Did you know that Chennai’s slums have an enviable record of producing international champions in carrom? Prince Frederick walks through the narrow alleys meeting the game’s enthusiasts

There is a brighter side to life in Chennai’s overcrowded slums. Take an evening stroll through one and you are certain to find groups of people hunched over a carrom board, often illuminated only by an overhanging 100-watt bulb.

Welcome to the world of carrom-crazy slum dwellers.

“Among the early sounds that a new-born gets to hear in these areas is the tak tak of the striker hitting the wooden bumpers,” says S. Anandan, secretary, Chennai District Carrom Association. “As roads here are narrow, cricket or any other sport can’t be played. Carrom demands much less investment of space and money, so it is preferred.”

C. Bharathidasan, a State-level carrom player, knows firsthand how champions are made in slums. He says: “A slum resembles a dovecote. As most houses are one-room tenements, even a very small lane will have 50 of them. Children of the same age — and there are many of them — gather regularly to play carrom. That’s how I learnt the game in Pulianthope.”

Boardrooms!

At every turn, there is encouragement to play the sport. “Almost every street will have carrom clubs. They are nothing more than small portions of houses let out for carrom players. For every game, a fee (say, Rs. 5) is charged. It is in these ‘boardrooms’ that champions are made,” says A. Maria Irudhayam, twice world champion and nine times national champion and winner of the Arjuna Award, who hails from Periamet.

Irudhayam was near-invincible in the 1990s. Among other brilliant carrom players to emerge from Madras’ slums in the 1990s is Magimairaj (Palavanthangal). In the 1970s, both Lazer (Chindatripet) and S. Deli (Washermanpet) won the national championship twice. The dominance that began then continues to this day — the reigning national champion, Radhakrishnan, is from a Vyasarpadi slum.

Many women champions have also emerged from the city slums. Much before Ilavazhaki captured our imagination as the carrom queen, women players from Madras’ slums have registered historic victories. “In 1995, Revathi from Periamet took the women’s crown in the world championships at Colombo,” says Irudhayam.

For most families in a slum, carrom is a bonding factor. Unmindful of age and gender, family members team up for a game. Thanks to this, even diffident girls get to learn the game.

While players from slums have built up India’s image as a carrom super-power for decades, it is only now that their role is being fully recognised and appreciated. India would have been a more powerful force in the world of carrom, if these players had received more support.

Money, or rather the lack of it, has been a problem. Good players used to pass up international tournaments for want of a sponsor. Ilavazhaki’s career flourished largely because of help from good Samaritans, including State Sports Secretary Christodas Gandhi.

But things are a lot better today. Among signs that the Government has started according importance to the sport is the Rs.10-lakh award for Ilavazhaki and the recent installation of a carrom hall at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. The Chindatripet Boys Club (a home for delinquent boys run by the City Police) is sponsoring a carrom club with many boards. More organisations are keen on having a carrom team.

Bharathidasan sees the invitation to join the Indian Bank team as a turning point. But the fact still remains that carrom occupies the fringes, and only a clutch of players from slums receives continued patronage.

In the mid-1990s, E. Mahavinayagam (Pulianthope) showed promise by notching up sensational victories at the State sub-junior and junior-level tournaments. Now a driver, he can’t risk his job by absenting himself for carrom practice. “I will not get selected to represent the district or the State, unless I turn up for official practice regularly and show results,” he says. Straitened circumstances, however, don’t force people such as Mahavinayagam to give up the sport entirely.

“I play whenever I have the time,” he says. “I simply can’t give up carrom.”

Meet the winners

Except for M. Natraj (a Coimbatore-based player who is currently ranked State number two), all the players in the State’s top eight are from Chennai slums.

S. Radhakrishnan (from Vyasarpadi) is the reigning State champion.

At the national level, many top-ranked players are from Chennai slums. Radhakrishnan and Ilavazhaki are national champions for two consecutive years now. Ilavazhaki has won the world championships, this year and last.

Over the years, the city slums have produced players who have garnered glory for the country. In the 1990s, Maria Irudhayam won the world championships twice (besides winning the national title nine times). During that decade, he stayed in the top three.

For most families in a slum, carrom is a bonding factor. Unmindful of age and gender, family members team up