Every afternoon, Manju Agerwala wears her pearls, puts on her favourite lipstick, and sits at her feltlined bridge table. The three other chairs are empty but her card coterie is present — online — all similarly tiptop in front of computers in their respective homes. Three hours and many tricks later, the 80-year-old is ready to call it a day.
The miracle of online bridge has transformed the lives of thousands of players across India—bringing succour to senior citizens who have been endlessly incarcerated at home; enabling competitions to continue as before; and even giving employment to some who lost their jobs but reinvented themselves as on
line teachers with students across the globe.
Before the pandemic turned life into a blurry calendar of socially barren days, especially for the elderly, bridge used to be that regular, happy ritual to look forward to—not just the game, but the accompanying side dishes of tea and friendship. Although the players cannot see one another online, many continue to dress up as if they were going to the club. As Agerwala’s daughter Anisha says, “Just having that ritual gives them a sense of normalcy and security. It helps our mother cope better.”
A generation of folks who could barely type out a text message suddenly became fluent with their digital devices. They sought help from grandchildren, friends, or neighbours and invited each other on to the free and user friendly platform, Bridge Base. The result went far beyond the game. Many got over their technophobia and gradually acquired other digital skills — like Sonal Sheth (75) who says she now scrolls the internet for recipes and watches shows on YouTube, or Gulshan Jasdanwala (83) who has figured out online banking to pay her staff. “Bridge is like a big family for us,” says Jasdanwala. “We play every single day and it keeps me so happy because I can spend three hours of my time gainfully using my brain. How much can you read? And I’m not very fond of television.”
S Sundareshan, president of the Delhi-based Bridge Federation of India, says chess and bridge are two games that people have been able to pursue despite the lockdown. The federation has successfully conducted all the major tournaments including the summer and winter nationals with over 1,000 participants from across the country, enabled by cameras and other security devices. In fact, some players who were too old or infirm to travel for the competitions have now been able to play. Many are silent kibitzers – the term for those who watch in on someone else’s game. “The camaraderie and accompanying coffee/ drinks that go with the game may have been lost, but it’s certainly better than the situation with other games which have completely stopped,” says Sundareshan, adding that even after the pandemic, he believes that there will be a combination of online with real playing. Poker, rummy, chess, even ludo, are all actively being played online through the pandemic, but bridge players view themselves as the sacred elite who play with clockwork regularity and are willing to dish out handsome sums to learn.