Thursday, 20 March 2008


“Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi announced a cash prize of Rs.1 million for World Carrom Champion Ilavazhagi.” This was a recent news item in March.

Huh, Ilavazhagi, who?

That would have been the reaction of many in a country obsessed with cricket and adulation of cricketers. Ilavazhagi is the winner of the women’s title in the fifth World Carrom Championship held at Palais Des Festivals, Cannes in February. She defeated P. Nirmala, also from India, in the finals.

Such is our preoccupation with cricket that even hockey, the (once national?) game at which India has been champs, has been sidelined. Except that a hue and cry was raised when the team failed to qualify for the Olympics this year. But the players were spared the ignominy of having their houses stoned, or worse, burnt down, to which our cricketers are subjected when they are perceived as having fared badly by their adoring fans. We have to grant that to our cricket lovers – they are scrupulously fair.

Never has Viswanath Anand, world chess champion, been feted the way the cricketers are, not even in his home town Chennai. Little wonder he prefers to live in Spain. So what would one know about this young woman, Ilavazhagi, World Champion in a lesser known game?

In fact, I was amazed to learn that the game was totally unknown in the USA, and that a carrom board could not be bought there. There are people who do play the game, but they are Indians, or of Indian origin.

In India, it is a game that holds the interest of one and all across villages and cities. And if there is a world championship being held in Europe, I assume there must be other countries where it is played.

Ilavazhagi is the daughter of Irudhayaraj, a fish-cart(three wheeler) driver who transports materials like PVC pipes to make a living for his family – a wife and three daughters. No mean player himself, he trained and taught Ilavazhagi to play carroms from childhood. And she played to win. Her victories included the Asia Cup and SAARC Cup.

The small one-room apartment they share in Vyasarpadi, Chennai, is barely enough to house the family. The carrom board has to be accommodated definitely, and after that it is a tight squeeze. The trophies she has won over the years are far too many, and her home is just not big enough to house them. Those that have been left over after filling up the space under the bed, have been given to neighbours and relatives for storage or display, as they see fit.

But for Ilavazhagi the need to get a job was greater than housing her trophies. Even while she played she has been looking for a suitable job.

Many Thamizh magazines (they were the first to pick up her story after her victory) publicised her difficulties in enlisting help to make the trip to France, and earlier, to other places where the tournaments were held. Financing the trips has always been a big hurdle, not easily overcome, though she has been playing for the state for almost 14 years. Her bitterness shows when she remarks upon the recent big-money talk in the auctioning of players in the Indian Premier League deals.

The award from the Chief Minister was some sort of recognition to this world champion. The notification said, “Ilavazhagi's victory has brought fame to the state. This cash gift is being given to encourage her to achieve other, bigger victories.”

The good news is that Ilavazhagi now has a job. Sri Ramanujar Engineering College at Vandalur, has appointed her as the Sports Secretary of the college.

Now perhaps, with the worry of getting a job out of the way, Ilavazhagi can concentrate on her next move – not on the carrom board, but on getting a regular sponsor.

Photo from Internet


Jillu Madrasi said...


heckler said...

two points:

one, money: if you want to make a living of sport, play a sport which pays well. don't play carrom and expect a cricketer's salary.

two, fame and honour: in what way does winning a cricket tournament or carrom tournament bring honour to the country? has india become a better country because we won a three-nation cricket tournament in australia?

i agree, though, that in the event the state does recognise and reward sporting feats, it should treat all achievements equally.

Indrani said...

It is a great achievement by Illavazhagi and the chief minister too recognized her achievement. Hope she continues to win many more such laurels for our country.

Kat said...

A glowing accolade to Ilavazhagi... thanks Raji... she has done our country proud. And thanks for giving us a glimpse of the odds she had to fight against.

Good of our Govt. to have rewarded her well.

I am impressed with your awareness that India didn't qualify in hockey for the Olympics. Wow :-))))

Gardenia said...

Thank you for this interesting and informative piece! What touched me the most was that Ilavazhagi's father trained her so painstakingly!
I never knew there was a Carrom World Chmpionship! I agree with what the heckler has to say too - and it doesnt apply only to sportspeople; in what way does an Amartya Sen or a Kalpana Chawla or a Mira Nair 'bring honour' to India??


Heckler, Gardenia, I think 'to bring honour to India' merely means that the rest of the world becomes aware of India for a moment, when for the rest of the time, it couldn't care less.

Kat, I did not know that India not making it to the Olympics was such a well-kept secret. :)

Indrani, I hope so too.

Thanks, Jillu.

Kamini said...

Thanks for this lovely post, Raji. I'm afraid I had no idea about Ilavazhagi or her achievements until I read this.

Viji said...

Raji , did you know , or rather , have I ever told you that Venky's mother , that lovely , gracious lady, so beautiful and reticient was the Maharashtra Carrom Champion during her time ? Apparently she was a force to reckon with during her school days at the King George High School in Dadar.

Gardenia said...

Viji that is amazing! thanks for sharing that with us!

Vijay K. Narayanan said...

I wouldn't think cricket being so raucously popular is such a bad thing after all. And the reasoning is a bit cyclical.

If we hadn't been so obsessed with cricket, then Ilavazhagi's achievement would not have seemed too significant. The fact that the girl has trumped so many challenges in addition to being successful in a sport other than cricket makes our heads turn, and underscores to us the real sense of her achievement. Otherwise, we might cast her triumphs as mundane or not worthy of a blog post.

Thanks for an informative piece. Let's hope she continues to reign supreme for a long time.

Sarumann said...

I enjoyed this piece...Good for her!!

Talking about carrom in the USA.. I thought you would find this interesting - There is now apparently a critical mass of desis here who care enough about carrom to hold national championships. One of my friends from Columbus was pretty good and used to actually make it to different league levels.... In desi stores in NJ and California (and perhaps other states with a high density of desis), carrom boards and other paraphernalia are now available... Seven or eight years ago, we made appa/appa buy one for us from India and bring it to the US...

Karthik Narayan said...

good post - picture this scenario: Sanath Jayasuriya, son of a fisherman gets more newspace than this girl. And hockey - we had a disgraceful exit for the first time ever, and look at those administrators. what do they have to say? cricket and tv (sometimes in that order) are a global waste of time and deserve their place - trash bin. I have trashed mine about two years back....

Karthik Narayan said...

I dont agree with Indrani's comment that our CM recognised Ila for her achievement. he did it cos she's a tamilian!!!! still an award is still an award i guess...

Akinol said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Praveen G K said...

Let me be honest here!! I never knew about this, but then, I don't this was even well covered in the news. Sad state of affairs!!!! We just do not want to go beyond cricket!!!


Kamini, Praveen, to be honest I did not know much either about this girl's achievement till I saw it bruited in the Thamizh magazines. Sometimes it is good to be provincial. :D.

Viji, we never knew and Venky should rightly be proud of her.

Sarumann, thanks for that info.

Vijay, Karthik: however we feel about cricket, I am glad you agree that Ilavazhagi's achievement is worth noting.

KannanRaja said...

This is amazing... i feel ashamed to be spending time online reading junk tamil magaznies while such achievers are not even noticed... I heard Ilavazhagi's name from Tamil new year pattimandram and searched for a while to find this blog. I really appreciate you getting the info.

vas said...


In a cricket obsessed country, achievement of a fisherman's daughter achieving such a grand title will go unnoticed with a mere eyebrow raised "oh".... let all the cricketers kow-tow her

Ashvin said...