“Must be fun having them within calling distance, uncle.”
“Not really, E. I get to spend more time with you than with them.”
The “them” in this snippet of a conversation were a pair of siblings around 8-12 years old. The “I” happened to be an old gentleman in his mid-seventies. The “them” were “I”‘s grandchildren. They seemed like well disciplined children and it made me wonder why would this kind gentleman find their presence not pleasing to the gentle paterfamilias’ heart.
“They are too busy with the video games and computer games to have time for me. I am too boring for present-day children.”
After assuring him that his grandchildren loved him but just preferred to find entertainment elsewhere, I walked down the narrow slums near that place (not really near, not really slums) and then walked into one of those palatial multi-storeyed complexes near my place. I had to contrast these settings before I realised what was missing. Children created their games on the streets and had them shrink-wrapped where streets were paved with polished granite. I don’t think it is a matter of granite as much as the lack of motivation to take responsibility for one’s own mirth.
Quick, what’s common to hide-n-seek, gilli-danda, cricket, seven-stones and dodge-ball? Whatever other people say, I think the common element is interdependence. Were it not for that, none of these games would make sense (well, book-cricket might be an exception, and it was always fun to note Gavaskar get out for 0 due to a flip in my History book. For those who don’t know what book-cricket is, it is a simple game waged between two countries – and at that time we knew the team and batting line-up by heart – and we use a book to generate runs. A person flips the pages of a book and the value in the units place of the page was the runs made for that delivery. If the page ends in a 0, the batsman returns to the pavilion!!). Togetherness was the single dearest sweetness that dripped from the games we played. We hated those who beat us at a game but called out their names on the following day.
“Kya hai!?” (What’s it?)
“Chal aaja.” (Come on over)
“Nahin to kya; gudia-ki-shaadi?” (What else, play with dolls?)
“Chal rukh. Abhi aaya.” (Hold on. Will be there)
Then we would hear his mother shout and remind him that he had tonnes of homework to finish, interleaved with hopeless assurances that all homework will be completed.
“Oye! Ball leke aa.” (Oye. Bring the ball when you come down)
We lived in places where there was a large spacious playground. Once we were done with our homework we would rush down and spend not more than one minute in deciding what we had to play. If the rains were generous, it would be football in the slush, else it would be decided on the grounds of a majority vote. No one ever voted against football in the rain. If there were floods, we would play a more vigorous game of football esp. near where the girls floated their paper boats. Tsunamis caused by a soccer ball left many pig-tailed girls weeping in the rain.
Gilli-danda was another sport which was noisy and full of fights and had every parent worried (it was a dangerous game, but we had wormed in some safety precautions). The sheer joy of daring a measurement of the danda back to the hole, flipping the gilli past all those who waited to catch it, tapping the gilli and smacking it across the ground and of course claiming a double score by tapping the gilli, hitting it once again before the smack – such well choreographed was our simple joy!
Seven stones was a game, along with the likes of “Chain” (a modified version of tag where the person who was caught joined in the chain of people who chased the others), lock-n-key and hide-n-seek which we had to play in order to pacify the group of girls which included our siblings and which had a rather shrill and whining representation in the midst of parents. We, of course, declined to have any participation in a game of dolls (I nevertheless used to overhear their conversation only to learn that the best stories were created in the midst of hairbrushes, doll-houses and small plates of “namkeen” that the main doll’s husband brought home!). These were considered to be sissy games because we couldn’t chase a girl simply because she might start crying about being the first one to be “out” or being hit too hard by the ball (in seven-stones). Sheesh!!
Now I step into an apartment complex’s play area and find a great lack of any kind of activity. There are some rather tiny tots playing something sweet and cute under the eagle surveillance of their mothers (who can also be quite sweet and cute). Once a kid touches 8 or so, they are more than happy playing alongside a Playstation or some games on computer. The girls seem to be a little sweeter and hang on to their girlie games for a shade longer before the allure of the telephone/mobile takes over. I hope I am painting too gloomy a picture because it would be a great relief to know that I am wrong. Not really. Most kids out here do just that. I entered several apartment complexes to check this out, and the scenario is mostly the same. Where there are independent houses kids stay at home as there is lesser availability of open spaces for group-games. With the onset of onerous homework and project work and all other kinds of work, togetherness-games are less likely to take form. Nowadays, parents want their children to be a mashup of Da Vinci and Einstein with a dash of Tendulkar. After-school classes and courses keep the students packed through the best hours of the day. We would play into the night too (hide-n-seek is best played in the dark) and sometimes have rounds of carrom, playing-cards, UNO, Scotland Yard, daaya-kattai (or chausar) and other board-games.
The equipment required for realising these joys was minimal and whatever they were, were economically achieved. I think thrift matters, esp. in the early impressionable days of childhood where the value of each rupee spent should be clear to the child. Once, a child is born into a family of X-boxes and Nintendo, the power to find joy in any and every situation is automatically curbed. We used to invent games while in the train (and not complain about no video games or demand flying to our destination), while on the bus to school (and continue the game in the evening while riding back). We couldn’t be rendered game-less and that invincibility brings a lot of character to a growing child.
My sister and I used to play a game (which I now realise brought her more glee than little ol’ me). She called it Doggy Doggy (all girl games had the same word repeated twice for special effects). I was the dog and I had to do whatever she said. For some strange reason, I thought it a great honour to be the dog. Why? Because my sister had only the power to give orders and pat my head for being a good doggy, whereas I had the full spectrum of imagination to carry out her orders in pretty dog-like manners. Those days trained me a lot before my real theatre-days (it ran in our blood, anyway). Another game was of her being a teacher (either of her arcane subjects of history and geography which I hadn’t yet encountered or Bharatanatyam, which I kinda liked except the head oscillating part) and I being a student. She particularly savoured the portions where I was forced to be wrong and she got a chance to walk up to me with a stern look, stick in hand! Poor me!
On sunny mornings, many of us would gather together and hire cycles (I think the charge was then Rs. 2 for half hour or something like that). We would all go racing around the campus and then find great thrills in streaking down a slope. Then came the pride of riding without holding onto the bars.
What do we gain in isolating ourselves and building electronic worlds of predictable companions (who spend most of their time shooting down the bad guys)? These games are what make us respect one another and provide for lasting memories. What will the 5 year old of today have as memories 20 years down the road: “Man, I really missed the 15,000 score on RoadRash. Damn I hate power cuts in Bangalore!” Speaking of power cuts, I still remember how we used to moan for a second before rejoicing a power cut. It was such a predictable recital coming out from every dark home in the locality. Ooh! … Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Then all of us would rush down and play antakshari in the dark. Crazy teens would rush into the dark with their boy/girlfriends, just to hold hands (I am told). We would simply shake our heads and either continue our game or join in a game of rummy in candlelight.
Things were so manageable then. I still wonder whether a game of “thennai-marathilai yearaathai” (a small game of getting the child to stand on your feet and then using your legs like a see-saw and raising and lowering the child to the tune of the song) would ever entertain a child. What about Akkad-bakkad-bumbey-bo (where half a dozen of us would place all ten fingers on the ground and have one person hop their finger on each one while the song played and the finger on which the song ended would have to be folded within – the person who had at least one finger extended won)? What about the game where one person drops something behind another person and then gets chased (forgot the name)? What about dog-n-bone? Jesus!! DOG-N-BONE!!! I so miss that game! Damn, no one my size wants to play that! Nowadays, it is Age of Empires that grabs people in my group! 😦
I think the future lies in what children play today. If you care about the world and the days it has to see, you might want to gather a few children around your place and teach them the joy of lock-n-key.