The seasons for childhood games are distinct. Each one – Tops, kites, stump and stick – has its own season. It is easier to count the sides of a circle than to list the properties of all these seasons. Once it happened in my childhood in Visakhapatnam that a new season was born – that is the game of cigarette boxes.
It is difficult to find out who invented this great game. It’s even more difficult to say with any certainty that it was invented in our town. There is some chance for the probability that the game was imported from Vijayanagram or Anakapalle. I feel the tremendous responsibility to explain first how this game is played – so, here we go.
There are two faces to a cigarette box. The sides are torn away to leave these faces like Rupee notes. Values are assigned to these notes, sort of like playing cards, based on the brand of cigarettes – Wills is 1000, Players is 1000, Scissors is 500, Passing show is 100, Bears is 50, Charminar is 5 – like this. I can only recall approximate values – I don’t remember the actual values.
Every player must first accumulate some of these notes. The players draw a large circle in the earth and place their bets within it. Oh, I forgot – another important piece of the game is the Bettu – this is a flat stone some 4- 6 inches in diameter, typically a piece of raw granite. Once the bets are placed, the first player stands on the edge of the circle and throws his bettu parallel to the ground straight away from him. The other players take turns to throw their own bettus from the circle, aiming for the first player’s. Whoever can hit the first player’s bettu wins the bet. If the second fellow can not hit the first player’s bettu, his own bettu stays on the ground, and the third fellow has the choice of aiming for either one. So on it proceeds till all the players in the game get a chance. If no one can hit the first player’s bettu, then the game proceeds into the second stage.
The first player stands where his bettu was and now aims it on the money pile in the center of the circle. If his bettu touches the pile of money, he wins the pot. If he does not, each player tries his luck – one wins whatever money one can knock out of the circle. The game proceeds till the last note is knocked out of the circle.
While we were playing a game like this in Ukam Street one day, Prasadam came by and showed us a new kind of cigarette box rupees. We never saw such a thing before in our lives. He declared that it is valued at 100,000 in Bombay. We didn’t object. He also said that his elder brother brought it from the military. Since it was a military cigarette box, we unanimously decided that it can be valued at 100,000.
We humbly petitioned Prasadam that he distribute one to each of us. He did not oblige. He had 30 of those. Therefore, we all condemned his miserliness in not sharing his wealth with us. But would he listen?
Finally, he made a proposal – we get one chance to win all of his 3 million in one game. Of course, we didn’t agree. Even if we pooled all our resources, it did not amount to 3 million. So, we suggested that bets be placed in multiple steps, like 250,000 or so at a time. He didn’t agree to this. Just then, Garuda Nannaya let it out that Wills is valued at 10,000 in Chinnam Street. Our currency values go up and down, depending on the need of the moment. Prasadam objected that this was unfair, but Wills was instantaneously elevated to the exalted value of 10,000 based on the approval by the rest of us.
Even with this new valuation, our combined pool came to only 2.5 million. We chose Prakasam to play against Prasadam in this big bet. He is the acknowledged expert of the game. He has many tricks literally at his finger tips in both throwing the bettu and in the knack of knocking the notes out of the circle. Prakasam agreed. But there was credit crunch – the needed capital was in short supply.
We humbly petitioned Prasadam to loan us half a million. We were confident that Prakasam would win. However, Prasadam was adamant, and refused point blank. Okay, we said, let’s keep the bet at 2.5 million. He said my way or the highway, much like Jinnah in his heyday.
Left with no options, we sent emissaries to neighboring territories for financial help. The news spread to Chinnam Street and Pappula street. The greatest players from both streets were present on the occasion to witness this mega contest. Chinnam street people agreed to give the loan on one condition. If Prakasam wins, they get ten of the new 100,000 notes. If he loses, we have to repay them a total of 1.5 million within three days. We all pledged ourselves to this agreement – our word was as good as our signature.
At last, when the bet amounts were placed inside the crease circle, Prasadam inquired the Nagulakonda boy from the Chinnam street as to the value of Wills in their street. When the fellow replied that it usually went for a 1000, Prasadam threw a tantrum that we were cheating (by counting Wills as 10,000). The external witnesses also expressed the opinion that Wills is worth only a thousand.
Feeling that it’s a waste to call off such an exciting game at this stage, Panuparti Venkat Rao from Pappula Street came forward to fill up the shortfall, if we let him play. Of course, we did not agree – why? Because the fellow doesn’t have any skill at all. So, he said he won’t give even a lousy Charminar. He also prevented anyone from the Pappula Street coming forward to give.
Meanwhile, Nannaya accused Prasadam of cheating us ‘cause his Bombay cigarette box is not worth 100,000. We could not digest this truth. We too agreed with Prasadam on how a Bombay military cigarette box could not be less than 100,000.
Somehow, at last, Prasadam agreed to let the game proceed with only the capital we had. The game started. In excitement, Prasadam through the stone first. We were hoping that Prakasam could hit it quite easily, and win the game. Prakasam didn’t hit it. In the second play, Prasadam was able to hit the pile of currency in the crease, thus winning the game and the bet.
In that joy, he twirled his (non-existent) mustache, slapped his thigh and sang an insulting nonsense rhyme at us. Prakasam was incensed at this and he jumped on Prasadam. We too jumped on him. We tore up all the cash in his hands. We threw him down and tore his shirt. The witnesses, Nagulakonda from Chinnam Street and Panuparti from Pappula Street joined us with their gangs and put an end to the fight.
With his face flushed beet red, Prasadam shouted, “My name is not Rambhotla Prasadam, if I don’t shoot you with my soldier brother’s gun,” and limped away. His shirt was all torn and his body was full of bruises.
That was the end of the season for the cigarette box game in our town for that year.
Translated by © S. Narayanaswamy and published on thulika.net, June 2008.
(The Telugu original, mupphai lakshala pandem, was published in the anthology, Arudra kathalu, 1958.