Chennai: The Olympic Recreation Club, or ORC, is easy to miss. Its one narrow doorway, situated in a perpetually frantic side alley of T Nagar in Chennai, is cut into the same building as a tea shop. Only a tiny blue board bears, in Tamil and English, the club’s name. Upstairs, seedy rooms lead off slim corridors, all watched over by two old men in two old chairs.
But, out of such humble beginnings, sometimes, can world champions be born.
Game on: The Olympic Recreation Club draws youngsters mostly from the poorer sections of society.
In the international sport of carrom, there have been five male and five female world champions—and, in a feat of domination that is usually expected from China in table tennis, all 10 have been Indian. Seven of the 10 have been from Tamil Nadu.
Five of those seven count ORC as their carrom home, the place where they were tutored in the game, or where they honed their finger-flicks over thousands of hours of practice.
“Really, if you look at any of the top carrom players in India, somehow they are linked to this club,” says B. Bangaru Babu, executive president of the Tamil Nadu Carrom Association. “Even Swiss and Fre-nch carrom players have landed in Chennai and come here to practise, just because th-ey’ve heard so much about it.”
More nations play international carrom than Test cricket: 17, including countries such as Australia, Japan, the US, South Korea and Germany. But no country took the sport to heart as India did.
Once, almost every middle-class home had a carrom board tucked away behind a door or on top of a wardrobe. These evenings, though, are passed before soaps, video-games and the Internet. The carrom board remains hidden.
But, Bangaru Babu insists that the love for carrom is still alive, even if it has stepped from one demographic to another. There are many poor children passionate about the sport, he says, but they need support and guidance if India is to keep producing world champions.
In 1969, a benevolent Malayalee named K.K. Sivadasan started ORC to encourage indoor games such as carrom, chess and table tennis, simply because space for outdoor sports was at a premium. The club now has 942 members, who pay Rs1,200 every two years as fees.
To make its rent of Rs30,000 every month, ORC also charges card players a fee to lease two rooms of circular, velvet-covered tables for card games every evening. “But, no gambling, though. Make sure you mention that,” says K. Govindan, who has been secretary of ORC since 1975, which was also when he first met Bangaru Babu.
To say Bangaru Babu is synonymous with carrom is to mean it, in this case, literally. He is known in the sport’s circles as Carrom Babu, and his house is named Carrom Villa. He started, over the course of a long career, the All India Carrom Federation (in 1956), the International Carrom Federat-ion (1988), and the Asian Carr-om Confederation (1995). La-mely, but nonetheless earnestly, Govindan says: “They shou-ld rename the sport ‘Babu’.”
In his youth, Bangaru Babu was an ardent, and rash, football player. “I broke my arms and legs repeatedly, and it was when I was recuperating that I got interested in carrom,” he says with a gap-toothed grin. He was part of the first ever Indian carrom tour overseas, in 1960; the team won gold. But, when he realized that he could not be both administrator and player, he gave up active duty and settled down to forming federations.
At 73, his wild halo of black hair now greying, Bangaru Babu is still active in carrom. The ongoing summer camp at ORC, for instance, is his baby —Rs150 for two weeks, tea and lunch included. In one room on the terrace, 20 boys bake under an asbestos roof as they crouch over six carrom boards, all emblazoned with the legend “Approved for use by ICF.”
Every so often, a boy sprinkles talcum powder, almost as sacrament, to kill friction on the board’s surface. Every boy’s fingers are white, and on the black edges of the boards are piles of talcum powder, laid out like lines of cocaine. To prevent the powder from flying, the fans are off, and light from the low-hanging bulbs bounces harshly off the shiny boards. The heat doesn’t fluster the boys, though. Ignoring the sweat, they line up coins on the diagonals of the board and, with their ivory striker, knock them one after another into pockets. “We do things systematically,” says Bangaru Babu. “We start with the grip, then move on to individual strokes like doubles, bases, cuts. We even teach them how to sit on their stools!”
Bangaru Babu, President of the Tamil Nadu Carrom Association, correcting the hand position of a student.
The ORC’s boys and girls are drawn invariably from the poorer sections of society, says Bangaru Babu. “These kids have no access to playing fields, and they have no diversions like television or anything else,” he says. “Carrom is a relatively cheap game, and it needs little space. In small clubs across Madras, for Rs2 per player, you can buy yourself a game and play.”
This summer’s camp includes, among others, Ruben Prabhu, a 12-year-old who, for the second year in a row, has come to Chennai from Sivakasi, 400km away, to participate. Two others, D. Balaji and D. Vignesh, leave their village every morning at 6.30am, commute the 40km to Chennai by train, play carrom for three hours, and return home by 3pm, exhausted. “People ask us almost every day in the train why I am so keen to bring my boys here,” says D. Meenakshi, their mother. “But you never know where their future lies. It is important to nurture this interest now, I think.”
In 1993, a nine-year-old girl named I. Ilavazahagi came to ORC in a similar vein. “There was a tournament there, and I got a letter saying I’d been selected to play,” she says. At the time, her family was so poor that she could only practise on a board at a neighbour’s house. When she began attending carrom sessions at ORC, though, her career began to ascend, reaching its peak a few months ago when she won the women’s world championship at Cannes, France. Ilavazahagi’s story, and her straitened background, attracted a storm of local publicity. The state’s chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, announced a cash award of Rs10 lakh for her, and like previous champions, she found a government job that allows her to keep focusing on the game.
“Ilavazahagi’s victory was a huge boon for us,” says Bangaru Babu. “We have a lot of kids coming in now, eager to learn, after she made the news.” Already, the Tamil Na-du government has announced the launch of a dedicated, 4,000 sq. ft carrom hall. “But her case is nothing new,” he says. “For years, the best carrom players have come from the slums, from the poorer sections of society. That is where the game lives in Tamil Nadu.”
As proof, on a recent Sunday afternoon, Bangaru Babu takes this reporter to the oddly named Rave Youngsters, a three-board carrom club near the Chennai harbour. The only unthatched wall of the club is a huge hardboard poster of Sonia Gandhi and Tamil Nadu Congress leader G.K. Vasan, filched from some long-forgotten political rally.
Rave Youngsters was started by V. Senthil Kumar, a state-ranked player who is now a day labourer at the port. “I would go to watch carrom games at the Port Trust, got interested, and went to state-level carrom in two years,” he says, smiling. The club’s immediate area is rife with champions. Senthil Kumar vaguely points in the direction of the homes of Ramesh Babu, the Indian No. 3, and M. Suman, a state champion.
In the summer vacation, children from surrounding neighbourhoods throng the club from 7.30am to 8pm, rotating between boards to play. “And then, sometimes, we go home and play, if we have a board at home,” says Nagaraj Nagappan, nine years old. “I started coming here after I saw everybody else on my street set up carrom boards in the evenings and play till night.”
In north Madras alone, Bangaru Babu estimates there are 25 or 30 such clubs, each as unassuming as the next. “Regularly, we come here to just sit and watch,” he says. “We see which kids show some talent, and which ones need some more practice and exposure. Then we invite the promising ones to our camp at ORC.” There, the process of turning them into champions begins.
A Carrom Club in Chennai called Olympic Recreation Club.
Back at ORC, Bangaru Babu asks Govindan to dig out the press scrapbook from a plain steel cupboard. On thin, brown leaves, press clippings of every size, with any mention at all of ORC, have been pasted with care. The book prompts an energetic session of nostalgia—a flood of anecdotes that inevitably start with, “Do you remember when…?”
On one leaf, Govindan points to a photograph of a very young Viswanathan Anand receiving his winner’s trophy at an ORC chess tournament (Bangaru Babu: “Was that 15 years ago?” Govindan: “No, no. At least 20.”).
“You know, the chess master Manuel Aaron saw Anand here at a tournament, and at a later prize distribution, he predicted Anand would have a big future,” Bangaru Babu says. He continues flipping through the book, until he comes to the last press clipping. There are some blank leaves left in the scrapbook yet.
Photographs by: Arjoon Manohar/ Mint