It was race-day in Kolkata *, and the amateur tipsters were everywhere. Even before I’d had breakfast, a man sidled up and invited me to a brothel, next-door to the birthplace of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. “You’re going to the racecourse?” he asked, spying the ‘Racing Guide’ that I was holding - an elegant little publication with a yellow cover, bearing the legend: “First in 1915, Foremost Today”. “Yes,” I said. “I have some numbers for you,” he told me, reaching into the innermost pocket of his tatty suit jacket and pulling out a tiny piece of card. “Wait, wait,” he muttered, squinting at row upon row of minuscule figures, scrawled on the card in blue biro. “Yes!” he exclaimed, “First race: number one, Sixth race: number seven.” The pimp nodded with solemn finality. Then, with a hopeful smile, he continued his patter, “You come tomorrow, maybe? Nice girls?”
The tram meandered down through the Maidan - the largest area of city parkland in the world - running along parallel to the racecourse for five furlongs. The vehicle slowed a little, but showed no sign of actually stopping, and so I executed a Dettori-style flying dismount, breaking the thong of my flip-flop in the process. I limped towards the grandstands, following one of the day’s runners who, escorted by a stable-lad, was daintily stepping over heaps of ashes and rubbish piled up beneath an underpass. There is clearly no pandering to the delicate sensibilities of equine superstars in India. The horse and I parted company at the Saddling Area, near where a band of Indian Army bagpipers was warming up. An old man crouched on the pavement outside the track selling sealed envelopes of tips for ten rupees (15p). “Six winners guaranteed,” he croaked matter-of-factly. There were only seven races on the card, so this strike-rate, if true, would have made him the Bengali equivalent of Pricewise! I strolled through the turnstiles and into the ‘Grand Enclosure’, a title that must have been raising ironic smiles even during the autumn years of the Raj. The grandstand, the betting ring and the paddock had a sepia-tinted seediness, like Graham Greene’s Brighton. The whole racecourse was peeling like a Swiftian prostitute and yet, somehow, it remained indisputably elegant.
One historian of Kolkata, Oneil Biswas, wrote that “Englishmen imbibed the habit of gambling at home. In the 18th Century this became an obsession with them. And when they came to Calcutta they could not get rid of this ‘ruling passion’. It is difficult to detect much “passion” in today’s Bengali gamblers, however. The men gathered around the concrete Big Top that houses the independent on-course bookmakers were chatting quietly, like defendants awaiting the return of the jury-members - defendants who are fairly confident of their acquittal, but wary nonetheless. There the men stood, singly or in small groups, smoking their acrid, brown, stubby cigarettes, and studying their pocket-sized racecards with terrific concentration, as if the day’s winners would be revealed to the first man who, through mental heat alone, can actually bore two eye-shaped holes into the page. The dusty area behind the grandstands reminded me, perversely, of Chantilly, albeit with a more relaxed dress code. A sign outside the Members’ Enclosure warned that anyone wearing Kurtas, sandals or pyjama trousers would be refused entry. In the cheaper sections of the course, however, many punters went barefooted. “Losing one’s shirt” is, I suspect, a less frightening proposition for these raggedly louche gamblers than it might be for their British counterparts. The gloomy Tote counters were hidden away beneath the main grandstand. A young man stumbled out of these catacombs, cheering and showing his broken yellow teeth. The older men ignored him, but he leered at me and asked excitedly, “You know horse-racing?” At half past twelve, the whisky was already tart on his breath. His (more) sober friend clapped me on the shoulder and advised, “Watch C. Alford - he’s the best jockey in Kolkata. Christopher Alford… he should have two, three winners today.” Everybody had a tip; everybody had the day worked out, it seemed.
I slipped through a gate to watch the last couple of races in the five-rupee (8p) enclosure. It was sparsely-populated. Several of the elderly spectators had slipped their sandals off and were lying, stretched out and asleep, on the splintered white benches in the grandstand. There is no champagne tent or overpriced seafood restaurant in the five-rupee enclosure; people do not come here to “network”, to “mingle”, or to “be seen” - fortunately, as it turned out, for a man in front of me, who spectacularly cleared the contents of one nostril all over the webbing between his thumb and forefinger. I sat down next to a man in his thirties, who held up a finger and declared, “one,” “One what?” I asked, hesitantly, “Number one,” he said. I was sceptical - number one was fourth favourite in a field of six and all but one of the previous races had been won by odds-on favourites. Kolkata is no betting paradise. Its prize money is less lucrative than at other Indian courses - Pune and Mysore in particular - and so the racing is less competitive. Taking into account the deduction on stakes and winnings, most of the day’s winners were sent off at around 3 to 1 on - prohibitive prices for the average punter. Yet the racecourse remains a great attraction for the men of Kolkata, perhaps because of the extraordinary illusion that gambling offers its disciples: the illusion that the gambler is in complete control of his fate. At the racecourse there is nothing but self-reliance. Nobody forces these men to back a particular horse. Nobody but themselves is to blame for their losses, just as nobody else should take credit for their glorious, if infrequent, successes. This illusion is comforting enough in small-town British betting shops; in a city where life is as precarious as it is in Kolkata, it is downright intoxicating.
There are no televisions in the cheap seats, so the man next to me sat fiddling with his cigarette lighter for the first three-quarters of the race. We peered out towards the white marble dome of the Victoria Memorial, topped with its bronze angel, and as the runners passed the two-furlong marker we were, at last, able to make out their colours. The man next to me looked up to see his horse - at six to one - pulling away easily down the finishing straight. He shrugged coolly, shook my hand and repeated, with a bashful ring, “Number one.”
* The city’s name was officially changed from Calcutta to Kolkata in 2000.