Once every four years, men and women from around the world with the strongest thumbs and steadiest index fingers gather to prove their mettle. They chase the “queen” with nerves of steel, firm hands and unwavering concentration. The “queen” is often slippery, but then people from India, once the land of kings, have frequently succeeded in getting their prize.
At the last World Carrom Championship, held in 2008 in Cannes, France, the world got its current No. 1: India’s Yogesh Pardeshi, a lifelong carrom devotee.
Pardeshi lives in Pune with his wife and two children in a four-room flat where one room is reserved for his practice. Two boards are placed side by side, each illuminated by a low-hanging lamp. He sits in front of a board and fishes out from his pocket a white square case. Inside, a “striker” rests on a sponge cushion.
Pardeshi, 34, begins with a secret. “The corners of a carrom board aren’t flat. They are slightly elevated compared to the rest of the board. That’s why when a coin is near the hole, you miss it if you aim straight. It’s called the side effect.”
There’s a complex science to carrom; one that has taken him 8 hours of practice a day for 16 years to master. Pardeshi begins his day with yoga to improve concentration, follows this up with rigorous exercises for fitness and stamina and finally, game after game of carrom. His regime makes one rethink the idea of carrom as indoor family recreation.
On target: Yogesh Pardeshi is an Indian Oil Corp. employee, and lives in Pune. Sandesh Bhandare
“A carrom player needs to practise as much as any other sportsperson. It’s just that when we actually play, the physical and mental effort doesn’t show,” he says.
The carrom board is a sacred space for Pardeshi. Each time he sits to play, he comes to the “arena” with the devotion of a learner. He mutters a prayer and kisses his striker before beginning a game. Even when playing with friends, he competes seriously. Carrom is part of his identity; something he can’t fool around with, something he can never play for the ignoble phrase “time pass”.
He might be the world No. 1 but carrom is an unglamorous sport, only strong enough to elevate Pardeshi into the security of a middle-class life.
His father used to sell vada pavs at railway stations and was the only earning member of the family. Pardeshi picked up his love for carrom from elder brother Rakesh. “My brother was a fantastic player and won several district-level tournaments,” he says.
But when he turned 21, Rakesh needed to choose between his passion for carrom and responsibility to family. He chose the latter but went out of his way to encourage his brother.
Passion for carrom, and the realization that his brother had sacrificed his own game for him, made the younger sibling an uncomplaining disciple of the game. In 1991, when he was selected for his first district-level tournament, he couldn’t afford the entry fee. He sold his father’s empty alcohol bottles to collect the money. He would referee matches in the tournaments he played to afford food. “Refereeing one match would get me one coupon; I could either buy one tea or one cream roll with it. I would referee two matches to be able to have both tea and cream roll,” says Pardeshi.
Neither national nor international carrom tournaments offer any prize money—winners get only a trophy and a certificate. To manage expenses, Pardeshi began assisting a chartered accountant, who paid him Rs800 a month. He also sold strikers to carrom enthusiasts. In 1997, when he won his first state championship, he expected to find employment. Pardeshi knew several carrom players who had got jobs with banks and other government institutions, especially in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. He was confident that it wouldn’t be long before he too had a secure job.
He had to wait four years.
Pardeshi was offered jobs by five public sector companies when he was declared world No. 2 in 2000. He chose Indian Oil Corp. A few months later, he bought his first 29-inch carrom board. Till then, he owned a 14-inch miniature version his father had got for him when he was 12—to keep him from running to the nearest carrom club all the time. Pune has around 35 carrom clubs where youngsters pay Rs8 an hour to play.
“People flock to the place at 8am and play till 2am the next morning. Even then they cling on to the boards and need to be thrown out,” he says.
Now it’s better; every year, he gets himself a custom-made board (he uses three boards by rotation) which costs him Rs4,000. “You can’t use a carrom board for more than a year. The surface wears out, making them redundant for professional play,” he says. He donates his used boards to schools or deserving youngsters.
Pardeshi, who has company in Chennai’s I. Ilavazhaki as the women’s world No. 1, is gearing up for the third World Cup Carrom Tournament in Richmond, Virginia, US, in October.
He is also excited about Yash, his four-year-old son who is developing eager fingers. To prove that he means business, Yash stretches out his little hand to show what he’s been granted ownership of—his own striker, in a case with a cushion.