Inside The Gritty World Of Mumbai’s Underground Carrom Clubs

Inside The Gritty World Of Mumbai’s Underground Carrom Clubs
Rashi Arora

All eyes are on the queen. Lying slightly off-centre, towards his left, it seems like an ambitious target. Ishtaqaq drags the orange striker deliberately, never taking his eye off the board. Within seconds of placing it on the baseline, he strikes. The queen glides smoothly across the board right into the net. The crowd at Dongri’s Parvaaz Carrom Club erupts into cheers and applause, but the 51-year-old remains unfazed. Lighting up another beedi, he blows a ring of smoke while signalling to a young man to set up another game. “He is just getting started,” laughs 21-year-old Abdullah who manages the club with his father. Situated in a seedy bustling by-lane of Dongri, Parvaaz Carrom Club’s dilapidated green walls are adorned by half-torn movie posters and sepia-tinted photographs. Inside, men are seated around the 4 carrom boards that are illuminated with nothing but lamps that hang above them.

For most people, the day is over, but for the men of Dongri and other slum settlements around Mumbai, their favourite part of it is just about to begin. It is 10 PM – time for a game of carrom.

For a long time, the ‘Maximum City’ has harboured a co-existence of slums and skyscrapers, giving outsiders a very glaring visual of the great economic divide. Mumbai is a city that sees a huge influx migrants every year, many of them settling down in slums and shanties that have sprung up across its over-burdened landscape. While the results of this unique urban phenomenon are many, one of its most fascinating outcomes has been the nurturing of many unlikely sub-cultures within itself. Be it underground hip-hop collectives, fight clubs, body-building centres in the heart of Dharavi and these most unexpected carrom clubs found in tiny dreary corners, deep inside public squalors.

Though the beginnings of these carrom clubs in the city can’t be traced to any one particular event, most dwellers I’ve interacted with for this story agree that it is from “angrezo ka zamana (the time of the British).” Only a few argue that this phenomenon is much older.

The deal is simple: tiny rooms are rented/purchased by carrom enthusiasts that place 2-4 boards and lamps that are hung above, and then the word is spread. Most of these clubs open early afternoon which is when they are frequented by older retired players and school children. It is only in the evening when the ‘real fun’ begins. Post 7 PM, the club is packed with college-goers and working men who take their games very seriously. These local champions play match after match every day for approximately 20 rupees an hour.

Kamaruddeen and his son Abdullah's Parvaaz Carrom Club. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

“People here are hard-working but have little resources to bust their stress. These clubs are cheap and encourage a productive way to pass time,” states Kamarudeen, Abdullah’s father who has been running the Parvaaz club for the last 20 years. What he doesn’t adhere to right away is that these carrom clubs have an unapologetic charm of notoriety. They look like something right out of a seedy Bollywood thriller, a hotbed for nefarious activities. And this isn’t a co-incidence. Reportedly, they were once considered the recruitment grounds for petty criminals. Thus, when questioned about Dongri’s underworld connect to its carrom clubs, Kamaruddeen hesitantly smiles and then narrates incidents from the Shama Carrom Club where he claims that the infamous Dawood used to play at. “We also had a player called Tiger who would play with all his ten fingers. This was back in the 60’s and the 70’s. Thereafter they all ran away and the club too shut down. Nothing like that now. It is all good,” he tells me reassuringly.

As Parvaaz starts getting jam-packed with players, 26-year-old Talha dressed in crisp office formals, is getting ready to strike at Ahmed Hussain’s carrom Club which lies just a few metres ahead. Fondly addressed as Master Talha by the other players, he hardly looks up from the board when he tells me that he has been playing carrom here every single day for the last ten years with his friend Hashim who plays against his parent’s wishes. “They think it is a waste of time. But I still come here,” he mutters. As the duo play, Ahmed Hussain’s 12-year-old niece watches the game keenly from outside. “We usually do not allow women to play,” Ahmed says. “So many men come to play here... What if someone misbehaves with them?” he questions.

The answers seem to lie almost 40 kilometres away at Malvani where two sisters Sara (36) and Shabnam (38) Sheikh not only play but also run their own carrom club that has an AC and a television. Having been brought up in Malvani, they both left their abusive husbands and opened a carrom club as a means to financially sustain themselves. “Malvani has always had a thriving carrom culture, so we thought it would be a great way to earn some money. We had a patch of land and both of us love the game. Initially, we were hesitant of breaking into a male-centric sport especially in an orthodox society like this, but we surprisingly got tremendous support,” states Shabnam, telling me how girls have started to play here in the afternoon.

Sara and Shabnam, the two women in the male dominated business. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

“At first, I would not even enter the club but slowly I got confident and started playing with the men,” Sara states as she smoothly claims three whites one after the other. Their club is the only one with an AC and gained huge traction from the players. But soon, the sisters’ own uncle gave them competition when he too opened an AC club nearby. And indeed Javed Sheikh’s AC Club is packed on a Tuesday night. Neat, clean and cool, it is adorned with red and green moon flags and is accessible only through a narrow ladder-like staircase. One of the club’s regular players is 42-year-old Victor Joseph who has been playing carrom ever since he was a child. Now having shifted to Dubai, he visits Sheikh’s carrom club whenever he is in India. “There’s no such culture there in Dubai. Carrom clubs are one of the things I miss the most about my country,” he says sincerely.

While a friendly game of carrom draws even NRI’s to visit the city’s carrom clubs, there’s also something else that makes the game so popular in Malvani and other parts of the city. Whether a gambling culture emerged out of carrom clubs or whether the clubs emerged out of a gambling culture is a debatable issue, but it’s hardly surprising to see hustlers exchanging wads of notes once games are won. At Usman Bhai’s club, even 14-year-olds unabashedly admit that they bet anywhere between 50 to 1000 bucks. At the beginning of the game, money is handed over to Usman Bhai who then gives it to the winners. This betting culture is prevalent in most carrom clubs of the city. “We only bet on cold drinks and Falooda,” the pot-bellied Mamu, owner of the largest ‘members only’ Philomeena Carrom Club in Malvani announces. Hearing this, the players erupted in laughter. Mamu then coyly admits that minimal betting is done just to ‘spice up’ the games a bit. At Ahmed’s club back in Dongri the ‘spice’ is quite literal as people bet on food from the seedy Chinese corner next door owned by Ahmed’s elder brother.

A teenager betting handing money to Usman Bhai before the game begins. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

As players are exchanging plates of Chowmein in Dongri, things are getting slightly more serious at Parel’s Scorpion Carrom Club where 4 Champions are competing against each other. Dilesh Khedekar is getting ready to strike. The former world rank #4, Guinness record holder of the 4 slam and a Chattrapati Shivaji Awardee is a champion produced by Scorpion carrom club, where he first started playing. “I even met my wife while playing mixed doubles,” he says showing us his carrom shaped ring that glistens under the lamp. Playing against him is the 64-year-old Vilas, a former veteran National Champion. They are joined by 16-year-old Neeraj Tamhe and 18-year-old Sidhart Wabwalkar, both junior national champions who practice at Scorpion Club, which is recognized and registered under Maharashtra Carrom Association. The game is over within minutes as each striker claims a carrom men at every turn.

Dilesh Khedekar's ring of passion. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

A similar spirit is brewing just a few steps ahead at Rhino Sports Club that has been made of makeshift wooden poles and a blue tenting cloth. Here, 72-year-old Nehrulkar watches the young national player Rahul Solanki play. Nehrulkar’s age doesn’t allow him to play anymore, but nevertheless, he is at the Rhino club every evening to guide the youngsters. A former technical officer at Tata, he started playing the sport as a young child. For him, carrom has been a way of life, something he refuses to let go of. As he shows a technique to Rahul, he looks up and tells me how the subculture of carrom hasn’t changed in Mumbai even after so many years. Though he does state that with the advent of YouTube youngsters have a new resource to learn skills from. Rahul nods, demonstrating a technique he picked up from an online video that made him win the nationals and earned him an interview at RBI through Sports Quota. “I didn’t get the job, but it made me realise that carrom in the country has a future. These tiny carrom clubs give so many opportunities to the less-privileged. I want to play for my country someday,” he says ambitiously.

A game of champions at Parel's Scorpion Club. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

The clubs at Parel are known to be the ones for the World Class Champions amongst the carrom club community of Mumbai. They are spacious and airy, formally registered, enjoy sponsorships and organize local tournaments as well wherein people from other clubs come to compete. But this hardly dissuades the other carrom clubs. Like these clubs themselves, its owners too sport a dynamic personality. They appear to be the ‘Bhais’ and ‘Dadas’ of the area with a stronghold on most of its activities - whether illicit or not. Both Usman Bhai and Mamu organize competitions in the club with a decent prize money. But for many players, these games go beyond matches, much like the 2010 Bollywood action-drama film Striker that explores the thriving carrom culture of Malvani would have us believe. These competitions also translate to power games - an opportunity to proclaim glory over these ghettos. Though these carrom clubs aren’t formally registered, they not only have court orders that permit them to operate until late at night but also certificates and acknowledgements from the District Carrom Association.

Mamu, owner of Philomeena Carrom Club has court orders framed on the walls. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

Another striking element of the carrom clubs is the way they encourage brotherhood in the slums of Mumbai that are perhaps the first targets of communally-charged politicians. A beautiful example of this lies in Khar Danda’s Om Sai Club that is together run by Harish and Nadeem who say that people of all caste and creeds play here. “At the time, only carrom is religion, nothing else,” Nadeem states. The feeling resonates in almost all the clubs. “Though this is a largely a Muslim area we have Hindu friends coming in from across the city,” states Ahmed Hussain of Dongri.

A game of carrom unites one and all. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

While carrom clubs promote a culture of fraternity they also invariably give out the message of inclusivity, something that can be seen at Shyam Gaikwad’s Carrom Club in the Ambedkar Nagar Chawl at Cuffe Parade which hosts people with disabilities as well. There’s a man who plays carrom with his feet, another man who strikes with fingers, and one who blows carrom mens into net holes – all prodigies that can be found in Mumbai’s underground carrom clubs.

Mumbai’s dingy carrom clubs have for a long time sustained generations – financially and opportunity wise. An entire community has sprung up consisting of different people who all bond over a game of carrom that has invariably become an inherent part of the city’s unexplored culture. For a few, it’s time pass, for others it is a passion. Nevertheless, it is an integral part of people’s lives here. But with builders coming in and crushing these settlements, how long will these carrom clubs last? Will they rise again? Will they have the same notorious character that lends it its charm? None of the players want to address this question. For now, they are engrossed in their games. All eyes are on the queen.

All photographs are taken by Rashi Arora for Homegrown.

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