Extraordinary in the ordinary

Playing marbles in the heart of Paris

I didn’t expect to see middle aged Parisian men playing this game in one of the most fashionable and modern cities of the world.
Published at Hindustan Times.

During my maiden trip to Europe, I took long walks along the immaculately preserved historic buildings on the banks of Seine river in Paris, a UNESCO world heritage site. On one of the days, while I was walking across the city’s scenic hill area called Montmartre, I chanced upon something quaint.

From a distance, I heard excited yelling, the kind you hear when a batsman hits a six. Intrigued, I crossed the foliage and entered a manicured open space. Few men stood at strategic positions. There was a triangular formation on the ground. I walked closer and saw large spherical balls made of stone lying in different positions. The men were definitely engaged in something. They were watching the stones and the formation intensely. I hadn’t yet figured out what was going on. Soon, one of them picked up a particular stone, bent down, arched forward aiming it at another stone with focus, and hit it hard, successfully moving the other stone towards a hole. That was my moment of realisation: They were playing marbles! You remember that childhood game we played with tiny colourful glass balls? We used to lovingly call it goti or kanchey khelna. I had a whole box of those translucent beauties!

I felt elated to see this, and as much surprised. This is certainly not what I expected to see in one of the most fashionable and modern cities of the world. And definitely didn’t expect to see French middle aged men playing this game. I could imagine them playing basketball or football or even cycling. But playing marbles in a lawn? Nah!

As they continued to play the game, their friends sitting on the neighbouring benches, kept cheering them off and on, while happily munching on sandwiches. Others leisurely lay on the summer grass enjoying the friendly competition. It was a perfect picnic evening.

Back in India from my trip, this visual stayed with me. A question has been nagging me. Why don’t we play the good old marbles game anymore? Why don’t we let children in cities, leave alone adults, engage in it? During my school days, it was not uncommon to see kids in the neighbourhood playing this easy-to-organise team game. As I grew older, I remember that my last interaction with marbles was Brainvita, a single player plastic board game. Obviously nowhere close to the joy of playing marbles outdoor, with a bunch of friends, kicking up dust in a playground.

So what happened? Why has the game seen a quiet and steady exclusion from our social lives? I believe that the answer partly lies in our understanding of what it means to be developed. It may not be entirely wrong to say that as India urbanised and developed, this humble game came to be side-lined as a primarily rural one – played by kids in villages, kids who don’t study in English schools, kids who don’t have facilities, kids who aren’t privileged, or are simply not sophisticated. The have-nots of society instead of the haves.

This deeply flawed perception is unfortunate because playing with marbles is a mentally stimulating sport. It requires strategic thinking, concentration, perseverance, artistic sense, and fine motor skills. The game has deserved way more respect than what we have given it. Do we need the French capital to prove its worth? Or are we waiting for a US patent to wake us up? Let’s enjoy our indigenous activities with pride, whether in sports or otherwise. Let’s clean up our mental cobwebs that cloud our perception of the native. The native is our strength. That is us.

This article was published at Hindustan Times.

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