Two weekends ago, my wife and I took the boys to one of their schoolmate’s birthday party, and it ended up being one awesome day for us as well—a day of unexpected fellowship and cultural diffusion. We didn’t know the parents all too well at the start of the day, although we have all crossed paths very briefly at our kids’ school, and they’ve been to our place once or twice, owing to our own boys’ birthday parties in the past, but these have all been cursory meetings so far. We expected nothing more this past weekend, having planned to stay for only the two- or three-hour window scheduled on the invitation for the party. Instead, we were the first couple to arrive, and we ended up having such a great, interpersonal conversation with them, they ultimately invited us to stay well into the night and to join them when a dozen of their older friends and even more family arrived for a much larger celebration. Everyone in attendance, with the exception of my wife and myself, hailed from India, so we got a chance to play a couple of great games of Indian origin.
The first Indian game we played was a simple, pick-up thing called Chowka Bhara. The conversation had started because I’d seen a wooden Mancala board on one of their end tables, and before you knew it, we were talking games. They’d never heard of many of the modern games my wife and I mentioned we play; they were accustomed to more traditional title—”grandfather games,” as I call them. He went to a closet and pulled out a hand-made copy of this Chowka Bhara. I’d never heard of it before, but this is an ancient, roll-and-move game that can be played with extremely common components like shells and stones, and the board can either be made out of wood or something elaborate, or simply scratched into the dirt. Our host had his copy marked off on a flap of cardboard and kept his various shells and stones in an old Nutella canister. Chowka Bhara is very much in the same vein of abstract games as backgammon or Ur, which I covered a couple weeks ago. However, I think Chowka Bhara is more interesting and dynamic than Ur.
What I thought was most fascinating about the game was that it uses four cowry shells as “dice.” When you “throw the dice,” you basically drop the shells and read them as a series of binary results: either aperture-up (1) or aperture-down (0). A little research reveals that this is fairly common among “grandfather games” like this, but it was novel to me, so I was fascinated by the idea. The only thing I thought was problematic about this was that a dexterous and dishonest person might learn to have fairly good control over the thrown results, as you can easily feel which way the shells are oriented in your hand. This may, of course, be me thinking too much like a “game designer” and being ever preoccupied with prophylactics against cheating. However, there was a moment when our host reminded me to clearly “drop” the shells all at once, rather than “rolling” or “spilling” them out of my hand. I’m sure this protocol is in place for that reason.
Later, into the evening and after the full guest list had arrived, we went outside for a hilarious sport they called Lagori. The gist of the game is this: the players are divided into two teams. One team, which our host called the “offense,” throws a tennis ball from outside a circular boundary and attempts to disrupt a stack of flat stones at the center. Once done, one player from the offensive team must then run into the center and try to rebuild the stone stack, while their teammates attempt to shield the builder from all sides. The defense, then, tries to peg the offensive players out with the ball, hoping to eliminate all the players before the stack can be rebuilt. It is of course in the offensive team’s interest to disrupt the stack as little as possible in the first place, and the game is unsurprisingly chaotic and physical.
This is the boring version as it would be described in a rules manual. “Official Rules for Lagori,” perhaps. But this is where any sort of “officiality” ends, because, in fact, there are no “officials.” Once the play-action begins, there are twenty or more people in motion all at once, and no one but each other to hold themselves accountable to the rules. At first I was a little bit confused by the whole thing, as the game came to a screeching halt and devolved into a 4-minute rules dispute after every single play. After two or three of these, various players started pulling out their cell phones and making video recordings of the arguments and rulings, claiming them as precedent for future disputes. It was all getting somewhat heated, from my perspective, and fast.
I must have had the tell-tale look of a guy who’s totally out of his element, because one player, who had been particularly virulent up to that point, approached me with a surprisingly peaceful demeanor. Somewhat off to the side, he said, “don’t worry; the arguing is part of the game.” And then he rushed off to shove his cell phone in someone’s face. That’s when I understood: the game is not the game. The goal is not to play by the rules. In fact, the game is to get away with violating the rules, and to antagonize the opponents in the meantime. Now suddenly it made sense, and I realized why and how these players could be so angry in one second, and then so jovial the next. This same friendly player later explained to my wife and me that it’s a custom for them to incite fury and argument amongst the players and to record the outbursts, which they make into a “highlights reel” to watch at a later gathering. Once it all made sense to me, I had a whole lot more fun trash-talking and “forgetting” or claiming ignorance of various infractions. But up until that point, well… I’m sure the highlights reel will have a lot of images of a strange white guy in the background standing around like a lost, scared puppy.
Before the day was out, I had lost a game of Stratego to one of our hosts’ sons (the newest release, which I think is awful), and I had even gotten in a game of chess with our host. He didn’t have much experience with it, and although he did win, he admitted that I played the game as much for both of us as he had done for my wife and me in Chowka Bhara (which my wife won). He also shared with us a beautiful, fabric edition of a Pachisi board, though he had never heard it called “Pachisi” before (I can’t remember now what he called it). This board of his had been ornately hand-stitched by his mother. (The one in the cover picture is similar to hers, but it isn’t the same one.) We ate vegetarian tacos, drank chai tea and a local blend of coffee, and basically had two birthday parties for one lucky kid. It was a great meeting of eastern and western gaming and culture, and as we left their house at nearly 9:00 at night (among the last to leave after a ten-hour day), they were inviting us back and to bring with us some of the more modern, western titles we had mentioned earlier in the day.
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