Yet another Zoom birthday went by and as usual, all kids wondered when we would be able to meet each other. What was the point of meeting, I wondered, when most kids and all adults would be glued to their phones except when the host called them. Just then I remembered this unique outdoor birthday party (pre-COVID) where I was pleasantly surprised to see some spinning tops among the hula hoops and balls.
The kids who had only seen Beyblades were clueless about what to do with a bhavra. The parents on the other hand jumped in eagerly and started wrapping the bits of dhaga around the bhavra and releasing it in that quick, jerky hand motion so the top would spin. Aah, what joy it was to realise we still had it! The only thing missing was the metal bottle lid we used at the end of the string to anchor our fingers lest it slip while releasing the bhavra.
Recalling that heady feeling reminded me of the outdoor games kids played in Mumbai the 80s and some into the 90s.
When the city was still called Bombay and everybody went down in the building compound to play. It was way before societies had a recreation room or fancy play areas and the space around the building was not reserved for open parking.
There were no tennis courts, only the neighbour’s table for playing table tennis. There were no manicured lawns, but there were plenty of bushes and trees. We knew what it was like to pluck the mehendi leaves from the bush and take it to our moms to grind it into a paste way before mehendi cones were available. We learned to climb trees in the open and did not have to pay to climb walls in indoor soft play areas. In the absence of any safety gear or helmet, we were instinctively careful. Previous experience taught us that recklessness resulted in skinned knees and punishment at home.
When we were not climbing trees, we became experts at flinging a stone from our bechki (catapult) to try and get the fruits. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Nerf guns kids play with but I don’t wonder if it would be any good to aim a nerf bullet at a fruit hanging on a tree. We may never know as there is no room for an almond or mango tree in the landscaped gardens of our multi storey buildings with amenities.
At a time when amenities were few, every toy was precious and very few kids had the luxury of a broken toy being replaced or got new toys when it was not their birthday. So we hung on to our precious bechkis, bhavras and gotis (marbles) like Golum.
We may have sung the popular nursery rhyme as “Ringa ringa roses” and not “Ring around the rosie” and we might have been ignorant about a few more things like that. We lacked sophistication but we knew how to play.
During vacations, we played non-stop except when Chitrahaar, Chayageet or Mahabharat was on!
There was no attempt to make each kid special or happy or entertained all the time. Even during birthday parties only the kids who won the games went home with prizes. There were no return gifts for all or an attempt to distribute the prizes evenly. We had to compete and if we lost so be it! Being a good sport and not crying after a loss was a necessity born out a need to avoid being labelled a cry baby.
As the childhood memories came flooding back, I realised that these kids were missing out on both, the joy of being outdoors and the basic skills we developed ever since we were toddlers by simply playing outside with other kids.
“Tu Kachha Limbu hai!”
As we started school, the older kids included us in most of their games even though we were still kaccha limbu, which meant our points didn’t count as we were not yet considered a pakka player in the team. The older kids drew the squares when we played chapri or hopscotch as they call it today and allowed us to jump using both feet because it was easier than hopping. We tried to learn to hop as quickly as we could so we could become a pakka limbu. Every team had to pick some little ones and give them a role. It saddens me to see the teens huddled around with their phones and the little kids playing only structured games these days. Free play with kids of all ages, genders and sizes is the easiest way to pick up social skills, no?
The average fifth grader might know all about the Bludgers in Harry Potter or dodged bullets online but not dodged a tennis ball or rubber ball flung at them by kids while playing lagori. Or even been hit by one. No, no I am not advocating violence in the playground, just the opposite. Lagori was played in teams with a stack of uneven stones.
Each player in the team stood at a distance and took turns to aim the ball at the stack. The team that managed to hit the stones got the ball and the other team had to assemble the stones as they were pelted with the ball. We had to have excellent hand-eye coordination while aiming the ball. We had to be sure-footed to dodge the ball while quickly trying to stack the uneven stones. If the team assembled the stones and screamed lagori they won else the team that managed to hit every player with the ball won! Generations of kids figured out the order of placing the stones according to their size without ever having played with expensive stacking toys as toddlers.
And being kachha or pakka in any game was a relative skill. If every kid did underarm bowling while playing cricket, every one of them was pakka. In a mixed game where the majority of the players were skilled one had to qualify or be treated as kachcha.
While growing up, what we said sounded more like teimplis, Kids used the term to take a break when they needed to take a leak or drink water or sometimes to skip their den and the other kids had to let them go and pick another denner.
Whose turn to be it or the denner in the game was decided by going around in circles with the “In pin safety pin safety pin, in pin out, khelna hai toh khelo varna get out” rhyme where each kid who out stepped outside the circle. The one left behind would take the den. This was either the seeker in hide and seek, which we knew as chupa chupi, or the kid whose turn it was to catch everyone in catching cook, or pakda pakdi as we called it. Even in team sports like langdi there was a denner who went to catch the kids in the opposite team. Some kids also called it diner. It varied depending on where you grew up.
Most of us figured early on not to abuse the “time please” privilege and to use our discretion while taking a break because one too many dens skipped might result in us getting not picked for the next game. All important life lessons were learned organically like that.
We knew we had to cooperate while playing saakhli, which was an elaborate version of pakda pakdi. In this game, the denner would tag a kid and then both would hold hands to catch the next kid and so on as the kids formed a chain till the last kid was caught. It was tremendous fun and there was a lot of laughter but we knew that we were only as fast as the slowest kid. Over time we knew we had to catch the faster kids first because we could get to the slower ones later. So even though the slow kid was a low hanging fruit we knew we had to chase the speedy ones. And if by chance that didn’t happen everyone laughed it off and there was no blame game.
If any kid didn’t like the rules or their parents interfered, they soon discovered that helicoptering was not tolerated. Kids usually avoided other kids whose parents were too interfering. Naturally, the parents had to learn to let go and let their kid fight their own battles within reason.
“Aye, ball de na!”
If there were minor issues and scuffles while playing, we knew that complaining to the parents only meant either complaint or complainee would not be sent to play the next day. Fewer kids meant limited options because we couldn’t form proper teams. So we preferred to solve these issues at the playground. Someone or the other learned to mediate. Natural leaders emerged who decided on a fair penalty. Without attending any class we learned leadership skills and problem-solving skills in real life.
Wanting more kids to balance the teams also meant accepting all kinds of kids in our midst. Before knowing terms like differently-abled, special and autistic, we knew that we needed to be kind to kids who could not play like us. We waved at the autistic boy who sometimes cheered us in his own way when we were playing. We also included him in some games that he was able to handle. I was shocked to read an article about the neighbours calling the police to complain about an autistic child in their society.
Before knowing terms like differently-abled, special and autistic, we knew that we needed to be kind to kids who could not play like us.
Another reason to accept every kid into our fold regardless of gender or age or size is skill was that almost every kid had something that was needed to play a game. A bat, a shuttlecock, a racket or a ball. That is why even if the kid couldn’t come to play because she was unwell or had exams, the other kids felt it was ok to ask her to throw the ball down from her balcony. After the game was over, they went and returned it.
These days every child has their own badminton set, cricket set, carrom board and every board game imaginable but little inclination to share or even look after their own toys let alone someone else’s.
“Baithe, baithe kya karen?”
Antakshri! Whether it was the school picnic bus or just sitting around on a rainy day, this game could go on and on. At one point I think most kids knew the first couple of lines to at least 500 songs. Some knew all the words of at least 50 odd songs. We used to debate over whether a song ended in a vowel or consonant. Someone always pointed out certain songs, which didn’t begin with the popular line but with some obscure words. For instance, the popular song “Pag ghungroo bandh” started with “Hmm mm…buzurgone farmaya”. Time slipped and we never realised how soon it turned dark and it was time to go home or how quickly we reached back to school after a picnic.
Antakshri could go on forever!
Today, on car trips, kids know about the Word game and I spy and have an endless supply of munchies, ear-phones plugged to every kind of music, too many video games to count, iPads mounted on the back of the seat but they still plague the parents with the dreaded question “Are we there yet?”
But, all that can remain behind in the pre-COVID world. As we slowly ease into our new normal lives, which are still largely virtual and only partially physical, let us try to consciously move kids away from online games to outdoor games whenever possible.
Wondering what games to teach your kids? There are so many awesome ones to choose from like land and water, langdi, kho-kho, kabaddi, saakli and, of course, lagori. But you might want to start with a couple popular outdoor games from the 80s which are one the verge of extinction.
This is like lock and key where the denner goes around tagging each child as vish or poison, which meant they had to stand still until another child touched them and said amrut or nectar.
A waste tin or dabba is kept in the middle of a circle drawn on mud and one child kicks it as far as they can. When the denner goes to get the dabba other kids hide. The denner has to find each hidden kid to make them out. If a kid manages to sneak past the denner and kick the dabba again the game continues with the same denner else the first kid who was spotted by the denner becomes the new denner.