Sitting on the shoulders of my uncle, we wended our way to fields outside the village. As we neared the place, the noise levels increased and there was palpable excitement in the air. I was very young and kept on pestering my uncle regarding our destination. He kept on saying that we were going to a “Chhinj” — I had never heard the word before but he soon enlightened me by saying it was a series of wrestling matches in which young men of the area would participate. There was a huge number of people, forming a big circle in the middle of which was the ‘akhara’. It was just a place dug up so nobody would get hurt. Some bouts had been announced earlier and some took place whenever a ‘pehlwan’ entered the arena and issued a challenge. The bouts began, the ‘pehlwans’ in their ‘langots’ and the crowd in full cry. The match ended when one of them was pinned down with his shoulders touching the ground. In the meantime, the men in colourful ‘kurtas’ and ‘tehmets’ moved about cheering their candidate. There was no betting or gambling, but people kept on giving small amounts of money to encourage their candidates. It was a festive atmosphere, free of tension and liquor (hardly anyone drank in those days). The crowds, the noise, the strange spectacle of ‘pehlwans’ in ‘langots’overawed me and remains a fond memory.
Such were the sports and entertainment in which everybody would join in. Come summer and the village teenagers and their seniors would come out to play kabaddi in the evenings as it cooled down. They would choose a field near the village and plough it thoroughly so it became soft. Then the boys would come out in all their finery i.e., only their undershorts or ‘kaccheras’, their bodies well-oiled and legs shaven. They would divide themselves into two teams and strut about. The matches were well contested — again, no betting. After some days, a village team was selected to participate in tournaments in the area. They feasted on milk, butter and ghee in preparation for the tournament, which normally lasted a day or two because matches were played continuously.
On returning home, vigorous post-mortems were held, all good-natured ones. Kabaddi was an everyday affair during the summers and with time volleyball was added. This was a cheap sport as you required only a ball and a net — these were usually donated by servicemen on leave. Our village had an excellent team, especially during the summer vacations when the collegiate came home. One of our players PT Chanan Singh was selected for the Indian team, but could not go. Volleyball was the only game where we had betting — the losing team had to provide what was known as ‘dudh soda’, a mixture of milk, ‘Banta Wala’ soda and ice. I was a schoolboy on leave and so I also got a glass of what we would call milkshake — ‘only stirred, not shaken’.
Wrestling was a part of the village sports calendar and wrestling lore was heard in all gatherings, especially stories of ‘Gama Pehlwan’, who was sponsored by the Maharaja of Patiala (a patron of cricket and also a good player). Wrestling featured at another venue also — melas. These fairs were held periodically in different villages — there was a kind of circuit which everyone knew. The fairs drew sweetmeat vendors, (prepared at the venue) hurly-burly and other games for children, bangles for women and other knickknacks, beautifully crafted long ‘khuntas’ (wooden sticks with handles), etc. Here also, there were kabbadi matches and wrestling bouts which were of a higher level because of larger participation and longer duration. In between, men, women and children gorged themselves on barfi, jalebis, etc, and got a lot more packed for taking home. Since the dates of these melas were well known, so there were plenty of relatives and friends who came over and stayed for a couple of days. The whole area wore a festive look and there were no law and order problems, although a police officer (mela officer) and some men were present.
Then there were ‘nakuls’ and their performance called ‘nakalan’— a breed that has vanished from the Punjab scene but I believe they are still surviving in Pakistan Punjab. There were some well-known troupes in the state and they travelled from place to place and held shows. They were mostly purveyors of crass comedy and satire in which they hit out at well-known persons and low-level government functionaries. This was all taken in good spirit and there were no cases of sedition registered. The performances were usually in the form of a conversation between two persons, speaking very loudly (no microphones) and the punchlines were delivered with great panache. I didn’t get to see many as I was young but even now, when I hear something on YouTube, it is one long uninterrupted burst of laughter. I wish the culture department would indulge in some cultural exchange programmes so we could refresh our common cultural roots.
Another festive occasion comes to mind which was popular in Hoshiarpur district mainly: the mango season. Hoshiarpur had thousands and thousands of mango trees — desi mangoes. The more exotic brands had not come to the Punjab markets, nor had we heard of them. Farmers had earmarked trees for their personal consumption and the excess was given to contractors. These contractors came in early and stayed in these groves in shacks. People bought from them or they took them to the market. Since the season was well known, hordes of relatives and friends would come for at least a week or so. Sucking mangoes was a messy affair and people attired themselves suitably. Buckets full of mangoes, dipped in water, were brought in and the proceedings started. While they were being consumed in large numbers, a running commentary went on regarding the quality of the mangoes — juicy, sweet, sour, etc — but irrespective of the commentary, the consumption went on. When satiated, ‘kachhi lassi’ was brought in and again consumed by the litres. This was milk and water mixed together — it was said that it led to proper digestion of mangoes. There was no lunch after this. When one lot of guests left, another came and so it went on — reunions galore and mangoes aplenty. This also has now gradually faded out and only memories exist.
I would like to end on a cheerful note on the subject of rural sports. Qila Raipur, I think, still has bullock cart races. These are not heavy carts used for carrying goods, fodder, etc; these are very lightweight ones on which only the driver sits. There are two bullocks and raising them and maintaining them is a costly affair. They are not used for any other purpose. They are fed on ghee and butter and almonds and what not. They are periodically taken out for practice runs and gradually, the driver and bullocks become a team and the bullocks understand the very touch and voice of the master. The speed which they attain is unbelievably fast — one of my village seniors once tricked me into a ride on one of them. He was out in front driving and I was on the tiny seat without any hand-hold. The adrenalin rush, the raw excitement of the moment will never leave me, even if you took me to a Grand Prix. However, for a long time, I became the butt of many jokes, especially when I visited the village during holidays as evidently I had been yelling on the top of my voice.
There are many stories waiting to be told, many memories waiting to be nudged — memories both happy and painful; it is a world gone by, as it is in the nature of things to go by. However, stories remain and for me the best part was when the game was over and we all sat around in a circle and exchanged gossip. I was usually the youngest and heard open-mouthed whatever was being narrated. Many a time my leg was pulled but I became aware of it only later. The winter sports started in early afternoon and ended around bonfires where young and old intermingled. Bedtime was early and we broke up and went to our respective homes. Summer was very exciting as all of us slept outside and tried to be next to our favourite cousins. Whispers continued far into the night until the proper dose was delivered by a senior. It is a world gone by. No visits to villages, no kabaddi or volleyball matches or gathering of the clan for mangoes and melas — only memories.
— The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC, former Manipur Governor and served as J&K DGP
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