Slum Golf

The millionaires’ game where you least expect it
RECREATION
Teeing-off area on a street opposite Chembur Camp
Water hazard: aka the sewage drain
ORGANIC GOLF COURSE Mehboobani on the fairway

When Suresh Ramesh Mehboobani strikes the ball, he looks every bit a golfer. Wearing a white golf cap, a striped polo shirt tucked neatly in, he maintains a measured distance from the ball. He arches his back, moves his feet to grip the ground better, and when he swings his stick, his body moves along in perfect harmony.

Except that Mehboobani is not on a golf course. He is on the premises of a bus depot in Chembur, central Mumbai, trying to lob the ball over a stationary bus gathering passengers and over the houses right behind it, avoiding a billboard advertising the services of a neighbourhood dentist. His ball is a bright red plastic sphere that costs Rs 5, and his stick, an iron rod whisked off a construction site and twisted at the bottom. For a handle grip, he has rolled on a discarded rubber tube of a gas cylinder. When he strikes, a part of his stick hits the road, and, with a spark, the little red ball shoots into the blue sky.

But, at that very moment, the bus suddenly comes alive, even as a strong breeze blows in from the opposite direction. “Shit,” says Mehboobani, as the bus moves a little ahead. He has miscalculated his stroke. The ball hits the hoarding, bounces off, and lands on a rusted tin roof. Wry smiles form on the lips of the other two players, Nagesh Bing and Rohit Jadhav. They have better luck. No disturbances come their way, and they take their shots without difficulty. Meanwhile, Mehboobani asks the owner of the house on whose roof his ball has landed for permission, and climbs atop to take his next shot.

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Mumbai has three large golf courses, in Mahalaxmi, Chembur and Colaba, and these have had a peculiar impact on the behaviour of those who live around them. Having watched golf matches endlessly, either from over broken walls or through holes in them, locals living closeby have devised their own version of the game. In essence, it is the same game, though with a few innovations to enable them to play it affordably. If the golf clubs are makeshift iron rods, the golf course—of three holes, typically—stretches across any open space they can find, from the bylanes of their slums to pavements across busy roads. Each hole is dug with hands and heels and the number of players can range from two to as many who turn up. And almost always, sums are wagered, from Rs 10 all the way up to Rs 500 on a good day.

The ‘roughs’ of their course tend to throw up challenges that can boggle the most accomplished of golfers. There are all kinds of objects that need be got around—or over. Sometimes, their shots require delicate precision, like while nudging the ball under the wheels of parked vehicles. Often, they need strong heaves, like while launching the ball over drains and heaps of garbage.

Mehboobani lives in a cluster of homes close to Chembur’s Bombay Presidency Golf Club, the source of both his employment and passion. Along with other youngsters who live in this area, he works as a caddie on this course. When they are not assisting players, carrying their bags and clubs (and occasionally offering advice on their game), they play in their own neighbourhoods. “I was around 14 when I would bunk school to climb the wall [of the club] to watch what these people were doing,” he says. “Sometimes the balls would land outside the club’s premises and [I and my friends] would go find them.” For each ball returned, the club would pay Rs 5. Soon, he was offered the job of a ball boy. And in a few years, he secured the job of a caddie.

Bing, a sixth class drop-out, who at 20 is some seven years younger than Mehboobani, has a similar story of his initiation. His family had fallen on bad times, and had to sell their house in Goregaon to live in a rented tenement on the outskirts of Chembur. He too first found work as a ball boy before his enthusiasm and ability to locate lost balls landed him the job of a caddie.

“Over the years, as more of us from the locality got jobs at the golf club, we started developing this game of ours,” says Mehboobani. Earlier, they would give little thought to the rods or balls they used. But over time, they perfected their clubs and began using lighter balls so that people would not be hurt if they were hit.

Most of them are the sole earners of their families. Around 200 caddies queue up every morning at 5 am at the club. A lottery system decides who among them are to get jobs that day, and at what time. Caddying for an 18 hole-game fetches them Rs 200 each. But heavy rain almost always mean no golf.

Jadhav lives with his younger brother and mother in a roadside shanty that has come to be called Behind Golf Hole No 10, thanks to its location. They have been here a while, but are unsure of how long they can stay. Every few months, municipal trucks turn up and pull down houses in the area. “Golf has remained the only constant in my life,” says Jadhav.

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I first met Mehboobabi and some of his friends over a year ago. Watching club members play golf so closely had had a profound effect on each of them. They all wanted to become professional golfers, irrespective of the limitations of their resources, and saw the job of a caddie as a means to that end. They would improve their skills at the sport, using the club’s greens when members were not around, and playing their own version in their slums whenever they could, waiting all this while for someone to notice their abilities and sponsor them. Despite the odds, each of them also owned discarded golf sticks and balls. Using such equipment, Mehboobani was already playing at the amateur level, and many others, at the junior.

Over the past year, however, two large grounds have been walled off that they frequented to play their version of the game. One of them is a football field now, and the other, a construction site. Meanwhile, the club passed a rule barring caddies from playing on its course.

With his sliding chances of getting a professional break, Mehboobani now works as part of the administrative staff at an upcoming golf club in Kharghar. “My job is now to collect fees, and see if they are wearing the correct attire. Nothing to do with golf,” he says. “It’s a promotion they say, except that it doesn’t feel like one.” Bing and Jadhav still work as caddies, but they have not played golf at the club in over a year. Bing has just completed a six-month-long English speaking course to see if he can swing an office job. But, as ‘real’ golf goes further out of reach, their slum games have been getting more frequent, and, as Bing claims, worth a lot more. “We have learnt…” he says, “That is their game and this is ours.”

However, last week, a new president at the club lifted the prohibition on caddies using the course. Some like Jadhav hope to start playing there again. Others like Mehboobani believe there is no point in chasing such an illusory dream.

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By the time Mehboobani gets his ball off the tin roof and into his first and second holes, the other two players are leading the course. They are on the verge of scoring their third and final hole. That is when he calls for a lighter stick. A kid disappears into his house and emerges with a selection of rods. He examines each, and picks one. If he is going to find the third hole from this position, it is going to be an incredibly difficult shot. The only way is through a narrow passage with several houses on either side. And right in front of the hole, screening his view, is a clothesline with the day’s washing.

As he takes aim, children playing cricket outside a nearby house and a few old men chatting among themselves stop to watch Mehboobani. He knows the area well and has a reputation of taking tough shots. The crowd cheers him on, but the golfer concentrates his attention, staring intensely at his target without any sign of acknowledging the encouragement.

Mehboobani raises his club and slices the ball gently, with none of the exaggerated flourish of his previous strokes or spark of metal on concrete, but with what seems just enough to do the job. The ball flies through the passage and hits the centre of a white bedsheet. The game comes to a momentary halt as the golfer tells a protesting lady that he will wash the sheet for her.