The Challenge Cup

The club was another home from home for many of these grown-ups. They had become more than friends. They were of that transition generation, coming from the days of thatched houses, of labouring class, who witnessed the political wind blowing

By Dr Rajagopal Soondron

The Beau Bassin Hindu Cadets Club’s Divali Domino Challenge Cup was a regular and exciting event for the elders, an occasion for them to pitch in their real knowledge of the game, sidelining all the hollow talks they might have had about their supposed superiority during the past year. It was a round-robin tournament, and I have a feeling the final was held in the evening on Divali night itself.

As the four opponents had donned their best clothes and had had their hair well ‘brillantined’, all sweating under excitement and the warm climate of Beau Bassin, we boys did our best to squeeze our way to the centre of excitement and activity — the rectangular table. An umpire was chosen to shuffle the new dominos; he would give each one his share of six pieces, which the finalists had to keep in their hands below the table. The double ace holder would start the game and it was the umpire who took the piece the player indicated and moved it to the centre of the table.

In the name of fairness and transparency all was done to prevent any player from tipping his partner about his hand. I looked on, still ignorant of the intricacies of that game — but the seriousness of that party excited our immature mind further. We would hear some spectators, who had moved from behind one player to another, murmuring in a back corner as they gave their own point of view about the mistake of so and so. I would be more concerned if one of my four uncles were part of that final contest; unfortunately I never saw dad in a final, may be his mind had always been more on his business than on serious domino tournaments.

As a boy I was mesmerized by the silence of the club where during my previous visits there used to be guffaws, loud talks of superiority and self-praise. There would be three matches and a break in between to allow the worried finalists to recover their breath. Then suddenly the whole show would come to an end as the stress of the competition gave way to the sighs of relief and satisfaction of the winners; they would be congratulated while comments of all sorts would be passed, and some close friends would concur with their move and calculation during the very last leg of the final game.

Later the Challenge Cup would be presented to the two champion partners by the president of the club, each keeping it for six months in turn. That was the climax in the life of the club every year when the elders would return for the moment of a night to their childhood life with impunity. We boys would wallow in that atmosphere of festivities and bonhomie, and enjoy the last hour of our Divali night.

Most probably there was also a carom tournament; but it was not my favourite, being myself more attracted towards everything that had some mathematical leaning. I was more mesmerized by the colourful coded dots on the domino pieces. After all, spending years at my uncle’s shop and grandmother’s market stall had sharpened my mind towards counting the cents and doing all sorts of addition and subtraction – and I suppose a domino game was a natural extension of that mental, cognitive gymnastics.

The curtain fell

Personally I have seen three generations of members going through the club; unfortunately the latter had also seen many cyclones, like Alix and Carol, passing by in the 1960s. The wooden tin sheet building was battered and swung violently from right to left; out of its four rooms the tailor’s, that of the old couple of Madame Mimi and one of the club’s came out worst and had to be pulled down. Just after one such cyclone I remember the young members got together and helped to pull up what remained of the single room upright, propping it up with all sorts of wooden poles. As the weeks went by some form of permanent props was devised to keep the club standing.

This state of affairs would stand the test of time for two decades or so. As I got older and life at high school started to take its toll, I would drop in there on some rare occasions to wish the elders, looked on furtively again at their games; but life was already making a different calling for our generation. Soon we left for higher studies, and the club went on supplying all the good fun that those men of the vicinity could aspire to after their day’s work. It was the place where each of the old generation had learned something, lamenting the performance or praising the progress of their children with other friends. They had shared their own moral stories about religion or the harshness of life. Some of those stories might have found the way home where dad would transmit them to us children. More than a club, it was a collective fraternity of men in the same social boat.

The club was another home from home for many of these grown-ups. They had become more than friends; they were there to help at time of a wedding or offer condolences at time of a tragedy. They were of that transition generation, coming from the days of thatched houses, of labouring class, who witnessed the political wind blowing as the Labour Party or its nemesis – the IFB – came to give them new hope, generating a new socio-religious and political approach for the downtrodden. They saw the pre-Independence changes; the call of some statesmen to educate their children and to start practising family planning. They witnessed the economic boom of the 70s and all the attending transition thereof.

But gradually the old generation which should have been celebrating their 100th birthday this decade or so disappeared; some domino opponent like ‘Missie Garde’ came and wept at dad’s funeral. They had been bosom friends after all. Then came the second and third generations of members… all buddies and pals, until one good day, I am told, when some came to open the club at 4 p.m. they could not know who had closed the club on the previous night – and taken the key home for good.

Gone also was a photo taken around 1958 depicting the founder members; no one has never known what had become of it, much to our sadness. The club remained closed for quite some time, until many members half-heartedly stayed home in front of their new attraction – their television sets and video films. Finally the story was that the key was found by a member who took upon himself to return it directly to the proprietor, who gladly pulled down the old club and put up a new, walled-off concrete building in its place.

Sometimes my maternal uncle Vavel, well into his 90s, would be seen roaming near the crossroad, at times standing with some old buddies near the shops around and looking in the direction of the phantom club, as if waiting for his gang of friends of 60 years ago to reappear and start a domino game as in olden times. But lo — all that was just day dreaming. All friends had left him… stranded alone.

Of all those elders I remember vividly one of my dad’s shopkeeper friends, who once told me. “Garcon, a rose does not smell good when it is in a bud; it gives its fragrance only when it opens up and blossoms”. Only now could I appreciate his wisdom.

The club and its members had done their time.

* Published in print edition on 14 December 2018

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