“I’d rather read,” I wanted to say, but somehow it sounded wrong even inside my head. I do that a lot. Read, I mean.
Growing up, I read a lot. As a child, I read alone. As an adolescent, I read with my friend. We spent Goregaon afternoons reading. Our routines differed slightly depending on whose house we were in. If we were in my house, she would gobble up any sweet or the Milkmaid dabba inside our fridge. In her house, I would finish the homemade achaar bottle.
I continued to read as an adult. Once, I was alone in a temporary house. I call it the temporary house because it was that — some houses you occupy knowing it will remain a blank slate you have no interest in scribbling on. The book I had brought had been gobbled up faster than what I had planned for. I had an entire afternoon by myself, with nothing to do. The last occupant had left a couch, a bed, some dabbas, and an Xbox. So I played.
It was Halo, a first-person shooter game or FPS. It took awhile to figure out what to press to move where, and slowly I found that I didn’t have to keep looking at the device at hand to navigate. It felt like a tiny achievement. After a while, I started to feel nauseous. The TV screen loomed over me; the moving images, the twisting paths, the sounds, and my hands controlling what my neck used to do. I gave up and plopped on the couch.
I decided then that these games were not for me, just like I had stopped watching horror movies after seeing Purani Haveli in fourth standard and not being able to sleep for four days.
Some years later, an afternoon in Besant Nagar arrived. I was with fellow would-be journalists. It was then that I met Guitar Hero. There is a mutant baby guitar connected to a screen. I saw folks taking turns to play — the songs flowed on the screen and the screen told you which buttons to press. This was music to my eyes. It was something I wanted to do. My turn came. I took the guitar, a simple song. I stumbled a bit, fingers fretting. First time, I reminded myself, and continued. I failed, quite discordantly. I decided to intensely dislike Guitar Hero. You may now jeer ‘naach na jaane aangan tedha’ at me.
Blame it on a teacher somewhere in a school in Tamil Nadu in the 1990s who had been tasked with buying prizes for school children. The teacher bought a plaque, a steely affair with Arial size 70 font proclaiming, ‘Winners never quit. Quitters never win.’ In all caps. Imagine an earnest schoolgirl growing up with those words gazing down at her every day. It would do things to that well-oiled head. It did to mine. My parents’ home being what it is, I am sure it is still lying somewhere, dust-free inside a showcase, despite us moving across state-lines, and multiple homes. I was convinced my home was the hoarder paradise until I went to into the kitchen of a home in Chennai — and saw that uncle’s (fair assumption?) Tantex jettis replete with tiny worn holes hanging unselfconsciously as the counter-cleaning device.
On the one hand was this steely plaque gaze, and on the other was my mother’s words — ‘‘Kezhavikku kai odanja maadiri velai’, a mild translation would read ‘the handiwork of an old woman with fractured arm’, when she referred to my dexterity, and as with most words of wisdom of my mater, the true meaning is in the tone. My fingers do not stitch, suture, or strum. My SUPW (stands for Socially Useful Productive Work) class teacher avoided eye contact whenever I presented her with my embroidered kerchiefs. Now I know that look she had — it is the one on my face when the cats who have adopted our workplace give us gifts of dead and dismembered squirrels.
What my fingers do well is turn pages (or swipe). My life would have been peaceful if all I had to do was read. And write. But I live in interesting times. I am in an organisation where we design games. I had managed for some months by researching, reading, and writing. Then one day, I had to play. It was game night.
Those days our game nights were held in a friend’s house, an apartment on the third floor with a balcony nuzzling treetops. All her tasteful furniture became backrests, and her cushions were passed around as we all sat or sprawled on the floor in a comfortable circle. A Bangalore evening blanketed by flickers of oil lamps she lit thoughtfully, plates of snacks, and assorted glasses of spirits. I mumbled about reading but it was just a mumble.
The box was unpacked, and the board assembled. That evening, I was introduced to Settlers of Catan. My life was never the same again.
Settlers of Catan is a board game. The aforementioned board is made of pleasant sepia-green hexagons, surrounded by a light blue sea. You are the settler. Every hexagon generates resources — bricks, lumber, wool, grain, and ore. You take these resources to build roads, cities, and settlements. To get these resources you need to strategise. There is a point system. Whoever makes 10 victory points, wins. The instruction manual will tell you more, but what it does not disclose is that Catan is like the podium in Mayabazar.
Mayabazar is a 1957 Tamil movie that Baahubali people should have watched for it’s many wonders. It dreamt up Skype and a working internet connection three decades before Berners Lee. It had Savithri mimic SV Ranga Rao with aplomb. And it had the truth-podium. The truth podium looks like a wide footstool. Whoever stands on it speaks the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It’s maybe more appropriate to call it the machina ex deus, for in the climax even Shakuni maama with his wonderful wiles cannot outwit the podium and blurts out his evil conspiracy.
Catan is like that.
Take this person who we had met recently, who joined us for one game night. Initially, there is the “Oh, it is just a game,” phase. The person glanced at the board, and then paid more attention to us, sitting around. Banter, jokes, and “will you pass the chips?” A few sips of spirits. A few rounds. Furrows appear and deepen with dice throws. Then the air thickens with plots and sub-plots. Catan lets you trade off the board. Cartels are created, and deals are drawn. The nice new person is in the middle of it all. No more jokes. No more banter. No more just a game. “How many points you have?” they shout at some point in agitation. It makes me grin, always.
Catan reveals all. Catan tells you there is no gender — everyone plays. Some want to win, some want to strategise, some just do not want the other one to win. Some pretend that they do not care. Some care too loudly. Some whine a bit.
What about me? For me, it is never about winning in Catan. And before you (cough-cough) point to the steely plaque that screwed with my oily head, let me hasten and rephrase. Winning is not always about those victory points. Let me tell you about ‘The Longest Road’.
Catan has one card called ‘The Longest Road’. The one who builds — you guessed it — the longest unbroken road sequence gets it. It was like the time we went to T Nagar in Chennai for the annual buying of new dress during Deepavali. I saw a frock and fell in love with it because it came with a green scale attached. My mother tried showing me different frocks, but I was sure, the one with the green scale was the one. Sadly, I don’t remember whether she caved. But ‘The Longest Road’ is my green 15 cm scale, and every time, I play, I get a chance to win it.
And knowing my obsession, everyone around me plays to ensure that I don’t, even my colleague who usually refuses to play Catan — my friends are wonderful that way.
Another game night. My colleague who usually refuses to play Catan was conscripted because we were one player short. He sat in a corner busy reading, occasionally paying attention to the board. I was on a high. I was building roads steadily. My nearest competitor could not come close. I had a new strategy where I was building from two different sides to join them both together to create the longest road ever. In between my road-building euphoria, my colleague put his book down and stared at the board, and then rubbed his palms together. I do not exaggerate, that was his gesture, an auguring straight from Shakuni’s body language. And before I knew it, he had built right in the middle of my great road of Catan. The longest road card, which I was snuggling was gone.
That was two years ago. I have not lost hope. With steely determination I wait for the next game night where we play Catan and he joins in and I win back the longest road. (The last time we played together and he again took the longest road from me does not count.) Meanwhile, I beat him in Coup.
You haven’t played Coup? But that is another story.