My mother used to tell me that my brother and I never had the kind of fun that she and her siblings had when they were young and that my nephews did not have the kind of fun that my brother and I did. It is true that she was subject to less academic pressures than my brother and me, and we were, in turn, subject to less academic pressure than my nephews. By “fun”, however, I think she was referring to the freedom she enjoyed. Freedom to play and run free. I can relate to that.
Growing up at a time, when we did not have a TV at home and video games or smartphones were not even a thing, we relied on our imagination and the company of our friends to spend the time. I grew up in Kumara Park which was fairly built up even in the seventies. Most of our games were played in the streets. We played a wide variety of games, there were the usual suspects – cricket, football, hockey and badminton. These games had to be adapted to fit the constraints that the width of the street and the passing traffic imposed on us. However, there were a slew of other games. These were played all over India and were infused with the local flavors depending on the region where they were played. While talking to my brother a few days ago, we started reminiscing about these games. Our memories are hazy, after all, we are talking about games that we played over 40 years ago. However, even though the train of memories starts and sputters uncertainly, it gathers speed and then chugs along merrily. Here then are some of the games that we played.
The earliest games I learned to play were those involving marbles. Called “Goli” in Kannada or “Goti” in Hindi, both referred to the shape – “Gol” being round. Marbles came in all sizes and colors. Each one of them, beautiful, with swirls of color within transparent or translucent orbs of glass. Depending on their color, they were given different names. A completely dark marble was called a “Whiskey”. A slightly lighter tinge of greenish hue was called a “Brandy”. A clear marble with no swirls was called a “Soda”. Then there were the “Milkys”, white marbles made of stone. Our games were played with standard sizes. There were the larger sizes called “Dummas” (Fatty) and the smaller ones were called “Putanis” (Little one). There was a standard rate of exchange that prevailed when we exchanged marbles. A rarity that my brother won in a game and we never traded or played with was one with three swirls in the Indian tricolor.
When it comes to the details and names of the games, my memory has faded. There were a variety of games – “Ring” and “Marie” come to mind. The standard game involved starting from a line and firing or flicking the marble towards a “bud”, a small, shallow depression in the asphalt. The person who got to the bud first could then fire at other marbles and win those marbles. There probably were a number of strikes involved. I remember that over one weekend, my brother had a phenomenal run and he won close to 45 marbles! All our marbles were stored in a pink plastic box at home. He has a pretty good memory and he remembers the scoring system that we used and it went something along the lines of “Ettas (8 points), Damman (9 points), Daskit (10 points), Ek Ek (11 points) and Dudum Dadela (12 and 13)”. It’s funny how our memories work. He remembers some aspects of the game and I remember others, our memories complementing each other. Incidentally, the time to gouge the “bud” was immediately after the asphalt had been freshly laid. No doubt irritating to the “Public Works Department” or “PWD” but of utmost importance to the kids was to get the bud hollowed out while the tar was still soft. If we had to dig a bud on an already established road, some kerosene would help! Turns out that marbles have a rich history in India, archaeologists have found round spheres of stone at Mohenjodaro which they surmise were marbles.
Next up were the tops or “Bugris”. These again came in different sizes and the game had a terminology of its own. The terms I’m using here are those used in Bangalore where I grew up, I’m sure these varied depending on where the game was played. The top itself was called “bugri” and was made of wood. The rope that was wound around the top to spin it was called “Chatti”. We used to tie a knot at the end of the chatti so that it would not slip through our fingers. You could get more fancy of course. We would take the metal bottle caps of drinks like Gold Spot or Thums Up, flatten them with a stone, punch a hole through them with a nail and then pass the chatti through the hole and tie a knot on the other side. The flattened metal cap was very effective when the string was wound up. There was a hierarchy with these bottle caps too, the caps of Kingfisher beer were prized.
Again there were different games, the one I remember involved a group of kids who would all wind the chatti round the tops and spin them. Each kid would then try to lift the top up into their hands by looping the chatti around it and lifting it up. The trick to do this as quickly as possible was to wind the shortest length of the chatti to spin the top. A predetermined number of tops were left in the ring (the stragglers who were last to pick their tops up) and the other players would now try to spin the tops by striking the tops in the ring and then collecting the top again. This was hard, but people got good at it with practice. If the top was struck with a nail, the kids would gather around, pick he top up and inspect the damage. If it was a particularly large dent, we would ooh and aah and place it back to resume the game.
There were the professional “bugri” players who would pull the nail out and add their nails. These souped-up tops could inflict heavy damage, occasionally splitting the other tops. This was called a “gunna”. Occasionally, the top would fail to spin and roll on the ground, this was called a “Lotte”. One could take a timeout by calling “oofi” as the tops were being spun. The other game involved trying to spin the tops in the air and placing the palm below the top before it could hit the ground. These were called “apeets” probably a corruption of “up-its”. Tops were a fascinating game and often, when alone, we would practice by ourselves. Trying to increase our speed by winding the top with the shortest length of chatti possible or trying to strike an old top on the ground. When I was in 6th grade and at the end of my top-playing days, we started getting these fancy tops. They had another nail on the top with a sleeve around the nail. The chatti was attached to this sleeve, so when spun, the top would actually spin in the air and we could rotate the top around by spinning the chatti around. Tops have been around for centuries, Homer likens the fall of Troy in the Iliad to the last revolutions of a top – “reels like a top, staggering to its last turnings”.
Incidentally, marbles and tops could easily be carried around and impromptu games could be played anywhere. At home, at school, at the bus stop while waiting for the bus or at a marriage hall where a boring wedding would be in progress. A shehnai would be droning morosely and the air would be full of gossip. The hall would be warm and humid, especially if it was summer. Smoke from the ceremonial pyre would add to the heat and confusion. You were there only because your parents had dragged you along. The prize was the lunch, but that was still some time away. Now would be the time for marbles or tops on the street outside the hall. Woe betide you though if your parents saw you in your nice clothes, squatting on the road and playing marbles!
Tops and marbles could be played with a small number of players. When the number of players increased and especially if we had girls joining us, then we would play “Lagori”. Lagori involved splitting the players into two teams. Boundaries were established on the road, usually by drawing a line with a piece of chalk. A group of seven flat stones would be stacked on each other. One team would take turns to hit the pile with a tennis or rubber ball. Once the stones were struck the strikers’ team would try to reassemble the stones while the opposing team would gather the ball and try to hit the members of the strikers’ team with the ball. Anybody who was struck would be out of the game. You could avoid getting hit and hence being struck out by touching a member of the opposite team. You had to stay confined within the boundary if you stepped across you were out. If the striker’s team assembled the pile of stones, they would have to say “lagori”. I think we had to say it more than once and then was probably some other action involved with it.
The game would continue till all the strikers’ team were out and then the opposing team would become the strikers. The game was interesting. One had to strike the pile but avoid dispersing the stones far away. Reassembling the pile took several tries as sometimes the stones were not assembled correctly and if a heavier or larger stone ended up on the top, they pile would topple over. The idea was to shield the person assembling the stones, so sometimes players would try to distract the opposing team or sacrifice themselves to allow another member of their team to assemble the stones. Now that I think of it, this has all the classic makings of a corporate team-building event!
Perhaps the deadliest game was “Choorchand”! Not for the faint of heart, this involved bouncing a rubber ball, letting it bounce three times and then taking the ball and hitting anybody at random. Once struck, if you managed to gather the ball, you would pelt somebody else with the ball. I don’t remember us organizing into teams, it was just pure mayhem! This was also the time to settle grudges and old scores. Kids would sometimes plead with the striker to go easy on them. There would be informal alliances. Then there were the great escapes. Finding yourself absolutely exposed with no hope of ducking, you would see the striker lift his hand back, a gleam in his eye, eager to strike you and as you braced yourself, the throw would go awry, the striker had been too excited! There were the maniacs too who would get carried away and throw the ball hard. There were occasional tears and after the game, we would compare our scars, the ball would have left bruises on our body. Now that I think of it, I’m not quite sure why we played this game, perhaps it was a rite of passage to prove our toughness.
While Choorchand was all violence and mayhem, “Kings” or “Hawli Kawli” was a more refined and team sport. I don’t know if this was the British cantonment version of Choorchand. We never played it around our house, but my brother picked it up at school and introduced it to us. The objective was the same as choorchand, but here the game would start with some sort of a toss where the losing player would become for a lack of a better term the “attacker”. The objective was to strike the torso, upper arms, thighs, face or the back of any of the defender. The defenders could shield themselves with their fists, forearms, legs below the knee and head. The defenders could only touch the ball with the tips of their fingers, the ball could not touch their palm. So if the attacker tried to hit the ball and missed and one of the defenders got the ball, the defender could lob the ball to other defenders making the attacker run around. If the attacker touched a defender while the ball was in possession of the defender, the defender was out and joined forces with the attacker. Similarly, if an attacker was able to strike the torso or unprotected part of a defender, the defender would be out and join the attacker. The last man standing was the winner. As a defender, if one crouched with the face shielded behind clenched fists with the upper arms and lower legs exposed, then one could defend himself from a frontal attack. This game was interesting in the sense, the roles would be reversed where a defender who was “out” would become an attacker. As the number of attackers increased, it would become harder for the defenders since they could be attacked from multiple directions. One way to defend oneself from an attack from the back was to crouch in a corner or alongside a wall.
Perhaps the game or sport that elicited the most passion was kite flying. At its essence, it could be an apt metaphor for the vicissitudes of life. The kite flying gaily in the sky, seemingly free, yet restrained by the length of the string which would be drawn and extended at any time and was tethered to the ground. We usually flew kites from our terraces to gain the elevation and avoid obstructions. They could, of course, be flown from open fields too. Kites could be bought in the store or assembled at home from kits that were sold in a store. You could, of course, make your own kite using paper, broomsticks and glue. By broomsticks, I don’t mean the shaft of a broom in the western sense (that witches use as a vehicle) but the thinner individual sticks that comprise a traditional Indian broom. The kite was braced with a frame made of broomsticks that went along the diagonals of the kite. The kites we made were usually not equi-diagonal, so one broomstick lay straight along the longer diagonal while the other one was curved and traced an arc with the shorter diagonal forming the chord. We used camel glue if it was available if not, cooked rice also worked. A tail was attached to one corner of the kite. The thread could be bought at the store where it came rolled around a spool. The spool had a shaft that passed through its center and it could rest in our palms, the spool rotating as the kite took flight.
Kite flying could get competitive. There were duels fought where the objective was to cut the string of your adversary’s kite. As the string was cut, kids would run to claim the kite as it floated down to the ground. The weapon here was the string. It was called “manja” and was coated with powdered glass to make it an effective cutting tool. It could be bought at a store where it usually came colored or it could be made at home. I remember my brother making it at home once. The paste was made with hot water, maida (flour), an adhesive called “vajram” which had a distinct pungent odor and powdered glass. The string was then soaked section by section in this liquid and hung out to dry on our balcony. These were effective and dangerous, it was very easy to cut oneself while handling the manja.
Kites are flown during certain festivals in India and as such have a joyful connotation. They feature in several Bollywood song sequences with beautifully choreographed scenes. However, to me, there is also a dark side associated with kites. A senior of mine from school, who also commuted by the same bus as I, fell to this death as he flew a kite on the terrace of his house in Kumara Park. It was easy to get caught in the excitement of a duel, he did not realize that he had stepped back to the edge of his terrace and toppled over. I also remember the Hindi story “Kaki” by Siyaramsharan Gupt. This story was told to me by my brother when I was about 9 years old. It involves a little boy who has lost his mother and pines for her. As he watches a kite flying in the sky, he is struck with an idea. He asks his father to buy him a kite. His father who is still grieving for his wife agrees to do so but forgets about it. The next day, the boy steals money from his father’s coat and buys a kite and string and is in the act of assembling the kite together with a friend when the father storms in. He slaps his son for stealing the money and tears the kite in his anger. However, he is touched when he realizes that his son had written the words “Kaki” (mother) on the kite and was flying it in the hope that his mother could come back to him via the kite. It is a poignant story and made quite an impression on me.
In many ways, many of these games were quintessentially rural games that were probably played for centuries with some modifications along the way. They made their way to the cities and towns along with the migrants and were played by kids each evening. With the advent of cable TV, the internet and smartphones I’m not sure how many of these games will survive in the cities. I won’t be surprised though if kids end up playing multi-player games involving marbles, tops or kites on their smartphones!
The lovely, evocative sketch that accompanies this piece is by my good friend, the supremely talented Naren Kini. Naren along with his twin – Ravindra played many of these games with me and my brother over forty years ago! Notice the Lotus flower above the window, this was a popular motif at that time. The clothes hanging on the line and the overhead water tank complete the picture! You can see more of his beautiful art on his Facebook page – 4artfulness.