Those childhood games of yesteryear


By Anne Abayasekara

It was that graphic drawing of what we used to call Aeroplane Hopscotch, atop Tissa Devendra’s nostalgic article, "Endangered Childhood Games", (The Island’s Saturday Magazine of 19th June), that did it. Took me back several decades to an almost forgotten time – first in my village of Madampe in the NWP, and then to kindergarten days and schooling in Colombo. The words "Kan kan booru/ Sin Sin neru" transported me at once to the garden of our home in Miriswatte where an aunt would chant those words, following them up with, "Duvala, duvala gihin mata …. genna." And we would scatter, my village playmates and I, to fetch whatever leaf or or flower or thing she mentioned. The first child to bring it to her was the winner and the game went on until we felt tired.

Before we were old enough for "Kan kan booru," we used to chant some verses that started with "Athuru mithuru Dambathi yathuru, Rajakapatu settiyar" and went on to say that the "Alutha gena manamalita haal pathak genawa, Udaha getath bedala, Pahala getath bedala Parana gena manamalita …." It was a long story with actions to suit. An elder would lead the chanting and we small fry would gleefully repeat the words and actions after her.

Tissa mentions "Panchi" played with cowrie shells "during Avurudu gatherings." We called it "Pancha" and my mother always had a Pancha board handy and we played it year round. One shook a dozen – or it may have been a half-dozen – cowrie shells held in the loosely closed fist of one’s palm and then flung them onto the table. What delight if one’s throw showed all the cowrie shells on their backs, looking upwards! The player scored 12 points and could move her/his counter forward 12 spaces on the board. That’s all I can clearly recollect of this ancient board game, although in my mind I can picture the board on which the painted squares zig- zagged.

"Gudu" was a favourite pastime with my brother and friends – it evoked much excitement among participants and spectators. I, being a girl and 4 years younger than my brother, wasn’t encouraged to join in, but was exhorted to keep out of the way of the flying stick. While I can recall the word "Marsoke", I don’t remember actually seeing it played. Then, one holiday, my brother came back from school in Colombo, having learnt to play cricket. He eagerly introduced the foreign game to his village cronies who took to it with enthusiasm and thereafter "gudu" was abandoned in favour of cricket. When my brother was away, the village lads could be seen in their own backyards or on the sandy road, playing cricket with a "pol-pithi bat" and sometimes a "kaduru" ball, with 00sticks for wickets.

Marbles, I associate more with Colombo. While I have a dim recollection of its being played at home in Madampe, I have very strong visual images of the game as a highly popular activity engaged in by my own sons who grew up in town. Girls liked to collect the pretty, colourful daintier glass marbles. The catapult was, of course, a favourite in the hands of boys of both village and town – until the more affluent of a generation later, took to the more sophisticated Daisy Air Gun.

Hopscotch, in all its variations, was something I took home to Madampe from school. We would hop around for hours, the boys too joining in when they felt like it. The simplest form of Hopscotch was played on six squares, 3 on each side. However, I remember Flag Hopscotch and Aeroplane Hopscotch as the most popular forms of this game, both in school and at home and I think it continued for some years after my generation left school.

Tissa D. hoped by his article to "inspire/provoke our sociologists and/or Sinhala scholars to record these games as well as rhymes, riddles and jibes, and their origins before they are drowned forever by the tide of globalization." I fall into neither category and there may be other oldies like myself who can contribute their mite by taking a walk down memory lane to a dim, distant past. For example, the inclusion of jibes instantly brought to mind a jibe I had heard used in the village when I was very young. In those days, Chinese salesmen (called "Chinamen" by us locals), used to pedal long distances on their bicycles, with a big bundle of cloth secured firmly to the back of the cycle. Village children would taunt the occasional pedlar who came our way, shouting out: "Cheena boku boku nainaray – Colombo yanne koi paray?" keeping a safe distance. My domestic aide who hails from Polonnaruwa, also remembers this jibe and neither she nor I can recall any other "ochchama". If hide-and-seek dates back hundreds of years, what about a game called "Fair" that we children used to play? This must have been of English origin because the method for deciding who would be the `catcher’, was by one person chanting a rhyming verse, pointing a finger at each one standing in a circle, including herself. After more than 70 years, I remember some of verses. A commonly used one was, "Paddy at the railway, picking up stones/ Down came an engine and picked Paddy’s bones. /`Ah!’ said Paddy, `that’s not fair’/ `Ah’ said the engine driver I don’t care!" You jabbed your finger at whoever it was that you stopped at on the last word of the jingle, and that person had to be the catcher. Everyone else ran off and the catcher would count up to 50 and then pursue them with the intention of catching someone.

The games we played in school in Colombo cannot, naturally, be classified as indigenous, but they have shared the same fate as the others. A game I enjoyed when I was 7 or 8, was called "Mademoiselle " and all you did was bounce a rubber or a Tennis ball on a wall and catch it as it bounced back to you, reciting these lines:-

"Mademoiselle, she went to the well
She never forgot her soap and her towel
She washed her face, she dried her hands,
She said her prayers and she jumped into bed.

At the 3rd and 4th lines, you made the actions to suit the words. The second time round, you were required to clap your hands following on the actions, before you caught the ball. On the third round, you had to turn yourself around and clap your hands before the you caught the ball as it came back. Various new actions of increasing complexity had to be followed with each successive round and the winner was the one who went through the whole routine without once dropping the ball..

A game called "Sardines", was a variation of Hide-and-Seek. One player ran off to hide and after a suitable interval, all the others went in search of her. The first player to discover the hiding place would, without a sound, perch beside her and so would each one who, in turn, discovered the secret spot. Often, they were squeezed into a limited space, hence the term "Sardines." The last person to find them was greeted with a shout and she then became the one to go into hiding.

"Statues" was another game that was very popular from our time up to about the 1960s, although children today haven’t heard of it. One player stood up front by her/himself, with back turned towards the rest of the gang who stood way back in a straight line. The lone player would count loudly up to ten while the rest started moving forwards. On the count of TEN, then alone person would turn back sharply and all the rest were expected to stand as still as statues, maintaining whatever pose they happened to be in at the shout of "Ten". Each one would be scrutinized carefully by the leader and at signs of the slightest tremor of movement, declared "Out" . .

Nobody that I know of plays "Rounders" today – nor even knows what it signifies. Yet, when we were growing up (10 – 13 years), we snatched even the morning 10 minutes. drink-interval in school to indulge in this game which we would then continue in the lunch interval. There were two teams and you tossed a coin to see who would be the "hitters". The losers were the fielders. The "hitting" team lined up in front of a designated ground-space which was dotted with fielders of the opposing team, and each one in turn would hold a tennis ball in one hand and whack it for all she was worth, with the other. There were three bases fixed beforehand, where a player could stop if she had no chance of running full circle back to home- base, ready to continue homewards when the next player hit the ball. You could be run-out if a fielder took aim and threw the ball to strike you as you ran between bases. We found it very exciting. I can picture even now, one or two schoolmates who could hit the ball so powerfully that it sailed over the fielders’ heads while the player ran full circle home and won extra points for her team. If a fielder caught the ball in mid-air, the whole team was out.

Some of today’s children still play the seated, written game of "Boys, Girls, Fruits, Flowers", but more interesting games that were played sitting down, are in limbo. I wonder if any reader will remember, "The priest in the palace has lost his most wonderful hat. Some say this and some say that, but I say it is ---------" ? Or the spelling game, "Go – Goho – Ghost"? It’s been good to pause a moment to recall those days of childhood, the games of yesteryear and the friends with whom we so happily played them in an era innocent of tuition classes, television and computers.

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