’15-year old Anita drops out of school as she was too bored to study further and is undergoing
‘There is nothing to do and I am so bored.’- 5-year old Rahul
‘User-friendly gizmos are rusting children’s imagination, leading to an intolerant and hyperactive generation that is seeking constant stimulation’
( From an article in Indian Express on 30-07-2002)
The above report has sent me on a trip down my memory lane. Many youngsters today are bored. Even 2-year old Neha (my nepew Ramesh's daughter) says she is bored sometimes. Was I bored as a child and a boy? I don't think I or for that matter any one of my generation was ever bored. I am fond of saying in my office that in Railways the means of communication have improved tremendously in the last thirty years, but communication has actually gone down. Similarly, the younger generation today has a lot more of things to pass the time, but perhaps the quality of social life has gone down.
The three things that stand out in my boyhood memories are the colony in which I grew up, the games that I played and the social interactions that I had. I think each of these has a great bearing on the others. So I shall describe all the three. Since most of the readers of this piece are familiar with R.K.Narayan, I shall start by saying that Malgudi may be an imaginary place, but Vedachala Gardens had most features of Malgudi. We even had a river nearby (if you can call Adyar a river). And Swami (yours truly) and friends were definitely there.
Our colony had just 26 houses, all occupied by brahmins and hence was also known as Pasupathi Agraharam. It was supposed to have been bought by Pasupathi Chettiar during the first world war for a throw-away price and was inherited by his son Vedachala Chettiar (and hence the name Vedachala gardens). The colony had three rows of houses - the first from Door No. 1 to 12A, the second at right angles to the first row from Door No. 13 to 20 and the third at right angle to the second and parallel to the first from Door No. 21 to 25. We were in Door No. 25. Ours was the only row which had a common courtyard covering all the five houses. Every house had a vacant space in front for (Kolam, Rangoli) .There were also trees and plants in front and to the left of our house, which meant there was sufficient place for the outdoor games that we used to play. The tenant of each house was known as the uncle of the number of the house. So my father was 25- (uncle of No. 25), our neighbour was 24- (uncle of No.24) and so on (In fact I knew the name of the headmaster of my school only after I joined High school. Till then he was 9-) (uncle of No. 9). It was an idyllic place with mutual social support system in place. (It lost all the trees and gardens in my college days itself, as all the land was sold by the owner. We bought No. 12 and moved from No. 25. All the persons who bought House Nos. 21 to 25 changed the entrance to Norton Street.)
None of the tenants could be said to be rich. But things would be shared without any hesitation. December/Januarywould be welcomed by us as our neighbour would send (Tiruvadhirai Kali, an eatable), which as an Ayyangar my mother would not make. My neighbours were happy as Krishna Jayanthi would be on a different date for us, which meant they could get (seedai, a snack) etc. on another day. More of this later.
We spent a lot of time outside the house in all seasons except the monsoon and would run home only when we were hungry. The important outdoor games we played were Kombattam (game of sticks), gilli-dhandu(gulli-danda), goli (marbles), bambaram (top), paandi (hopscotch), kannamoochi (I spy) and the perennial favourite of all Indians- cricket. All the games except cricket were inexpensive and could be played inside our colony.
I can't understand why Kombattam has become extinct, as it is an ideal game for today's generation as it was for us. Perhaps the concretisation of colonies has something to do with it. The game had simple rules. Each boy had a stick not longer than 3 feet. After a process of elimination through ( Three boys would keep their palms open or closed at a given signal uttering 'chaat-boot-three' and whoever was in a minority became the 'victim'. If there were more than three players, the process was repeated till we were left with one 'victim'). The victim would stand in the 'base' holding his stick loosely on upraised hands with his back to the other players. One player would pull the victim's stick with his own very powerfully and the others would push it as far as possible. If the 'victim' touched any player whose stick was not on a stone surface, he was 'out' and became the victim. The first victim had to hop on one foot from the place where his stick lay to the 'base'. All the boys would run behind him shouting (The dog of our house went to eat shit, I stoned it and its leg broke). If he reached the base successfully, the game would start with the new victim. Otherwise he had to start all over again limping from where his stick lay. We could not push the stick outside our colony limits. So the victim sometimes had to hop three or four laps in our colony , which was exhausting as well as humiliating.
We had two variations in 'marbles'. One was the normal (hole) game and the other was called (bhendha). In the former, you had to hit the other man's opponent with your marble. In the latter, we had the 'base' from which the game would start and the loser had to push his marble to the base with the back of his hand.
or the Top was also an interesting game, which required skill in making the top turn for a long time using the (rope) and in hitting the opponents' tops lying on the floor. The mark made on the top was known as (aakkhar) and whoever made the maximum number of aakhars was the (aakhar king). Sai of Door No. 16 was the undisputed aakkhar king of the colony as he had even broken a few of our tops with his skill.
or gulli-danda was played by our elder brothers also. My brother, Sampath was very adept at catching the gulli by pulling it from very near the danda of the opponent. But many elders would object to our playing this game as it could cause injuries.
(I spy and Paandi) were considered feminine and would be played only if the others could not be played. Though the sexes remained segregated, Sarasa of Door No. 22 and one or two others would play these games with the boys. It was a different matter that we wouldn't play paandi with her as she was the champion and could defeat all of us.
Many variations of cricket were played by us. But the one which needed less space was where bowling was under-arm and 'one-tip-catch' was out. Stumps were 'drawn' on any surface including the litter bin. The idols would change with every season, though Mankad, Bradman, C.K.Nayudu and Umrigar were the ever-green heroes. We played within the colony only with rubber or tennis balls. We used to buy two used balls per month from 'Tennis Krishnan's' house in Raja Annamalaipuram for a rupee which came from the contributions of all the boys. Any boy who objected to the quality of the ball would be silenced with a simple but effective 'It is from tennis Krishnan'. We craftily allowed a couple of boys from Norton street to join us, as these boys were rich enough to have a proper cricket ball , bat and stumps. Once a while, we would go to the 'cementry ground' for a proper game of cricket. (The name was because of the Christian cemetery beyond the ground. We didn't know the origin of the word and were always referring to it as cementry). From our house, the ground was more than two kms., if we took the normal route. But by crossing the filthy Adyar river, we could reach it in 5 minutes. Since we were all in shorts till we came to college, there was no problem about the dress. But the jelly-fish and the water snakes would be scary. Recently I read that some people died by stepping on a jelly-fish. But we were merrily crossing the river twice every month and none of us died.
In monsoon and in the nights, it was the turn of indoor games, some of which are played even now. (thayakattai, a variety of dice game), (paramapadham or snakes and ladders), ' ('pallanguzhi', a game played on a board made of wood with 7 divisions on each of its 2 sides. The game pieces vary from seeds of tamarind to precious stones according to the economic status of the players. We used tamarind seeds or small shells (sozhi). Though mainly played by two players, the rules allow 4 players or partnership too. Presence of mind, calculation and good memory are needed to win the game.) were some of the common ones. ( When Amritha and I saw Pallanguzhi in Tirupathi, we have bought it as we were fresh from the nostalgic feelings of my article.I hope we play the game.) We have played (thayakattai) till two years back in Mumbai with my mother and sister. Aarthi was always amused by the term (dokkai). My grandfather and other elder relatives would play auction bridge, which was same as Contract Bridge, but without the bidding rules. My cousins , Gopu Anna and Kannan (of Adyar, now my brother-in-law ) would incur the wrath of my grandfather as he would catch them cheating (e.g., when they were partners, one would say (aadu), which meant the other had to play (aaduthan, Tamil for hearts). If one said, (dai), Diamond suit was to be led. They had other secret codes as well). I learnt chess from my Chittappa, who was a very good player. When I was in High school, we also used to play an interesting card game called Literature. The elder boys would play monopoly for hours together and we would be watching it fascinatedly. Carrom-board was not played by me till I came to college. In my school and college days, my house used to be a noisy place throughout the year and it would reach a cresendo on holidays, with cards and other games in the front room (which was known as the 'gate') and (papad-making) by the ladies inside. But my father would be writing 'notes' for Lifco or writing text-book for 'Longmans' amidst all the noise. And none of us had any difficulty in studying, though, of course, we had to study only for a few days before the exams.
But the social interacions were the ones which I value the most among my childhood memories. As I said earlier, the colony (particularly the houses No. 21 to 25) was one big family. By today's standards of nuclear families, we were not pampered. But we had an enormous sense of security, as we were psychologically cocooned almost like a person under Z-category security. The innermost ring was the family, the next ring was the friends, the third ring was the close relatives and the fourth ring was the neighbours, all of whom would rally round for any emergency.
Every activity was a communal activity. In summer even sleeping was so, as everyone would sleep on the courtyard outside the five houses in our row (Door No. 21 to 25). The first radio in our row was bought in 1957 or so by our neighbour. It was a 'Murphy' with 6 valves, I think. My father bought the radio in 1958. It was an assembled set, but we used to boast as it had 8 valves (not that we knew anything about valves). But all of us would continue to crowd around our neighbour's radio for listening to the cricket commentary. The historic win by India against Australia in 1959, when Jasu Patel took 9 wickets in the second innings was enjoyed by us in our neighbour's house only. There were always at least 10 of us going to the Kapali temple very often and San Thome beach once a while. Talking of San Thome beach, I must share an incident with you. The entrance to the sand was by a flight of steps. A few vendors were there at the start of the steps. One of them was with a weighing machine. We were keen to know our weight, but felt whatever money we had was better utilised on mangoes. So Babu (of Door No. 22) and I hatched a plan. As soon as we reached the vendor, Babu stood on the machine, noted his weight and started running towards the church. The vendor was taken aback and after a minute started running behind him demanding money. Babu was a good runner (which was why he was chosen) and before the vendor came back, all of us noted our weights and ran to the beach, where Babu joined us later. After I started earning, I tried to pay back the vendor with interest, but could not locate him. Even today, this incident makes me laugh and feel ashamed at the same time.
Another unforgettable communal (or rather family) activity was our annual trip to our village every summer. It was called Soolankurichi and was in South Arcot District. The journey from our house to Madras Egmore was by 'jatka vandi' (tonga). We then went by train to Tyagadurgam, from where our grandfather's bullock carts would pick us up. Ladies, children and luggage would be accommodated in the bullock carts and others had to walk the distance. The village life itself was very pleasant as at least three families (which meant about 20 persons of varying ages) would be there every year. Breakfast was Dahi bhath with 'maavadu' pickles, after which we were off to the river. (Ganges and Brahmaputra are not the only perennial rivers of India. Our village's Manimutharu was also one.) Since my grandfather owned land and was also the 'Karnam' (accountant) there, we could pluck mangoes etc. with impunity. After lunch, it was time for indoor games and to go through the magazines. My grandfather was systematic in arranging stories etc. from Ananda Vikatan, Swadesamitran etc. and bound them himself. Though I was only 5 or 6, I'd read magazines to my grandmother whose eyesight was weak (The older boys would be busy playing).For my efforts, I was rewarded with an extra 'maavadu' everyday. Dinner would be over by Sunset, after which it was story-time. My grandfather was reasonably good in telling stories, but my Chithappa was a raconteur par excellence. He told us 'Count of Monty Cristo', 'Three Musketeers', Hound of Baskervilles' etc. as serials. He would stop the story for the day at a point where the suspense would be unbearable. We would wish the sun would set early so that we could hear the
next part of the story. (I used to tell stories to Harish and Aarthi every night till they were 5 or 6. Perhaps this experience was in my sub-conscious mind). With great reluctance, we would leave for Madras after an unforgettable 45 days. Our annual trip stopped in 1954 or so when my grandmother died and my grandfather moved to Madras. But the memory lingers on.
Festivals brought out the best and the worst in us as children. The two important festivals were Navaratri and Deepavali. There was an unwritten rule during Navaratri that boys would go for collecting 'Sundal' (an eatable which was made for distribution as prasad to visitors) only after the ladies and girls finished their rounds. So our strategy was to collect intelligence reports from the girls about the type and quality of the foodstuff in different houses. 'Puttu' ( a sweet preparation ) and ( an eatable made with dried peas) were not to be missed, while could be given a miss. If any lady refused to serve us, all of us would all collect outside her house, jump up and down and shout (jay jay fly fly) in a chorus . To this day, I haven't understood why and how this shouting came into being.
Deepavali was the most important festival. There would be endless discussions about purchase of crackers, clothes and the sweets that would be made. I don't think my father bought crackers for more than 5 Rs. or so to be divided equally among the five of us. We would all be extra nice to our sister from about a month before Deepavali so that we could hope for a substantial share from her. On the D-Day, none of us would sleep as every boy wanted to be the first to wake up the neighbourhood with crackers. After the crackers were exhausted by 5 A.M. itself, the boys (including me) would surreptitiously collect papers from burnt crackers to be put in front of our houses ( to show that we burst more than what we actually did). That night, all the litter including unburst crackers would be put in the big litter bin in front of our house and there would be a huge bon-fire with occasional cracklings from it. (Once my cousin Murali was foolhardy enough to look into the bin when the fire was just starting and his eyebrows got burnt).
Can religion be far from a South Indian Brahmin colony? We had a teacher in Door No. 12 (our present house) who used to collect all the boys in the evening and teach Vishnu Sahasranamam. Many of us used to take part in Tiruppavai competition in the Srinivasa Perumal temple in Mandavelli. I had even won a prize for my efforts. The colony wore a festive look in 'Margazhi` (the holy month in December/January), with 'kolam' (Rangoli) in front of every house and a flower in the center. This month also marked singing of Bhajans by elders while going round the colony and to the temple. We would enthusistically take part in the Bhajan and were even more enthusistic at the end when Pongal ( a rice preparation) would be distributed both in the temple and the house. The visit to the colony by Kanchi Shankaracharya in 1959 (I think) was a very big event. And of course all of us were frequent visitors to the Kapali temple, taking part in the Car and other festivals.
What about eating out in hotels? Sorry, we could not afford it. But we enjoyed the experience of eating out precisely because it was rare. Eating out meant an occasional Kulfi, which used to be sold at nights (How tasty it was? Is it still sold?)or mango with chilli powder at the beach or 'panju mittai' (candy) and 'Kamarkat' ( toffee made of jaggery). After my sister started earning, I would get an occasional Rose Milk at Kalathi Shop in Mylapore, which was a keenly anticipated event. And of course marriages and other functions were always there.
Studies, you ask? That is one area where we were very lucky compared to the present generation. There was neither parental / peer pressure, nor was there a craze for professional colleges. My parents never really bothered us as long as we got above average marks. My father knew the class in which I studied, whereas my mother knew only the school where I was studying. One might argue that nowadays we exert pressure on children as we live in a more competitive world. This is only partly true as opportunities are also more today. For example, in 1962 when I joined Engineering, there were only 6 colleges in Tamil Nadu offering 1500 seats. Today there are 290 Engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu offering over 60000 seats. ( I have consistently refused to put any pressure on my children as I was always conscious of my 'free' days of childhood. People have said I was pampering them. Well, I don't think Harish and Aarthi have grown up to be spoilt brats.) School was a necessary evil, but was not so bad.
What about toys? There weren't many. My cousin , Gopu Anna brought some toys from Hong Kong where he had gone on an army assignment. That was the first time we saw 'real' toys. I must, however, mention three toys of that time that were classics. The first was a cart in which two sticks would beat rhythmically when you pulled the cart. ( Remember Do aanken, baraah haath? Sandya pulls one such while singing a song.) The second was a snake which when pulled by the attached string would sinuously move and the third was the Chettiar doll which would always pop up if you tried to lay it down on the floor. These were inexpensive as they used simple raw materials, viz., paper and mud, but were wonderful toys (The third is perhaps still available. Why have the other two vanished?). Of course, the dolls for Navaratri were there, but they were not available to us for playing, as they were taken out from the loft one day before 'Kolu' and would go back to the loft the day after Saraswati Puja.
If my narrative gives you the impression that there were no disciplinarians or spoil-sports, let me say there were. Shri Sarangapani Ayyangar of Door No. 12-A was the most feared uncle. If he found any boy playing at the untimely hour of 12 Noon, he would come out (with the fan in his hand) and give a stern look at the offenders. Most boys would immediately run away, but I would not be cowed. Once he stopped me and asked me ,'What is the time?', meaning of course that I had no business to be playing outside at that time. I ran back home. read the time and came back and told him '12.15'. He later complained to my father that I was insolent. After I explained the whole thing, my father advised me to play outside his eyeshot () (which was, of course, typical of my father). So all of us continued to play in the afternoons outside his periphery of vision. But it was sad that none of Shri Sarangapani Ayyangar's children enjoyed his/her childhood the way other boys and girls in the colony did.
Looking back on my childhood, I cannot help feeling sad. It is of course the law of nature that old order has to yield to the new. But what if some of the old order were relevant for all ages (like the simple games and toys) ? Why should they also be washed away?
Is boredom a modern day phenomenon? I would say yes. I neither had the time nor the solitude to be bored. The simple pleasures of the physical games, the group activities and hassle-free school kept boredom far away and thank God for that.