Tip-cat

This is a feeble translation of "Gulli-danda", a story by Munshi Premchand. The objective is merely to exhort readers to read the original or better translations.

Childhood is that phase in life when we live in a larger world: a world that knows no barriers of class, wealth, or creed. The adult lives in a world made small by such barriers.

"Gulli-danda" by Munshi Premchand tells the story of two boys — a boy from a well-to-do family, who is the narrator of the story, and Gaya, a poor boy. Both of them love to play "gulli-danda" or tip-cat. Gaya is the champion tip-cat player among the boys. No one knows anything about Gaya; Gaya's playmates don't know whether he has parents, or whether he gets enough food to eat. While playing tip-cat, Gaya cannot tolerate cheating; he often scolds the narrator and even smacks him at times for cheating. But those were childhood days, and no one was high and no one was low.

Times have changed. The children have grown into young men. The narrator is now an engineer. He happens to arrive at his old village. Childhood memories crowd his mind. He wishes to search out his old playmates, and the first name that springs to his mind is that of Gaya. He manages to find Gaya, who works as a stablehand.

The narrator wishes to play a game of tip-cat with Gaya to relive the childhood days. He discovers that Gaya is no longer his old self; Gaya can neither strike the billet nor catch it. He has lost all touch with the game! The narrator also discovers that he can now easily cheat Gaya and get away with it. So, he cheats, and Gaya does not utter a single word of protest.

But there is more discovery in store for the narrator. He discovers on the next day that Gaya had only humoured him on the previous day; Gaya is still a champion player, and he still cannot tolerate cheating. Gaya had only treated him with pity on the previous day because the narrator was now no longer Gaya's playmate. The narrator discovers that the difference in their social status had created a wall between him and Gaya; he could now earn Gaya's respect, but never his companionship!

My English-knowing friends may tend to disagree, but I assert that tip-cat is the king of games. Even today, whenever I see boys playing tip-cat, I long to join them. You don't need a lawn, there is no need for a court, you don't require a net, and you don't require a bat; all that you need to do is cut off a small branch from any tree, make a "cat", and when there are two persons the game is ready to begin.

The biggest problem with Western games is that their gears are very expensive; you are not included as a player unless you spend at least a hundred rupees. Tip-cat, on the other hand, gives bright colours without the need for a dye. But we have become such ardent admirers of Western things that our own indigenous objects do not hold any attraction for us anymore. Schools charge an annual sports fee from the students; no one thinks it worthwhile to introduce Indian games, which can be played without spending any money. Western games are for the rich. Why force the poor students to play Western games? I agree there is the danger of hurting your eyes while playing tip-cat, but isn't it true that you could as well break your head or a leg, or tear a ligament while playing cricket? You may still see scars left by a "cat" that hit your forehead as a child, but then I have quite a few friends who have "exchanged" the bat for a crutch. Well, everyone has his own preferences; as for me, I enjoy a game of tip-cat more than any other game, and my fondest memories of childhood are associated with it: sneaking out of the house early in the morning, climbing a tree to cut off a branch and shaping a "cat (billet)", the excitement and single-mindedness, the coming together of the players, hitting the billet or chasing it, the quarrels and fights on the field. The players are ignorant of any class distinctions; there are no differences between the rich and the poor; the game of tip-cat provides very little opportunity to display your wealth.

People at home are angry at my absence. Father is venting his anger on the bread. Mother's hurried steps carry her only up to the door, but she is thinking of my bleak future which appears to her like a shattered boat caught in a storm. And, here I am gleefully striking the billet without any other thought in my mind! I have completely forgotten that I have yet to bathe and have my meals. The billet is a small piece of wood, but it has all the sweetness and enjoyment of the world stashed in it.

Among my play-mates was a boy by the name of Gaya. He was older than me by two or three years. He was thin and had long and slender fingers like a monkey's. No billet, however it was made, could escape his hands; he grabbed them just like a lizard grabs its prey. I did not know whether he was an orphan, where he lived, or where he had his meals. But he was the champion of our tip-cat club. The victory of the team, which had Gaya on its side, was assured. When we saw him coming to the playground, we would run to welcome him and coax him to join our sides.

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