Brick Lane Market 5
On any Sunday, at the heart of Brick Lane, where all the food stalls cluster upon the railway bridge, you will find eager gamers around Carrom boards, absorbed in their games, and you can guarantee there will be a crowd of spectators too, mesmerised by this fascinating sport from India that is a curious blend of Billiards and Drafts. Played with discs upon square wooden boards coated in french chalk, the objective is to knock you opponents counters into the pockets at each corner.
If you look closely among the throng you will spot the cunning genius responsible for this spontaneous flowering of a vibrant game culture that has complete strangers of diverse backgrounds playing together across the table every week. Slight of build, with spidery limbs and lanky hair – a man who greets everyone as a friend – this understated presence is Carrom Paul, President of the Carrom Association of the United Kingdom.
“One day fifteen years ago, I went to Ealing and I saw these game boards that I’d seen in India, so I bought four and brought them back to the Spitalfields Market and set them up for people to play, but it got so big I had hassle from the other stallholders. I was selling religious artifacts then, and once I sold the Carrom boards, I thought I wouldn’t get any more. But this old Indian man came along and explained that the pockets at each corner are the four great religions of the world, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism, and when all the religions meet in the centre there will be peace and the moon will turn red, represented by the red counter at the centre.
So then I decided to buy lots! I moved to the Upmarket and they gave me the dead stall out the back where no-one goes, but I opened the fire exit and played my music and everyone came in from Brick Lane and the place was full of people playing Carrom. Eventually they put my rent up from thirty to one hundred and ninety pounds a week, and squeezed me out of there in 2009. Then the food stalls on Brick Lane invited me to join them and set up my Carrom boards and play my music, and I’ve been here ever since. And now, this is my life! It’s become my life because I love the game so much. The beauty of it is there is no luck, no chance, only tactics and play. You get lovely people come to play, no blaggards, drunks or druggies – they can’t be bothered. It’s a magnet. It’s chilled out and it’s relaxed.”
Gentle Paul comes up to Brick Lane from Tunbridge Wells every weekend. He takes the day off on Monday, does his website orders for Carrom boards on Tuesday, delivers them on Wednesday, and spends Friday and Saturday preparing for Sunday. Now he has a mission to get Carrom declared an Olympic sport, and since Billiards, which is a derivative of Carrom, has already been listed, he has high hopes of success.
It certainly is a beautiful spectacle Carrom Paul has conjured on Brick Lane, an unlikely haven where anyone can sit down and play for free. He paired me with Robbie, a passing white-haired gentleman to try a friendly game, just to learn the ropes and develop our technique for flicking the counters, and by the end of the game – which I found unexpectedly relaxing – we had become friends. It is a perfect Sunday pass time, civilised and egalitarian, with subtle religious overtones.
You can visit Paul’s shop www.carromshop.co.uk
Carrom Raj, the Carrom Master in Brick Lane- “to my mind, he is the best Carrom player in the UK.”