Gambling- a cultural enterprise

“Eyes up, hands down”- and so it begins. The tension is palpable around, as a man rhymes pithy sayings and trite one-liners to reveal numbers. A common sight at an annual gathering of people at the terrace of Kanchendzonga Shopping Complex for Tambola (a variant of Bingo). The man on the mic could get away with the vilest of sexist remarks if my uber-feminist friend gets that one coveted number that would complete her “Top Line”. But it’s not all just misogynistic wordplay, in fact, a lot of historically significant dates are also recounted during the course of the game. For instance: ‘Netaji Budday’ is number 26, ‘Kachera bhayeko saal’ is the Agitation of ‘73. The anticipation, the giddiness, and the sheer thrill of crossing off numbers on a flimsy piece of paper while basking in the crispy winter sun, more than compensates for the time and the money spent. Or so I have made myself believe after my great dry spell of January 2017.

Meanwhile in the same month, on a work related trip down to Jorethang, after hearing the stories, for all these years, I finally checked out what Maghe Mela was all about. A secular annual fare that once drew hordes of people from the entire state in a celebration of the start of a warmer weather. Once this fare was a place where people found the love of their lives, forged memories that lasted for decades or just had a memorable start to the year. While the Ferris’ wheel and ‘Maut ka Kua’ kept the children occupied, elders of the family tried their luck at myriads of games around the betting stalls. There was an overwhelming variations of games you could put your money on, from scratch tickets to animal roulette. These stalls teeming with people, almost made me forget about the sophistication of modern living and ponder on how far back our relationship with gambling went.

Needless to say, I was mortified to explain where did all my money go, after I returned. Oddly enough, instead of being mad, my parents were just embarrassed on how unlucky I was. This is the part of being a Sikkimese, accepting the fact that gambling is knitted into the very fabric of our identity. It’s something that is not frowned upon. Not a social stigma, rather a harmless activity that is integrated to almost all of the major festivals and holidays. So much so, that in my family, you’re not considered a good host, if you don’t shoehorn a teen paati session or Flash, during Dasain. After praying to the evil-liberator Goddess Durga and adorning colorful rice on our forehead as a token of blessing from the elderly, we sit down with a plate of khasi ko maasu (mutton) and Hit beer, to play flash. The irony lost amidst the clamor that ensues in finding out who shorted the required “boat” money. This in not just limited to festivities but is a perennial pastime. Whenever we have guests over at our house, it eventually leads to a session of Marriage or Rummy, and sometimes, we have people over on holidays, just for playing cards.

The gambling culture here has spawned its own glossary. Take that, Mr. Chomsky! ‘Jhandi’ loosely translates to flag, a suit you can bet on the game of Langur Burja (a variation of Crown and Anchor). There is ‘boat’ which is equivalent to vote that is collected before a hand of flash is dealt. There is a separate glossary of bastardized terms like ‘tunela’ for tunnel in the game of Marriage, ‘pet’ for pair, ‘thirel’ for trial in the game of flash. ‘Sompae’ is the gambling equivalent of bae/fam.

So you see, how integral gambling is to our culture. From forming major events during festivities to coming up with neologisms. It is rarely a dysfunctional foible, although the introduction of casinos, saw a fraction of people spiral into a gambling problem. But that’s a story for some other day. We Sikkimese love gambling. From the ancient Tibetan turn-based dice game of ‘Sho (cowrie)’ to the riveting 21-cards game of Marriage, we have always found our pick-me-up for an afternoon of socializing with friends and family, alike.

post contributed by Prajwal Kharel

Photo contributed by Kunga Tashi

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