There seems to be quite an easy formula to keeping children occupied these days; plonk them in front of a screen. Whether it be mobile gaming, youtube, netflix, there seems to be a plethora of things to do that involve a computer, mobile phone or game console.
Things were a lot different in the 90s. For one, there were no smartphones, and computers were also rare. Not to mention the paltry dial-up internet speed (56kbps anyone?), and you were pretty much forced to look outside your window for ways to entertain yourself.
The most popular game by far when I was young was cricket. And if you had a bat or a ball, it meant you were a popular person in the neighbourhood, as without you, there would be no game. We did not have any proper grounds or pitch to play at. It was just a large dusty clearing in the middle of the colony, and we would often find two or three matches going on simultaneously. There was always a rush to get to the ground first, so you would get the best location i.e. the middle of the ground.
I was never very good at it, being the smallest and least athletic person in the group, so they often kept me as the wicket keeper, keeping in mind I would not be able to run fast enough in the outfield. Play was halted when it became too dark, or when one of us inadvertently knocked the ball through an open window.
Sometimes, you were not in a mood for cricket. So what to play then? Luckily, one's imagination knows no boundaries, and there were many games me and my friends played which required at most a ball, some stones, or often, nothing at all. Hide and Seek was always a popular option that needed no external equipment. . Another was the game Statue, where there were two teams. You would start scattered at different locations and if you saw someone you would point a finger gun at them, shout ‘Statue’ and they would have to freeze on the spot. The loser would be the team whose members all became statues. Keep in mind, the ‘unfrozen’ members of the team could ‘unstatue’ their members. So it was a game of cat and mouse.
A classic which today’s urban kids may not have heard of was Seven Stones. In this game, you would stack seven small stones, one on top of each other like a tower, and the players were split in two teams. The first team would throw a ball at the stones, trying to break the tower. If they succeeded in doing so, the second team would catch the ball and try to hit all the members of the first team, thus eliminating them. The members of the first team would try and reassemble the tower before they all got eliminated.
But what if it was raining? Well, board games were the order of the day, or playing with G.I.Joe action figures. There was such a variety to choose from. The ones I can remember off the top of my head are Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, Scotland Yard, Table Cricket, Monopoly, Uno and Cluedo. The best part was, no one owned all of them, so you had to go to a different friends house each time to play a different game.
G.I.Joe’s were quite the fancy those days. I guess this is where the influence of television comes in. There used to be a G.I.Joe cartoon show on TV and we would often buy the different action figures based on what we saw. We didn’t really see it as violent, since no one ever died on the show, even though it was about two armies shooting at each other.
Which brings us to the television. Cartoon Network launched in India in May 1995, and it completely changed my viewing habits. I never really watched much TV before, with the main option being Doordarshan, but Cartoon Network got me hooked almost immediately. Shows like Tom & Jerry, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Dexter’s Laboratory, Swat Kats, Popeye, Scooby Doo, Johnny Quest etc. were ways in which I whiled away many long hours. It’s also probably the reason why I got glasses at such an early age.
But what if there was no electricity? Power cuts and load shedding were a frequent occurrence, and if you wanted to stay indoors and keep yourself entertained without friends, you had comic books. Specifically, Tinkle, Archie, Amar Chitra Katha and Indrajal comics. Each comic had its own memorable characters. For Tinkle they were Shikari Shambhu, Suppandi, Kalia the Crow, Tantri the Mantri and more. I was introduced to Indrajal comics on my trips to Imphal, and Mandrake and Phantom were the coolest characters to 7 year old me.
So what about things like the movies? I didn’t really go to the movie theatre when I was younger, and the first Hollywood movie I saw was Independence Day in 1994. It was such a surreal experience, with the people in the audience cheering on the heroes as they vanquished the alien threat. On television, Star Movies was the place you could get Hollywood movies and they often replayed the same movie many times. I lost count of the number of times I watched Home Alone, Terminator 2 and Mrs. Doubtfire.
Whenever there was a friend's birthday we would often play Tambola. It was a simple thing, and the prizes were often something small like ten rupees, but boy, was it gripping. You would hold your breath as you had marked four numbers on your line, waiting for the fifth one so that you could win the ten rupees. Alas, I was never really lucky in Tambola, and must have won maybe two or three times in total. But it was great fun all the same.
When I go out and watch children these days, I still see them playing hide and seek, and sports like cricket and football. It does make me happy to see them enjoying the same things that I did. I wish that this continues, and we allow and encourage our youngsters to go outside, stay away from screens and enjoy the innocence and energy of childhood. For there is nothing better and more exhilarating in the world than playing with your friends.