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.
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.