The initial days of the lockdown were bliss. No routine, no alarms and no traffic. A return to summer holidays and endless ennui. The days seemed long, but curiously the weeks flashed past fast.
Once the lockdown became a part of our lives, aching eyes sought a diversion from the tinted hues of smartphones and laptop screens. The novelty of new Netflix shows and Zoom webinars wore off, and an earnest search began for an alternative to the oldest quest of all: to pass time.
The depths of the attic were combed and first emerged old magazines and comics. They were followed by old journals, full of rumblings and ramblings of teenage angst. Broken toys, unwanted utensils and keepsakes kept tumbling on till we stumbled upon a priceless artefact: a fragile and fraying set of ashta chamma, the Telugu version of the popular game Ludo.
Ashta means eight and chamma means four. The set was stitched by my paternal grandmother in her teens in the 1950s. A discovery that triggered a ghar wapsi of a gentler kind.
Made from colorful beads that are no longer available, it is torn, delicate and beautiful. The players, made from glass, came from my grandmother’s set, bought on a trip to Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. Some are chipped while others are missing, resulting in a comforting mishmash of the old and new, the original and the substitute. Unlimited elegance in limited editions.
Along with the nostalgia, they also bring with them the treasure of stories. Of games played in the crowded village alleys, when my grandmother was a child, where they were etched on the floor of the village temple. Of the cloth versions popular during my mother’s childhood days. Of other similar games that were the rites of childhood, just a generation ago.
For the sake of discipline, we stick to three games at noon, which last an hour. Each comes with its own battles. The cowrie shells need to be of equal shape, and since we have them in many combinations, care is taken to ensure that they are of similar shapes. Smaller shells result in ashta easily, while bigger ones help one throw chamma, according to game lore.
Since we are three players playing a game meant for four, the player’s places need to be considered carefully after a lot of permutations. A place next to another player and you can kill him or her easily (imperative for you to proceed to finish the game). A place next to an empty space diminishes your chances, so there is a constant vying to be near to the next player. Social distancing turned on its head in this ancient game.
For my mother, the game comes in different versions. Noon for its traditional avatar sitting cross-legged on the floor, night for a digital version with her granddaughters spread across locations and time zones. One game to connect multiple generations. One game to rule them all.
As the lockdowns swapped the walls of our offices with the walls of our living rooms and group discussions have given way to group calls on Skype, simple acts ensure a semblance of normalcy. Games, conversation and laughter ensure that we wait, hopeful, that the new world that will arise will be kinder than the old, more tolerant than the one left behind, inclusive and equal.
For this too shall pass and only the memories will remain.
Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.