Losing my marbles: rambling about play in a bygone age

I’ve been reading William Gibson’s Spook Country for the past few days; it feels different from his earlier books, there’s an increased sense of curious detachment in the observer/narrator. Somewhere within the early pages of the book, Gibson mentions a wooden top in passing.

And that’s what this post is about. Wooden tops. And the other things I associate with them. I’ve probably been working just a little bit harder that I should have been, and I was pretty tired when I picked the book up. So much so that I fell asleep while still seated, with the book slipping from my hands into my lap. Not something I do very often.

The upshot of that was that I found myself sometime later in that peculiar half-awake half-asleep state, a state brought on by tiredness and accentuated by sleeping “out of context”. And my thoughts started drifting towards wooden tops and their role in my childhood. Wooden tops as playthings.

Play is a wonderful thing, rich with learning, rich to watch, rich to participate in. I can get lost for hours watching a child play, how a child discovers stuff about play and playthings, how boundaries get drawn and tested, how early social interaction takes place, how values and mores get established.

I was privileged in being able to attend a school, St Xavier’s Collegiate School, Calcutta, where play was considered important. When I was in Small School (forgive me if I don’t get every detail right, I’m talking about a time over forty years ago) I used to get on the school bus around 7.15, and get there about 8.00. And then came the play routine. 8.00 to 9.00 (before school); then 11.00 to 11.20 (Small break); then 12.00 to 1.00 (Big break). Then after 3pm, for inter-class and inter-school matches.

From 1966 t0 1969, the routine was simple. The January to May term was Hockey term. We knew it would get hotter and hotter. The winter grass had been mown, and the ground was baking hard and dusty. Since some of the kids had hockey sticks, it seemed perfectly reasonable that the morning game was “Cowboys and Indians”. It didn’t matter that everyone was an Indian, the Cowboys were the ones with the hockey sticks, and the Indians the ones with handkerchiefs covering their mouths. Lots of running, lots of whooping. One corner of that foreign field, right next to what was then the National Cadet Corps or NCC Office, became the Indian Reservation. And Cowboys and Indians was nothing more than a frenetic game of team tag with a little bit of punching and wrestling thrown in.

The Cowboys and Indians rules were simple. Both teams were interested in having some Indians capture some Cowboys and take them to the Reservation. This task, of chase and capture, was left to the “weaker” team members, those who didn’t want to run too much or get involved in some mild fighting. That left the rescue mission, and the defence, in the hands of those who really wanted to tangle. The odd bruised lip or eye, the even scrape on the knee, lots of dust on the clothes. And that was all she wrote.

The Summer Term was different. The hot and dusty field turned into one of lush grass, and Football was upon us. And that’s all we did. Multiple matches going on everywhere on the field. If you weren’t particularly interested in football, you played handball in the “gym” underneath the classrooms. When it rained too much, the handball crowd were crowded out of the gym, as the footballing horde ran for cover. And if you weren’t interested in sport, you tended to wander around collecting paraphernalia floating in the puddles that formed, because it rained and rained. Sometimes it was about frogs. Sometimes you didn’t want to know what it was you had just picked up. But it was fun nevertheless.

Tag changed. No hockey sticks, no Cowboys and Indians. Now you had new guns, guns that could fire things. Guns called water bottles. Guns that squirted at your enemies. And the wetness didn’t matter, everyone was wet most of the time anyway.

The winter term was, in some ways, the richest play term of all. The grass remained, but mown short. Very short. And it was cricket time. Most of the time we played tennis-ball cricket; the balls used to be white, though towards the end of my time at school we could actually buy red tennis balls for cricket.

Indians may be mad about cricket, but it didn’t feel that way at school. During cricket season, there was a welter of games going on around the school, none of them remotely associated with cricket.

We played strange games with wooden tops. The tops were themselves gaily coloured and had a groove to them; they were conical in shape, tapering to a point where there used to be a big nail. The game was in two stages. First stage you wrapped some special cotton-based rope (thicker than twine but thinner than hemp rope) around the top. You performed some predefined manoeuvre with your top…. simple maneouvres included just getting the top to spin on the ground; more complex ones included getting the top to play on your palm; and really complex ones had you “walking” the top from end to end actually spinning on your “rope”.

Each round had a loser, and the loser had to place his top in the centre of a circle drawn in the mud. Other then took turns to “kill” the supine top, by landing their spinning top on it, usually with some force. And then what followed was some form of bragging rights ritual: you would pick up your top and show your friends the “colour” you had picked up on your nail, colour that had been scraped off the top you hit. The real objective, however, was go far beyond picking up some colour. You cracked the target wooden top into pieces.

If you weren’t adept at spinning tops, then you went for marbles. First you drew a line. Then you dug a hole in the mud, beautifully shallow and bowl-shaped, some five or six yards from the line. Each player in turn then played for the hole, using your index finger as a spring (you held the marble against your right index finger with your upside-down left index finger; you pulled back your right index finger with your left, aimed, fired). Once you’d played round one, it became a bit like croquet as well. Your turn rotated. When it was your turn, you could do one of two things. You could hit someone else’s marble. Or you could go for the hole. If you hit someone else’s marble, then you had another turn. And so on.

First one to get his marble in the hole collected all the marbles.  The really sought after marbles were the “Chinese” ones, those that had a smoky white, almost milky, sensation to them, rather than the traditional ones which had something that looked like a coloured plastic “leaf” at the core of a clear glass ball.

Hockey, football, cricket. Tops. Marbles. Topped up with carroms at home. As you grew older, and you entered Big School, volleyball entered the fray; in season, so did badminton. You had some table-tennis and tennis and basketball at the edges. Handball in the gym was a particularly extreme sport; this was where a long line of trousered teens splattered a small ball at the wall, with an implied Plimsoll line below which a shot was considered foul. A bit of squash, a bit of tennis (it was played with a tennis ball), a lot of gusto and many many deeply red and hurting palms. That was traditional morning fare in cricket season.The school didn’t have a swimming pool or a squash court, so those pursuits were left to the particularly privileged. Rugby and rowing were pursuits played outside school hours, “privately” as it were, although there was at least one rugby celebration played in the extreme wet, without shirts, as part of the Aloysian games.

Looking back, I realise just how much I learnt as a result of the open policies about play at St Xavier’s:

  • We learnt about losing. There were many times when you were placed in teams by the teacher, so there was always the chance that a “good” player was in a “bad” team, and you learnt to lose with grace.
  • We learnt about winning. Winning with grace. We never left a field without a Three Cheers for the losing side.
  • We learnt about taking part. Nobody was excluded from anything. And there was always something else to do if you felt like it. The playground wallflower was a myth.
  • We learnt about teamwork, about fairness, and about recognising other people’s skills. At least one tournament each year was held on a Pick-Up Teams basis, somewhat similar to the US Draft Pick for some sports.  [I remember the joy I had when I was First Pick First Pick, in 1968, for the holiday soccer tournament. There were 16 captains, all from Class 5. Warren Willis, who had first pick, picked me, and I was still in Class 4. Heady days.]
  • We learnt about the pride of wearing a shirt, for your class, for your school. There were many opportunities to represent something.
  • More than anything else, we learnt about authority, and the need for authority on a playing field. The referee ruled. The umpire ruled. No ifs. No buts. No arguments.

Play is important. Even at work.  More later.

11 thoughts on “Losing my marbles: rambling about play in a bygone age”

  1. Thanks Balaji, I was rambling in many directions yesterday and didn’t do the necessary graphical illustration. Of course you’re right.

    I don’t remember yelling anything when playing tops. What I do remember is I yelled something when having a kite fight. It was something like Bo-kaaattaaa, but memory fades after a while.

  2. You spoke of “the need for authority on a playing field”, and authority is a word that rings my alarm bell.

    I think you’re right about this. Sport is not amenable to a community approach to decision making. It’s no good waiting for a consensus to emerge (although that’s how a good many playground LBW decisions are reached).

    If the umpire or referee’s objective was to win himself then it would be less easy to believe in this system. Having an absolute authority on the sport field is OK because his role is simply to enable the game, not to empower himself (except Graham Poll, Daryl Hair, Billy Bowden etc.)

    Translating this into a corporate environment is difficult because then the referee is also The Boss. His decisions are made for his own benefit not purely to enable you to do your job as well as you can.

    How can we make organisations work more like playing fields?

  3. I play ultimate frisbee (perhaps played is a more accurate term) which doesn’t have an umpire/referee. Instead it is self refereed. The rules lay down what a foul is and it is the responsibility of the players to call the fouls (in theory this can be either the fouled or fouling player, but in practice it’s always the fouled player). The rules also specify two routes to resolution of a foul call. One is for an uncontested foul (both players agree that a foul has been committed) and the other is for a contested foul.

    Usually there will be a short(ish) discussion between the players and if agreement cannot be reached, then the contested foul rules will be invoked. There is an imperative to preserve “the spirit of the game” which is enforced by the community (in fact there is a prize at most tournaments for the most “spirited” team) and this combined with the steps outlined above is usually enough to ensure a fair and free-flowing game. It is only at the international level where a lot is at stake that the no referees model is breaking down slightly and there are calls for referees to be introduced.

    Perhaps this is a model that can be more easily translated to a business context?

  4. JP, Play in the workplace aside, I don’t think children today will be allowed to indulge in activity you refer to without the pc brigade descending on schools and lecturing them on the possibility of injuries to the young cherubs such as swollen palms, scraped knuckles, grazed knees and the inevitable encounter with groused parents.

    Anyhow, the picture you paint is very evocative of our childhood. Just to add some other words to that memory; ‘maanja’ (kite string), ‘kaantch ka maanja’ (string with a smear of crushed glass) which could easily slice through fingers if you gave ‘dheel’ (let the reel unwind by itself) to the kite hastily, and ‘latai’ (reel), from which came ‘lapait’, to take in (literally wrap) endless spoken rubbish. And from the vocbulary of the wooden top, full marks for remembering ‘gantchha’!

  5. Hmmm…I remember “bho kataa” from the kite flying days around january in Calcutta too, and thinking back, I reckon they were the bong-bihari mishmash of the exclamation Woh Kataa…when you managed to dismember another’s kite from its string ….And talking about the evolution up the marbles curve, apart from the chinese ones being the most sought after, there was a neat variant…the steel one’s that came from within a ball bearing. They were lethal because used corectly would chip or break other mortal glass marbles **Sigh**
    Do you remember playing “Conqueror” with the divider from your Globe geometry box – using it like a spear, chucked into the circle drawn in the soft muddy ground ?

  6. Conqueror! I’d forgotten all about it. Using the dividers to draw the circle in the first place, then hurling them like sharp knives or scalpels into the ground.

    Sharp pointed things flying around. I wonder what today’s risk-averse nanny state would make of it. As far as I can remember, there wasn’t one case of someone being speared by a divider, not even on his toes.

    Talking about toes, I seem to remember that being “spiked” was a common accident amongst sprinters. Many of us could not afford foreign spikes, the Indian ones were often cumbersome, so we preferred to run barefoot. And that led to the risk of being spiked, when someone wering spikes trod on another runner’s bare foot. This was only meant to happen on the track, but was known to happen off-track between races as well. I was spiked at least twice, one of which was off-track at an interschool event at Don Bosco Park Circus (or DBPC as we called it, to distinguish from Don Bosco Liluah or DBL. Do they still exist?)

    Actually, the worst athletic accident I remember was that affecting Larry Taya. It must have been 1971, I was in Big School, and was waiting for the shot put event to complete. Then, just as Christopher Hupping threw, Larry ran across the area and into the put, cracking his skull in the process. He seemed fine a few weeks later. I wonder what happened to Larry.

  7. @ JP :- Excuse me, your comment seeking information whether “DBL still exists” is totally uncalled for. Probably you are not at all aware of the present scenario of educational excellence in schools. You are probably of the age of my dad and certainly bear the “high nosed attitude” of SXCS of the past.

  8. @soham my apologies. poorly constructed sentence, you made the correct inference according to the way I wrote it, but it was not what I intended it to mean. I was asking whether inter-school events of that sort still existed, not whether the schools still existed.

  9. @JP : Apologies from my side as well for having reacted in such a fashion. Well, you probably do understand my sentiments. (The passion and the bond that we all share with our schools). Thank you for having rectified your mistake. Well, the answer to your question is that inter-school sports, as in “track and field” events, is a rarity now. However, there is an abundance in inter-school fests (on-stage as well as off-stage events) and sports tournaments (specially : Football, cricket , basketball and table tennis) . And Marbles? I haven’t ever seen pupils playing with those till date). :-)

  10. And by the way, going through the discussions that preceded my post, I must say, they are really touching. They make me think about what’s going to happen decades from now, after I leave school next year. Thank you for the enlightening reading.

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