Friday, November 14, 2008


A few days back, I was searching for one of those precision screwdrivers to fix my glasses and a marble magically appeared in the hardware box, transporting me back to my childhood. Needless to say, that was the end of the screwdriver search and the start of nostalgia.

My very first memories of playing marbles are with my friends when I must have been around 7 or 8. I must confess that there were just a couple of games I specialised in during my quite enterprising and long career as a marble-player. One was 10-20 ( दस-बीस as we called it ) which I remember playing a lot in my initial years and other one was called Triangle or Trikon (त्रिकोण) or Macchli (मछली).

10-20 was a lot of fun because a bunch of people would play and the objective was to reach a score of 100 by alternately putting your marble in a designated hole called Gul and then hitting anyone else's marble in your next turn. Each successful hit increased your score by 10. The focus of this game was not solely on winning; instead it was on not losing. You had to make sure that you were not the last one standing, because the last one standing had to bear a punishment - Piddi (पिद्दी) as we called it.

Piddi involved throwing your marble at some reasonable distance and the others would then try to hit it. If anyone was successful, you did it all over again till no one hit it. Then you had to hop on one leg from that point all the way back to the Gul. Since the population density of Bombay is quite high, the number of kids playing were atleast 10 at any point in time. So this resulted in long one-legged hops, sometimes a mile or more, for the unfortunate loser. Depending on the distance you had to hop back, you could even negotiate a few rest-stops. But there were times when all previous records of Piddi would be broken and hopping distances would become humanly impossible, etching the day in glory for the Piddi-seekers and in shame for the Piddi-taker. In such an event, a choice of an alternate punishment was given to the Piddi-taker by the very reasonable Piddi-seekers - take 3 blows on your back between your shoulder blades from each of the other players. Some kids were brave and fool-hardy enough to take up this alternative choice, but their valour mostly ended in tears. All the times that I had the misfortune of being the loser, without hesitation, my choice was the one-legged hop.

10-20 honed my marble-playing skills for the future when I would play Triangle, the game played by the older boys. Triangle was not a cruel game like 10-20. It was more business-like. In fact it was exactly like the stock market. You invested some marbles and you either got back a lot more or you lost most of it or all of it. Triangle involved a bunch of players putting their marbles in a designated triangular area (demarcated by lines in the mud). Anyone who hit a marble from that area without getting stuck in the triangle could take that marble for himself. If your aim was good, you ended up with a lot more than you invested.

Not everyone was into playing marbles. I have only seen middle class kids and kids from poorer sections of society play it. It almost felt like it had a stigma attached to it since most of the time you were squatting and getting your hands dirty in the mud. I think the general feeling amongst people in the higher income levels of society has always been that playing marbles was too low class. It did not matter that soccer or cricket could get you just as dirty , but playing marbles was just not done. It is sad to know that pretenses can keep people from enjoying the simple joys of playing a game and the things it can teach you. I distinctly remember a day when I was doing really well at Triangle and had amassed a ton of marbles. Of course, a consequence of me doing really well was that someone else did really bad. This friend of mine ran out of marbles and to qualify to play, he needed to invest some. So he asked me for a loan. That was the first time anyone had asked me for a loan on something that I had actually worked to get. It felt quite strange and different from someone asking me if I could loan them a pencil or a pen. I wondered if this was how it would feel when I grew up and started working. Does the value of something go up immensely if you have actually worked to earn it? It made me appreciate what my parents were doing for my brother and me.

Eventually I grew too old to play marbles and I stopped when I was around 15. That's actually quite a late retirement. When I retired, I had around 700 or so marbles. Initially I thought of keeping them as souveniers, but eventually in a move which must make Warren Buffett proud, I donated all of them to a kid in our neighbourhood who was just starting to play Triangle. He was beyond joy and I just felt good!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Random thought: taking care of handicapped folks

The US government takes care of its handicapped people like probably no other country does. Right from reserved handicapped seats in public transport, sidewalks with ramps at intersections for easy wheelchair maneouvering, lifts (elevators as we call them in the US) with Braille on the buttons to sophisticated wheelchair-lifts in public buses. But I wonder how and why is it that the government does not think of having different sizes for different denominations of dollar notes so that it would benefit the blind.