There were 26 people in my grandparent's house after church this Sunday, all of us related (most also under the age of twelve). We have a family tradition of spilling drinks at any meal of such scale, but during lunch, someone managed to spill an entire extra-large pitcher of orange juice all over the kitchen floor. Aunts quickly sprang into action, quickly deciding to keep this cleaning project for themselves rather than risk spreading the juice even further by delegating it to children. The younger children, however, had a hard time understanding that it is not helpful to forage for food when doing so involves crossing an orange juice reservoir--between the cleaners and the would-be foragers, the kitchen was getting quite crowded when I decided to play the pied piper and lead the children outside for some games until the crisis was over.
(Explanatory note: I have a strange power to lead children. Perhaps this comes because of my position second in birth-order among the twenty-eight first cousins of my mother's family. Perhaps it comes from years spent with my mother's daycare children, who liked to sit in a line on my back looking at books when I would nap on our living room floor, and from time to time to troop down to the basement with me to draw pictures while sitting in old laundry baskets with blankets over their heads. Perhaps it comes simply because I like to listen to them, something few adults care to really do, or else because I think like them, something few adults dare to admit.)
In any case, once outside, I had to come up with a game to play in keeping with my promise--and decided that this was the perfect time to try to adapt danda dook to a banyan-tree-less environment.
We went to the front porch and found a stray piece of plastic to use as a stick. Kent asked to throw first and I volunteered to be"it" first. He threw left and the children dashed off right as I rushed after it. By the time I'd put our faux-stick back on the porch to go chase them, they'd all gotten to the driveway and hidden behind various cars. These, I found, served nicely as a sort of banyan tree: parked at diagonals to fit, they forced me to choose who to chase and who to risk letting escape to safety. (How appropriate that cars, as absent in my grandfather's childhood as they were ubiquitous in his grandchildren's, should be our key to adaptation.) I managed to catch one before they all got back to the stick, and then threw the stick myself to start round two.
As the game progressed, we noticed that the set-up of the front porch also worked well. There are three ways of approaching the porch: from the left, from the right, or from a walk between the house and a wall of trellises difficult for the "it" to cross on a whim. The diversity of approaches, plus a rule keeping the "it" off the porch itself, helped discourage a strategy of unabashed puppy-guarding.
I was impressed with the length of the children's interest in the game: the same ones who hadn't wanted to stay out of the kitchen during the juice spill had to be called back in and ordered to eat before they could come rejoin the game. We kept things going until I, for one, was drenched in sweat and ready for the thorough American patriotism of a long shower. Sariah asked me to stay on, however, to referee a kabaddi match--and how could I refuse?
Kabaddi. Kabaddi kabaddi kabaddi kabaddikabaddikabaddikabaddika...and I inhale. It's the king of games, I'm telling you. Rules vary from place to place, but in our family it's always gone something like this:
-Split into two teams of balanced size, speed, and strength
-Find a grassy area about the size of a sand volleyball court to play in, with a clear line marked down the middle (with jumropes or a hose, for example, rather than simply relying on landmarks)
-Teams alternate turns sending a raider into the other team's area. Once the raider crosses the center line, he or she cannot take a new breath until return without admitting capture. This is traditionally done by repeating the term "kabaddi" again and again, but can also be done by repeating "lalalala" or any other phrase.
-If the raider gets even one finger over to his/her side before taking a breath, the raiding team is awarded one point for each person touched by the raider or who touched the raider.
-If the raider is caught by the defending team and takes a breath before returning, the defending team is awarded one point.
-The first team to score a predetermined number of points wins.
Kabaddi can be relatively tame or extremely rough, depending on the players, but is almost invariably exhilarating. I've taught the game to dozens of people: it became the favorite sport of the six-grade class I was a camp counselor for (a group of boys delighted the students and puzzled the teachers with a last-night campfire skit depicting a parody "celebrity kabaddi match" complete with George W. Bush. Kabaddi was officially banned at Jones Middle School a few weeks later by concerned staff). I've played with engineering students in Boston (I almost passed out while wiggling free an arm to get just over the line when the score was tight), at the Ohio Governor's mansion, just outside the Brigham Young University Art Museum with some actors and a museum guard.
The thing I've noticed in all these matches is that there's far more to kabaddi than simple athleticism. The best athletes, in fact, tend to struggle with the game at first: they overestimate their own abilities and plunge too deep into enemy territory, essentially dooming themselves to capture too far from the line for hope. It's those who can trick the opposing team into some complacency who make some of the most spectacular plays, doing less to tag everyone than to get touched by those who think they can make an easy catch and stray too close to the line as they try to do so.
Our teams on Sunday were fabulously matched. The score crept up in ties and near-ties. One of the younger girls got away clean; an older boy was caught by the full opposing team so close to the line I wished there'd been a second referee to see if his hand made it over in the air or not--by the ground, though, he fell clearly short and I decided I had to rule him captured. The score was 9-8 when the rain started falling too think to continue.
What do we get out of the perpetuation of these games? America is a civilization unrivaled in its degree investment of time, resources, and ingenuity into myriad forms of entertainment--what is to be gained by preserving old Indian games?
The last time my grandfather told me about danda dook, he pointed out that it was fun without costing anything. The genius of children's culture fulfilled a need that simple economic prosperity cannot. And yet the culture of my young cousins is filled so much with the games that have been marketed to them, unmarketed games seem to have trouble competing for their attention. In promoting danda dook and kabaddi, I hope that I am promoting an awareness of the lifestyle and value system they came from.
I don't want to go back to my grandfather's past; I am grateful for the times in which I live. And yet I feel that our times ought to be an enriched by a dialogue with the past, with memories we can physically enact to channel the special kinds of life and joy that came from playing in the shade of a banyan tree on old Punjabi summer days.
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