unfortunately, were left out.

The ‘baize’ of the dedicated bridge room

I spoke to some village women, and they all said the men wasted their time playing Bridge. “What else can they do”, I asked them. “Isn’t it better that they play Bridge than gossiping, gambling or getting drunk? Look at the men in your neighbouring villages.”

The contrast between the men of Raibidpura and the other villages is most noticeable during election time. Alcohol consumption and associated violence become heightened elsewhere, but for as long as they can remember, the locals told me that Raibidpura has always been peaceful.

Hariram Patel, President of the Farmer’s Cooperative of Raibidpura, visits the police station once a month. On a couple of occasions, he said, the police have joked that they never seem to make any money from this village. “We do have our problems”, Hariram Patel said to me, “But we always try to resolve them amongst ourselves.”

Even the kids here are different, said Yash Kanoongo, grandson of eighty year old Amritrao Kanoongo, among the first generation of bridge players in Raibidpura. Yash (age thirteen) told me how children from the neighbouring villages (when he visits them) fight during cricket, using abusive language. This does not happen when he plays cricket in Raibidpura.

Many years ago there was a police directive from Khargone, the district headquarters, to stop all villagers from playing cards. Apparently, gambling had become a considerable problem. When the policemen came to Raibidpura, they were told: “Perhaps you have never heard of our game – we play bridge here, and we don’t gamble. Bridge is generally played in towns and cities – so to find out about our game, you would have to ask the Superintendent of Police in Khargone, or perhaps Indore. We are aware that some police officers do play bridge, and if those officers tell you to stop our game, we certainly will.”

The policemen never came back. Such an affirmative, confident manner of speaking is part of the culture of Raibidpura; the previous generation of bridge players used to regularly take part in tournaments, playing alongside judges, civil servants, police officers and professionals.

However, the first time Khan Sahib took his partner, Mansaran Pipaldia, to play in a tournament in Khargone, it was not easy. People clearly looked different, talked differently, they were smoking cigarettes and pipes, and Mansaran Pipaldia only had his packet of beedis. On Khan Sahib’s nod, he lit one. In order to sign on the attendance sheet, he asked for an ink pad and imprinted his right thumb.

“What!” the organizers wondered – “You play a foreign game, you bid in English and don’t know how to sign!”

But soon they realized that where it mattered, he was no pushover at the table. At the conclusion of the tournament, Khan Sabib and Mansaran Pipaldia had done quite well, winning the hearts of all the participants.

Thus, over the years more and more players from Raibidpura started taking part in the regional tournaments. In fact so popular were the Raibidpura players that the District Collector, Naggar Sahib, used to send a government car to pick up the players for the tournament held in Khargone, twenty two kilometers away.

Kibitzing at the two ‘tables’

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Bridge-stories have become part of village folklore. Over endless cups of tea, I was told a few by Mulchand Jawra and Kailash Verma, my hosts in Raibidpura.

Case of the adulterated oil

In 1972 there used to be a grocery store in Raibidpura owned by Champalal Seth. He was a bridge player. Unknown to Champalal the cooking oil that he was selling was adulterated. One day the Government Food Inspector arrived at his shop to ask for a bribe. But Champalal was having none of this. So the Inspector went about his job and noticed the adulterated oil. He brought a case on Champalal in the district court of Khargone. Champalal had an honest reputation in the village and clearly he was cheated by the wholesaler who had supplied him the oil. The case went on for five years, but during the sixth year, the case got dismissed, when a new judge – a bridge player who had known Champalal from tournaments – took over.

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Two scholarships

Mukesh Mandloi, a differently-abled boy from waist down, belonged to the Other Backward Caste (OBC). When the Principal of his college asked him to choose between the OBC scholarship and the Handicap Person’s scholarship, his father, Ganesh Mandloi, reasoned that he should be given both the government scholarships. The Principal refused. So the father campaigned and wrote to the Madhya Pradesh Government, and because of his son’s case – a new law was passed stating (to the effect) – that all handicapped OBC candidates will henceforth be eligible for two scholarships. The father himself had dropped out of school early, but played bridge.

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The confiscated wood

Bhil hamlet of Ambapura

At the foothills of the Satpura range, close to Raibidpura are beautiful hamlets of the Bhil tribe. Mansaran Pipaldia (Khan Sahib’s regular partner in tournaments) once bought some wood from a Bhil man and stored it in his cowshed. It must have been a considerable amount because it caught the attention of the Forest Inspector. Since no bribe was forthcoming, he confiscated the wood, taking it to Khargone.

Some time later (because time is vague in rural India) Khan Sahib and Mansaran Pipaldia met the Collector of Khargone District at a bridge tournament. After hearing what happened, the Collector ordered all the wood to be transported back to Mansaran Pipaldia’s cowshed at the Government’s expense.

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Why is Raibidpura famous?

Yogesh Barsai, a clerk at the Farmer’s Cooperative in Raibidpura, told me a story from 1978 when he was doing his first year B.A. at Khargone College. Unable to afford his fees, Yogesh asked the college for a concession. During the interview, P.C. Srivastava (the person in charge), after learning where Yogesh was from, asked, “Do you know why Raibidpura is famous?”

“Yes – because they play bridge,” Yogesh replied.

“Is it true that bridge is played sitting down on mats at dusty mud-road intersections?”

“Yes,” replied Yogesh.

“Then half your fees are exempted.”

“That is why I got into bridge”, Yogesh told me – “If the mere mention of bridge has resulted in a fee reduction, then there must something to the game.”

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None of these stories would have happened in Raibidpura but for a decision Khan Sahib made when he was a boy of seventeen. Khan Sahib’s father migrated to Pakistan from the village of Kasravadh soon after Partition. After spending a month in Pakistan, an unhappy Khan Sahib told his father how much he missed his friends, and that he wished to go back to his old school in India. His father magnanimously agreed – so Khan Sahib, along with his two brothers returned to Kasravadh to stay with their uncle – and never left India again. His parents and other siblings, meanwhile, continued to live in Pakistan. After becoming a Veterinary doctor, Khan Sahib’s first government posting was in Amjhera, Dhar District for five years, where a fellow doctor taught him bridge. At the time of his third posting in Raibidpura – where he stayed on for seventeen years – Khan Sahib was already an accomplished bridge player.

(Dated) photo of Khan Sahib (front left) and Mohammed Shakeel Khan (front right)

I met Mohammed Shakeel Khan, Khan Sahib’s only surviving son, and daughter Yasmin in Dharampuri – two sons had died, while two other daughters are living elsewhere. “Among the six of us, only my oldest brother played bridge”, Mohammed Shakeel said. “The reason is because we never traveled with him during all his postings.”

“What was he like”, I asked Mohammed Shakeel and Yasmin.

“Gentle. He never fought with anyone and loved his daughters more than his sons. Our Mother too had an amiable nature. They were close to each other. When he died, she too wanted to die – asking us to give her a lethal injection. We of course refused, but after 40 days, she was gone.

“He was quite progressive in his thinking, asking our mother to remove her burkha after marriage.” Mohammed Shakeel continued, “Only once did he beat me – when he caught me smoking a beedi. He told me that I am free to experience whatever I want – but that it should be done in front of him, and not behind his back.”

This gentle personality of Khan Sahib continues to permeate the particular bridge culture here down to the second generation currently playing – whether a bid is under or over, or an easily made contract is down, the players just do not argue, never mind being spiteful – as is commonly observed in the rest of the bridge world. In the absence of the bridge-fuelled-ego, there is, instead, a familial atmosphere among the bridge fraternity of Raibidpura.

As Yogesh Barsai, the clerk from the Farmer’s Cooperative, when asked why they don’t even argue while playing, said, “This doesn’t mean we don’t discuss what could have happened. But why be rude? If my partner makes a mistake today, tomorrow it could be me. A person may or may not learn from his mistake, but we have to move on to the next deal. Bridge is only a game, isn’t it?”

In fact, when referring in third person to a fellow bridge player, he is addressed affectionately as a khiladi. This particular combination of group camaraderie and the triggering of the intelligence of two generations of bridge-playing khiladi is (perhaps) the primary reason why so many social changes have happened only in Raibidpura.

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Mass Marriage

In 1982, the people of Raibidpura organized a mass marriage of 51 couples. At that time, a marriage cost a family Rs.15000, but due to the cost being shared, each family had to only contribute Rs.1000. Invitations weren’t needed to be sent out, because everybody was invited.

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Community school

The villagers were not satisfied with the quality of teaching at the local government school. So in 1982 they pooled their resources and started a tutorial center, which evolved into a community-driven school. Currently the Gurjar Bal Shiksha Niketan has 350 students from first to eighth grade and twelve teachers. The school, situated at the edge of the village, is being expanded – more rooms are being constructed to add to the existing ten classrooms.

There are numerous sayings (in Hindi) written boldly on the school walls that gives a sense of the underlying philosophy. These are a few I wrote in my notebook:

‘Learning is like eating food. It does not matter how much food you eat, rather it matters how much of the food you can digest.’

‘Being uneducated is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as the will to learn is present.’

 ‘Education should be such that not only should a student learn how to read and write, but should equally learn how to live.

‘Every success story is also a great failure story’. (This one was written in English)

Students waiting to enter their respective classrooms on exam day

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Turning over tradition

Bereavement-feast is a long standing tradition in Madhya Pradesh. The family that loses a member is obliged to feed the village. In 1991, the locals stopped this custom. This was their logic: already the family is grieving, and to expect them to spend time and considerable money in cooking such a large meal is just not right.

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Advances in farming

Due to the exposure of travelling to various places to play in bridge tournaments, and meeting different kinds of people, new crops such as Safed Musli, Dollar Channa, Saunf, Arandi, have been introduced over the years to the add to existing wheat and (Bt)cotton.

“Safed Mulsi is a risky crop”, said Mulchand Jawra. “Once I have seen this crop fail for three years in a row because it requires a very particular attention – farmers don’t normally persist for so long because of the considerably high investment, but we did because we saw its long term potential.”

Huge amounts of cotton were stacked up in the living room of Kailash Verma’s house. When asked about it, he replied, “Yes, we hold on to our cotton for a longer duration than the people from neighbouring villages. The wholesale cotton market for us is in Khargone. Since everyone goes with their cotton at the same time, the traders there play with the price. I have suffered losses on occasions when I have held on for too long, but such is life. Sometimes we get overtricks on our contract, while other times we end up short.”

I also found out that the farmers here spend money from their own pocket to attend government and private agriculture-initiative programs in other places.

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Government employment

Raibidpura has a very high percentage of government-employed people – about one in three adult males, I was told. There are many teachers among them in the several villages in the area and the tribal hamlets, further away.

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Crime rate in Raibidpura

A visit to the local police station at Oon was a reality check. A man had arrived (from another village) with blood splattered on his shirt. The upper part of his ear was altogether missing, what looked like the work of a knife. He was in considerable pain, and had come to file a First Information Report (FIR). But since he was too drunk to hold his thoughts properly – to explain what had happened – the policemen told him to go to the Government Health Center and first get his opened ear stitched up.

Ruins of an ancient Jain temple in Oon

Being an uncommon visitor to the Oon police station in this remote area, I was welcomed curiously. There were three policemen and one policewoman. The head of the police station, another woman, was away.

“Do you know why Raibidpura is famous”, I asked them.

They had a confused look.

“What! Raibidpura?”

“Yes. Can you imagine why it is famous?”

They were still confused.

“Then tell me if you think this village is any different”.

“Yes, it certainly is. For us, it is different, because nothing really happens there. We hardly ever visit Raibidpura because they never seem to have a problem with violence, alcohol and gambling – which is common everywhere else. The only FIRs filed from this village are against the dacoits who descend overnight to steal cotton from their fields and the copper from their water pumps. Somehow, the Raibidpura villagers never seem to have a problem among each other. It’s strange, because we don’t understand why this village is like that.”

At the end of our conversation, the police wanted to learn bridge.

“Now you’ll have a good reason to go often to Raibidpura”, I told them.

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Gangaur festival viewed from the balcony of the bridge room

Visiting the neighbouring villages of Shrikhandi and Chooti Oon (each about three kilometers away) it was clear that these villagers are in awe of Raibidpura. I asked what they thought about Raibidpura.

“They are different”, was an oft-repeated statement during the conversation.

“But why”, I asked.

“They are cleverer and smarter – so they think in a different way.”

“Why should that be? You are all from the same area, you look the same, you eat the same food – so why should they be cleverer and smarter?”

“God has been kind to them.”

“Do you really believe the gods have been kind only to them and not to all of you?”

“But they are different.”

“Yes, but why? There is something that has been going on in Raibidpura every day for past forty five or so years that doesn’t go on anywhere else – what could that be”, I asked.

Then somebody, after a little while, said, “They play a lot of cards. Yes – they play some kind of a game there. We too play cards here, but not that game. What’s the name of that game?”

I also asked the villagers of Raibidpura (bridge players and others) – why the situation is different here.

“Unlike other villages, many of our lands are located far from our village – between three and eight kilometers away. So we have to plan ahead and optimize our time while we are there.”

Another said that there are many followers of the 16th century saint and social reformer, Singaji.

Then someone quickly responded, “But other villages too follow Singaji.”

Names of other gurus were taken – Bal Yogeshwarji, Asha Ram Bapuji, Satpalji Maharaj and Shambhu Baba – but they had their respective following in other villages as well. What certainly distinguishes Raibidpura, I gathered, is that there are followers of Osho who do meditation regularly in the ashram of Shambhu Baba on the outskirts of the village. (The story of Shambhu Baba – who quotes Osho, is only 26 year old and who already has two ashrams elsewhere other than the one at Raibidpura – is most interesting, but that is a topic in a future post all by itself.) 

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It is tempting to attribute the change in Raibidpura over the years, largely as a result of bridge. How does one make that leap?

A street-side game in progress

Chess too has a small but devoted following in the village. Between five and ten players (out of about sixty who are familiar with the game) gather regularly on a sit-out outside a grocery shop on the main street to play and watch chess.

But back again to bridge. Amidst the inspiring story of Raibidpura is the troubling fact that the youngest active bridge player is well into his thirties and no one in their twenties knows or is even interested in the game. This generation avidly watches television, has motorbikes and mobile phones, and many have left the village to study and work elsewhere. This means thirty to forty years from now, bridge will die out – something the Raibidpura bridge fraternity had not thought about.

In fact, bridge had already faded once in these areas and if not for Raibidpura it would have died altogether. Prior to the story of Raibidpura, bridge was thriving in the Holkar estates – in Khargone, Anjad, Badhwah, Bikangaon, Mandleshwar, Maheshwar, Nandra, Bhadhwani, Baag, Dhargoan, Dharampuri, Khaigaon, Thekri, Segaon, Sendhwa, Mehamudpura and the like. The Holkars were generous bridge patrons. Such was the popularity of the game that even a town like Khargone attracted fifteen tables for a duplicate tournament, while the smaller estates held rubber bridge tournaments of about five tables. Indore, being the seat of the bygone Holkar Empire, held the prestigious Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar Tournament.

The reason bridge started to fade away after 1970 is not just because it was played by the (increasingly ageing) people deputed by the Holkars (to manage their estates), but because it was never introduced to the local villagers. In the absence of their familiar tournament circuit, the first generation players of Raibidpura were unable to pass on the tournament culture to their second generation and thus, for about fifteen years, the Raibidpura bridge fraternity became isolated.

Then in 2003 someone in the village chanced upon a newspaper article regarding a bridge tournament that was to be held at the Yeshwant Club in Indore. The village bridge fraternity promptly wrote to the organizers explaining themselves, and soon received a reply of confirmation of their entry. Mulchand Jawra told me how amazed the organizers and other players were when they actually saw them at the venue – and in appreciation for taking part in the tournament, returned half their entry fee.

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The way forward

Currently there are about forty regular bridge players among 200 to 300 that know the game, in a village of 5000 people – which undoubtedly makes Raibidpura the densest bridge location in the world. Bridge is played at multiple venues here. The core group of about twenty players assembles in a dedicated bridge room above the medical shop on the main street of Raibidpura. This is where the serious bridge happens, where scoring sheets are preserved from several years ago. The rest of the twenty odd regular players do not keep score and play sitting cross-legged on a mat at dusty mud-road intersections. Everyone plays the same system – a variation of strong club – what Khan Sahib had taught them. Their bridge sessions usually last between one and two hours and mostly take place in the evenings.

But now that the Raibidpura bridge fraternity is aware of the possible death of their beloved game within their own lifetime, they would like to do something about it. We had several discussions and the key to the continuation of the bridge culture, I told them, was to introduce the game to the children of their village.

On the right is the outer wall of the proposed Raibidpura Bridge Club

Thus was born the idea of the Raibidpura Bridge Club. We located a lovely unused house (with an inner courtyard) in a quiet part of the village which will be rented for the club premises. It will house low bridge tables (since the villagers are used to sitting cross-legged while playing) in the two covered verandahs facing the inner courtyard. The inside room will have laptops (perhaps five as a start) installed with selected bridge software that will aid the teaching program, as well as further develop the skills of the current players. To compensate for the huge daily power cuts – an incomplete deal in Raibidpura often finishes under torchlight – a generous battery backup would be necessary.

I told them that besides raising funds for starting the club, I would make regular trips to Raibidpura, gather together a resource pool of players from India and from the rest of the bridge world (who share a similar sentiment and are able to rough it out in this remote part of central India) – and hold a series of bridge workshops for the boys and girls in their community school.

Girls? There was a pause, when they heard that word. One of them, almost by reflex, motioned his hands to indicate a chapati being rolled – suggesting as to who would have the time to make the chapatis. I assured them that it was not their wives who were going to be taught bridge, but ten to fourteen year old girls.

“Already you men folk have contributed so much to the development of your village”, I said, “But imagine, if one day your bridge-playing women folk could likewise start making a contribution too – what a powerful social statement that would be; and how famous would Raibidpura be then!”

Inside the proposed Raibidpura Bridge Club, currently used for storing wheat

On my last day, I visited the house of Devadas Verma, a bridge player and a teacher in one of the four Primary schools in Raibidpura. Like most households here, his was also an extended family. After the introductions and the customary tea, he pointed to his thirteen year old granddaughter Nidhi and said, “When their final exams get over, I am going to start teaching bridge to Nidhi and her friend.”

Over the last week of May, I made several phone calls to Raibidpura to ascertain what I could not while going through my hurriedly handwritten notes of spending seven days there, two months ago. My last call was to Devadas Verma.

“You know”, he told me, “Nidhi and her friend have begun learning bridge.”

Such, is Raibidpura.

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