Social Contract

A Madhya Pradesh village’s obsession with bridge

Introduced over fifty years ago, contract bridge has become part of everyday life in Raibidpura village. courtesy deepak verma
01 June, 2019

The Hyundai Santro that picked me up last December at a bus stop at Oon, a small town in the Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh, had a bumper sticker that read, “musli ki kripa”—musli’s benevolence. Unlike the usual references on bumper stickers, musli was not some local deity. It was, in fact, an herb, a cash crop cultivated by farmers of the region, which is widely used for Ayurvedic medicines and sold at a price as high as R1,500 per kilogram. As we drove to the village of Raibidpura, Deepak Verma, who owned the car—he was the sole car owner among the farmers in his village—proudly claimed to have brought this unconventional crop to the village.

It was not musli, however, that had brought me to Raibidpura. I first heard about the village, in 2017, when I learnt about how its residents were excelling at contract bridge—a four-player card game, generally perceived as a game of the urban elite. Located just over twenty kilometres from the district headquarters, Raibidpura was predominantly a village of farmers. Deepak told me that the majority of the farmers in the village, which has a population of around five thousand people, belonged to the Gurjar community, which is classified as Other Backward Classes in Madhya Pradesh.

Raibidpura is not a typical Indian village. The farmers here have experimented with non-traditional crops such as musli. The crime rate is negligible. A significant part of the population consists of schoolteachers. Mass weddings are often held, to help lower expenses. And then, there is the obsession with bridge. The game, which is believed to have arrived in India in 1904, has been an integral part of Raibidpura’s culture for over five decades now.

The story of bridge in the village began, in 1965, when Dr Mohammed Zia Khan, a government veterinarian and resident of the Kasrawad tehsil in the district, was posted here. An aficionado of the game, Khan needed people to play with. So he taught the men of the village, and began organising games in the evening, after the day’s work was done. He gradually began forming teams to compete in district-level tournaments, where they played the usual bridge enthusiasts—wealthy businessmen, diplomats and senior government officials.

When Khan left the village, in 1980, the residents of Raibidpura continued to play, during the midday break at the farms, in the late evenings, whenever they got a chance. The losers usually had to stand the winners a round of tea.

Curious passers-by stopped to kibitz the game, and began picking it up themselves. In 2011, one such kibitzer-turned-enthusiast, Hariram Patel, saw an advertisement for the upcoming Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar National Bridge Championship, to be held in Indore. He and his fellow villagers wrote to the organisers, and decided to travel the 175 kilometres to participate.

When the eight pairs from Raibidpura arrived at the tournament, Manoj Kumar, one of the participants from Bengaluru, was awestruck at seeing bridge players in rustic attire. The Raibidpura players, who just played for fun, had no idea about the scoring system, but Mulchand Jawra and Kemal Verma finished twenty-first among the 79 pairs. Three days later, Kumar posted an article, titled, “A village called Raibidpura: Who says bridge is an elite game?” on his email group, and web forums such as Bridge Base Online.

Amaresh Deshpande, a bridge enthusiast, read the article. He decided to visit the village. As an educationist, he believed that bridge developed both social and intellectual skills among children. But he also saw that, as with other places in India, bridge was considered a male game in Raibidpura. He proposed a deal to the villagers—he would mobilise resources to allow the villagers to play bridge professionally, if they encouraged their daughters to play.

The men in the village were apprehensive at first, but Devdas Verma, a senior bridge player and a primary-school teacher, motivated his granddaughter to learn the game. Many others, such as Patel, followed suit. “It was like a domino effect,” Deshpande recalled.

Prasad Keni, the president of the Bridge Federation of India, told me that there is a dearth of young girls playing bridge in the country. “Competition among the junior girls’ category is a low-hanging fruit,” he said. In 2017, four girls represented India in the under-20 girls’ category at the World Youth Open Championship at Lyon, in France. Among them were Kalpana Gurjar and Vidhya Patel, twelfth-standard students from Raibidpura, who, like most teenagers in their village, aspired to become engineers. It was the first time they had been abroad. They finished in thirty-fifth place, out of 42 pairs. They were also awarded the World Bridge Federation’s award for the best girls’ pair in the Flight B event.

Kalpana’s father, also a bridge player, had encouraged her to learn the game. She told me that she used to barely pass mathematics before picking up bridge, but understanding the probabilities and permutations–combinations involved had helped her top the subject in her class. She stepped out of her village for the first time when she participated in a tournament at Ludhiana, in 2012, at the age of 14. Vidhya, meanwhile, was Hariram Patel’s niece, and learnt to play with the help of Deshpande and his fellow enthusiasts.

As promised, Deshpande had garnered support from bridge patrons across the country, in cash and kind, including books on the game and five computers equipped with the Bridge Master software. With the villagers’ assistance, Deshpande also rented an empty two-storey house to hold workshops and allow bridge enthusiasts a permanent venue to play. The house was equipped with basic lighting, low tables and internet connectivity, and soon became known as the Bridge Kisan Club.

In the initial six months, Deshpande told me, youngsters were taught mini-bridge, a basic version of the game, without the complicated bidding process of tournament play. Ten girls and six boys enrolled in the first batch, in 2013, and were coached by Deshpande and Parimal Vahliya, a professional player, in the standard American yellow-card method, a widely prevalent form of the game. Khan had taught the older generation the strong-club system, an alternate form that originated in China and has a different bidding system. Many of them, including my host, Kemal Verma, continued playing strong-club, but joined in the classes and workshops to learn enough of the SAYC method, in order to guide the children when the coaches were away. By now, word had got out about the bridge players of Raibidpura, and teachers of the game intermittently stayed in the village for days to conduct free classes. With funds from the BFI, excursions were organised to the Golden Temple at Amritsar and the beaches of Goa.

“Raibidpura has the highest concentration of young bridge players in the country,” Keni told me. According to BFI data, the average age of a bridge player in India is between fifty-five and sixty, and the pool of nearly six thousand members mostly consists of retired professionals and businessmen. Bridge enthusiasts include wealthy tycoons such as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. The latter donated $1,000 to the Bridge Kisan Club for its rent.

On the night I spent in Raibidpura, the men started assembling at the club, on chairs sponsored by Union Bank, after an early dinner. The teenage players were absent, due to approaching school exams. The players were a little disoriented by my presence, but were soon engrossed in their games. Some elders sat by their side, observing the games and offering suggestions after. A gaggle of amused pre-schoolers kept drifting in and out of the club.

The following day, Deepak dropped me back to the Oon bus stop. His 12-year-old son Utsav accompanied us for the ride. He had started learning bridge when a teacher arrived from Indore, in 2017, to train four youngsters—Kalpana, Vidhya and two boys—for the world youth championships. Utsav recently competed in the national tournament in Mumbai, and was raring to travel further. “Anywhere out of the village,” he told me.

Smita Pranav Kothari is a features writer and brand-communication consultant based in Ahmedabad and Delhi.