'Welcome to the city of Bhavnagar,' said the man on the train as he hopped off, picking up his son whom he'd been trying to wake up for the last ten minutes but with little success. I'd changed trains in Ahmedabad, staying long enough only to admire the fast food joint at the station (the first I'd seen since the Wimpy in Bangalore), and had wasted no time in heading even further south. This is a new state, Gujarat, and I didn't want my opinions to be tainted by the industrial black hole of its capital.
Bhavnagar is notable for nothing (at least, as far as the visitor to India is concerned). I decided to stay there as a base from which to visit the ship-breaking yard of Alang, some 50km to the southeast, but Bhavnagar reminded me not only of the delights of travelling in a rarely visited state in the off-season, but also of the main reason for my enjoyment of India: the people. I have come across wonderfully friendly pockets in India – Hyderabad, Thanjavur, Bijapur et al – but Bhavnagar wins hands down as the friendliest place I have been. English was almost non-existent beyond pidgin greetings, but communication doesn't have to be in tongues; people ran up to me to shake my hand and to try to find out what I was doing here in India, children shouted out, 'ElloElloEllo!' for five minutes after I'd passed, and even the old men squatting on the side of the road smiled back with toothy grins as I greeted them (a rare occurrence: even in the friendliest places the older generation, those who remember British rule, tend to be too reserved or resentful to smile at foreigners). The man on the train had been the tip of an iceberg of warm generosity.
On the Saturday afternoon that I arrived, I decided to try to meet the locals. The best way to do this in India is to mind your own business, so I found my way to the central park, sat down in the shade of a tree and started reading a book. Sure enough within five minutes I had a crowd of maybe twenty young men goggling at me, gawping at the maps and pictures in my guidebook and listening in uncomprehending awe as I described my trip with hand signs and city names. After half an hour of this entertainment (tiring for me, riveting for them) I wandered over to the other side of the park, and as I was about to leave to go for a siesta, I spotted a group of old and middle-aged men under a neem tree, yelling and screaming like school children at recess. I just had to go and take a look.
They welcomed me into their group with smiles and invitations to sit down; not one of them had any English beyond the incredibly basic, but this didn't matter. The object of their fascination was a game they seemed to call Aman Chache1 which I will describe here in the same way that a North Carolinan might describe chess; after hours of watching I still had no idea of even the most basic rules of the game. But it was fascinating to watch...
Aman Chache (or Chopat)
Under the greenery of the neem2 is a large square piece of sackcloth, on which is drawn a large plus-sign, each arm of which is divided into three squares across and eight squares along; three of these squares have Xs in them. There are four teams of four men each (it's definitely a game for the boys), each team sitting or squatting along one side of the large sack cloth. Four game pieces are distributed to each team – the four team colours being red, green, black and white – with each piece made out of wood in the shape of a large, very blunt bullet. To complete the set is the shell of half a coconut and six small sea shells of the variety that are roughly oval in shape, with smooth white backs and evil slits in the other side, lined with ridges that under a magnifying glass would remind you of a shark's mouth.
Each person takes it in turn to throw the six shells, which land jaw-side up, or smooth side up; by counting the number of jaws you get a number from one to six (so the shells do exactly the same job as a conventional die). And there my understanding of the game evaporates.
Some numbers are special, some not so special, but I couldn't discern a pattern. Sometimes pieces are moved, sometimes not, but I couldn't discern a pattern. Sometimes pieces are turned onto their sides, sometimes onto their heads, but I couldn't discern a pattern. Sometimes pieces are taken, sometimes they are added to the board, but I couldn't discern a pattern. And eventually someone wins, but even in that I couldn't discern a pattern. 'This an ancient Indian game,' was how one spectator explained the rules; funnily enough this made everything quite clear.
But it wasn't the game so much as the people who were fascinating to me. Sitting and standing round the board was the most assorted collection of Indian men you could ever hope to see. On one corner was a gaunt Muslim with his long chin beard, no moustache and white cap fitted over his short hair; he concentrated hard on the game, seeming serious but ever willing to join in the jokes and laugh along with everyone else. Opposite him was a man with such an incredibly hooked nose it made his moustache look like a furry caterpillar trapped between his upper lip and his nostrils. Just along from him was an evidently well-educated man who analysed the game, provided a running commentary on every move and tactic and, when he threw the shells, twisted his wrist in such a flourish that it didn't really matter whether the throw was good or bad, because it looked so stylish; even taking other pieces was a display, as he smashed the piece taken with the victorious piece, sending the unfortunate one careening off into the dust.
Dotted about were four clowns who spent most of the game throwing stones at each other, pretending to get furious with each other and, on the point of throwing punches, collapsing into huge grins and belly laughs, dragging everyone else with them into their boyish humour. I imagined their conversations were along the lines of:
'You hit me first.'
'Did too, he saw it.'
'You're mad, mad as a monkey.'
'Who are you calling a monkey?'
'You, mad man.'
'Well you're just as crazy...'
The others kept nudging me, pointing at them and tapping the sides of their heads. Everyone loved it.
And all the while the men fished out beedis from their top pockets3, filling the air with acrid blue smoke that added a certain mysticism to the event, a ritual only matched by the frequent chai breaks and passing round of the cold water. After four hours of this amazing entertainment I had to leave to eat something, but I would return the next day on my way back from Alang, and I would again be beckoned over, invited to sit down, plied with chai and made to feel utterly welcome once again. I sent them copies of the pictures I took – which they thrilled to, posing like adult kids – and I hope they give them as much pleasure as they did me.
Elsewhere in Bhavnagar...
When I was there, Bhavnagar had all the fun of the fair, literally. Dominating the dried-up tank in the centre of town was a large Big Wheel, flanked by lethal looking contraptions designed to fling you around at gravitational forces beyond the healthy. This was an opportunity too good to miss; a real Indian fun fair, totally free of western influence and teeming with cultural sights and sounds that would make the rides themselves almost irrelevant. I eagerly paid my Rs2 entry fee and slipped quietly into the bright lights and noise of the dangerously clanking machinery.
I didn't last long. Each ride was Rs5 a go, so I headed straight for the boldest ride of the lot, the Big Wheel. Creaking tremulously, it started up with eight of us dotted around the huge wheel – business was not exactly booming at the fair, to be honest – and although the ride wasn't that thrilling on paper, my heart started beating pretty fast, because there isn't any such thing as health and safety in India. Realising that perhaps the rides weren't quite my cup of chai, I stumbled through the exit gate into the throng.
I was followed by one of the boys off the ride. Latching on to me, he tugged at my arm and said, 'Dollar!' I told him to bugger off. 'Rupees!' he continued, and I told him to bugger off. 'Paise!' he ventured, and when I told him to bugger off for the third time he neatly summed up his command of the English language by sticking the needle in the groove marked 'Dollar! Rupees! Paise!' and following me with his stuck-record mantra cutting through the noise. I tried another ride, a seriously spinning set of two-person cars that ensured the little Indian boy who ended up in my car couldn't avoid being flung into the spleen of the funny white man next to him. He thoroughly enjoyed himself, but I felt pretty damn queasy afterwards and went for a wander round the attractions to clear my head, still accompanied by cries of 'Dollar! Rupees! Paise!'
The fair was small but was obviously a focus for the single young men and women of Bhavnagar; to put it bluntly, it was the Indian equivalent of the pick-up joint. Stunningly crafted costumes adorned beautiful young women as they stuck together in giggling packs, while strangely out-dated young men in teddy boy haircuts and mundane clothes adored themselves in the vain hope that the women would follow their example. But was it a vain hope? Judging by the way the girls enjoyed this primitive display of male strutting, the course of true love can obviously still run smooth even if one half of the couple has all the charisma of a latter-day Elvis.
When my head had stopped spinning and the money mantra had drifted into the background noise4 I started off for home, but on the way I met a very friendly couple of young men on their incredibly cool moped who, after opening the conversation with the somewhat confusing 'You want woman for sex?' and an inquiry into whether I had any alcohol (Gujarat being a dry state), turned out to be as polite and interesting as the rest of Bhavnagar. They offered me a lift on their bike back to my hotel, which I took, and I soon found myself being paraded in front of their friends at the local Hindi tape stall, where I tactfully didn't tell them exactly what I thought of Hindi pop, though I think they probably got the message. We all laughed, they took me back home and I fell into a deep, contented sleep.
1 I've wondered for ages what on earth this game could be, and I haven't been able to find any references to Aman Chache on the Web, but Nutan Mehta kindly contacted me via my Guestbook with the following information. 'I am from Bhavnagar, residing in the US for the past forty-plus years,' he writes. 'The game you described has another name called "chopat". "Cho" is a conjunctive like "quattro" for "four", and "pat" is "plane" or "area", thus "four-plane". I think the game parcheesi is very close to chopat. The shells are known as cowry shells. I used to collect them as a boy. It's not just a street game but was played in many homes. My grandma was crazy about it.' Thank you so much, Nutan; I really appreciate you getting in touch, and it's helped me track down an entry in Wikipedia on the subject, which explains the rules. That sound you can hear is the penny dropping...
2 A fascinating and typically Indian tree, the neem is not just used for shading games of Aman Chache. Its leaves contain a mild poison that kills bacteria but doesn't harm humans in very small doses, and as a result neem extract has been used as a kind of toothpaste in India for hundreds of years. Smearing neem on your teeth kills the bacteria that cause tooth decay, thus preserving your teeth so you can chew pan and really screw up the enamel...
3 The Indian top pocket in the ubiquitous Indian shirt is the equivalent of bank, corner shop, handbag and personal organiser all rolled into one. Beedi packets sit next to rolls of bank notes, mixed up with addresses, tickets, receipts and normally some little sweets to suck on. It makes some men look positively Amazonian with this huge bulge on their left breast, but it's amazing what you can fit in an Indian top pocket.
4 Which included lots of hissing. Indians get each others' attention by hissing instead of yelling, so every time you walk through a bazaar or a street where people want to talk to you, the air fills with 'Tsss! Tsss!' and you have to quell the western irritation that comes with being treated like a dog rather than a human. It's not rude, though, it's just another cultural difference, but it's one that takes quite a bit of getting used to.