AYESHA L. SETHI | 28 JULY, 2017
AYESHA L. SETHI
Being a child in India in the early 90s was very different to childhood in the subcontinent today. Afternoons and evenings were spent in the musty heat of the neighbourhood park, drinking roohafza and playing strangely named games such as kho-kho and oonch neech ka papada. Not many houses had a television set, and the one’s that did often restricted viewing time. The world was very different to that of the internet-age, and even more so to today’s world where iPads, iPhones, Netflix and other forms of on-demand entertainment exist.
On Sundays, we cousins got together. While the adults sat in the living room, smoking cigarettes and drinking together, we young ones kept ourselves entertained with make-believe fantasy games, well thought out pranks, and other kinds of mischief. If we were too loud, the parents would occasionally put on a movie for us -- a video cassette of a classic Disney film, but back then, these were in short supply.
My aunt, Ruby, brought along with her a board game one Sunday evening. We crowded around her, excitedly peeling off the new-purchase wrapping and curiously looking through the fake money and figurines. Just like that, we kids were left to ourselves, engrossed entirely in trying to make sense of the cardboard piece in front of us.
From that night on, for the next five years or so, every Sunday night was monopoly night. The group changed -- some of the older cousins outgrew the younger ones, choosing to hang with friends instead on Sundays, and adults often joined in -- but the activity remained the same.
The excitement that was initially limited to the game soon extended far beyond that, with the game itself becoming the excuse to get to know each other. I remember the first time my mother joined in. Ma, mild mannered, demure, soft spoken and ever so gentle, quickly transformed into a ferocious, aggressive go-getter. I had never seen her like that, and felt a surge of childlike pride in discovering that my dearest mother was made of stuff far more solid than she let on.
My cousin and best friend, Ro, I quickly discovered, had no principles. His strategy in securing the best deal for himself lay in watching others quarrell, and at the last minute, choosing the side that he knew he would get the most out of. Once I realised this trait, I couldn’t unsee it. I remember being very angry at Ro, when at the neighborhood park he watched a bullish boy pick on a small, sweet girl, and quietly chose the boys’ side by walking off with him after the incident.
I realised that the game was an invaluable insight into how people thought and behaved, and while often their reactions to the game fit in neatly with their personality (Ro had no principles, period), many times they would surprise you entirely. I also realised that all said and done, people are inherently selfish. Ma would have no hesitation in growling and biting her competitor’s head off if she didn’t get the property she had her eyes on, and Ro would quietly suck up to the person who had what he wanted, whereas I would be more straightforward -- to the point of isolating myself in the game, unable to make a deal to build a house or hotel … but we were all driven by the same selfish motives.
While we tempered and disguised these motives in real life, only to better navigate a world where social decency still holds some sway, our masks came off every Sunday evening as we sat around the monopoly game board.
We stopped playing monopoly at our house when one Sunday, Ma and Pa got into a huge fight. Ma had Park Lane and Pa had Mayfair, and they both stubbornly clung on to the desire to acquire the others’ dark blue very-expensive property card. What should have been a funny tiff quickly escalated into a full-blown fight, and I remember reeling back in horror when Ma flung the board and all the pieces with it, storming off in a mad rage. Ma and Pa made up the next morning, but the monopoly board was packed and kept at the back of the cupboard, never to be taken out again.
Almost two decades have passed since the last game of household monopoly, and although I’ve played the game with friends and colleagues in the years since -- it still brings back a wave of childhood memories, when summer’s smelt of green mangoes and winters of sweet marigold, when Ro and I stayed up every night watching the stars, wrapped in my mother’s chiffon dupattas after a exhilarating game involving the entire family.
The biggest difference between then and now is how we play the game. Monopoly used to stretch over hours, with all those playing fully focused on the competitive game, doing what it takes to amass the right property sets to build houses and hotels. Today’s games are very different. They’re much shorter, with people often giving up or having somewhere to run to before the game can advance to the stage of establishing monopolies. Everyone’s on their phone, checking Facebook or Instagram and often not even noticing that a player has landed on their property and owes them rent. No one wants to put in the effort to strike a deal, selfishly clinging on to their single colour properties and stalling the entire process. Worst of all, the masks that used to come off in the full version of the game, remain firmly on, and there are so many people I’ve played a game of monopoly with (if you can call this quick-version that) whom I don’t know any better at all.
Last week, I was introduced to a new version of the game -- Monopoly Deal -- where playing cards are used instead of a board and pieces. The game, its popularity and the fact that it needed to be invented in the first place is a deeply sad reflection of our reality. Over in all of ten minutes, with no concept of making deals but rather stealing people’s property cards and sets, it represents a new low … one where stealing is valued over hard work, luck is the biggest factor in the race, and getting to know the people in your world, that hardly matters at all!