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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

India: Bhavnagar

The game of Aman Chache
The game of Aman Chache, as played in the dusty parks of Bhavnagar

'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.

The Aman Chache crowd
The Aman Chache crowd, posing for the camera with my bush hat

Aman Chache (or Chopat)

A Bhavnagar man pretending to be mortally offended while his friends smile on
Mucking about like naughty schoolboys, the Aman Chache players were always acting up

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.

A Bhavnagar man in a hat
The universal language of lending someone your bush hat so they can look cool in a photograph

Elsewhere in Bhavnagar...

A smiling man throwing the conch shell in a game of Aman Chache
It's all smiles as the shells get thrown

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.

Two Bhavnagar men play fighting
The naughty schoolboys of Bhavnagar fighting
The Aman Chache crowd
The smiles of Bhavnagar, surely the friendliest place in India

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 got in touch 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 other's 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.