It is a pleasant, windy Sunday afternoon. Bara Bazaar, Shillong’s biggest market, sprawled on a luxuriant hilltop is abuzz with activity: At one end congenial Khasi women sell betel leaves and an array of spices – brown, yellow, and red powders that smell like heaven – and at the other end grump butchers and fishmongers go about their business. Patrons struggle to make their way through this messy labyrinth, and amid this din, a group of men are catching forty winks in a squalid corner.
It’s 2 pm and they have less than an hour to catch up on their dreams; this slumberous adventure will foretell how the evening unfolds.
It’s a motley crew: a baby-faced adolescent, a middle-aged man in his early 40s, and a septuagenarian, who was napping peacefully, unperturbed by the bedlam. Thirty minutes later, the old man is the first to wake up, the other two follow like clockwork.
They get into an animated discussion; they are talking numbers. “Twenty two,” says the youngest one, Bah Heh. “Oh! A football match,” asks Heprit, the old chap, as Ban, their third companion listens intently.
The conversation makes little sense to an outsider. It sounds like gibberish. The trio discusses a few more numbers in fluent Pnar, a dialect of the Khasi language. From the look on their faces it seems important.
The three, belonging to the Khasi and Pnar tribes of Meghalaya, continue the tête-à-tête as they start walking toward Polo Groud. A few more men and women join in. “I saw blood. No 4 it is today,” concludes Ban.
Their dreams, they believe, are a window to their subconscious and they interpret them to place bets later in the day on a game of archery.
Each one of them is throwing in a number by now. “Eight,” says one of the vendors selling beetle nut. She has packed up for the day and has joined the crowd.
It’s no equation that they are trying to crack here, but the topic of heated debate is dreams. Each one of them is trying to decode what they saw when in deep slumber. Their dreams, they believe, are a window to their subconscious and they interpret them to place bets later in the day on a game of archery, popularly known as thoh tim or teer among the locals.
The two-kilometre distance between Bara Bazar and Polo Ground is dotted with tiny bamboo stalls with tin roofs that sell lottery tickets. There over 800 such counters across the city where gambling and betting have received an impetus from the government after it was legalised in 1982. Today, it’s a multi-crore industry generating a revenue of ₹70 lakh per day.
Bah Heh and Ban stop at one such counter to place their bets. “Twenty two,” says Bah Heh, recalling his dream about a football game. He has picked the number keeping the mind the number of players on the field. The 18-year-old bets ₹10 that he earned by running errands for this uncle. That’s his pocket money for the week, but today he is in a mood to take chances. A rupee fetches a decent ₹80 and Bah Heh is keeping his fingers crossed that he will be richer by ₹790 by the end of the day.
The archers pick up their bows and arrows and squat to take a shot. As the cold wind blows into their faces, their hands remain rock steady, their eyes on target. Image Credit: Subhendu Sarkar / Getty Images
The archers pick up their bows and arrows and squat to take a shot. As the cold wind blows into their faces, their hands remain rock steady, their eyes on target.
Image Credit: Subhendu Sarkar / Getty Images
Ban settles for the number four. He had a gory dream; there was a lot of blood. Four is “saw” in Khasi; “saw” also means red and that’s how he has joined the dots.
As the sun goes down behind the rolling hills, gamblers throng the kiosks along the streets. Heprit, a veteran among the betting circles, makes a beeline for one of the recently opened shops which is less crowed. Equipped with computers, the boys at the counter take online bets. Teercounter.com is a growing fad, but the thought of a computer decrypting dreams leaves Heprit unimpressed. Gambling and archery without its old-world charm is no fun, he believes, and scrambles to get himself a regular paper ticket from his regular counter.
It’s 3 pm. The Polo Ground, a neverending carpet of lush green, begins to fill in. Anxious gamblers, teens as young as 16, young mothers carrying their kids on their hips, stand under a rickety shed, their eyes glued to the archers. You can tell the first-timers from the regulars.
Dominic Syiemiong has been betting on his dreams at Polo Ground for the past 45 years. A veteran gambler in his late 60s, Syiemiong, confesses that he is an addict. “It is a part of my life and I can’t let go. There are good days and there are bad days, but it doesn’t matter. You will always see me here at 3:00 pm every day,” he admits with a smile, the wrinkles on his face deepening.
Today, he has bet ₹100 on the number eight. He had a dream about money, pisa orpoisa, as the Khasis call it. Eight is phra. The two rhyme, says Syiemiong convicned where to put his money. “It all depends on how you connect your dreams. This is the advice I got from my grandfather and I follow it even today. People have different dreams but it all works out if luck favours you on a particular day.”
Twenty archers from different archery clubs take centre stage at the maidan. (There are 12 clubs in the city and on each day two compete against each other). Syiemiong’s eyes light up in mischief as the games begin. Heprit and the gang, who are engaged in a noisy banter, go mum.
The archers pick up their bows and arrows and squat to take a shot. As the cold wind blows into their faces, their hands remain rock steady, their eyes on target. An aged referee gives out a shout and they all fire rapidly at a circular target made of hay.
It’s the end of Round 1, the crowds scurry toward the target. A few quick calculations done, some rush to make last-minute changes on their bets, but are shooed away by arrogant bookies.
There are 12 clubs in the city and on each day two compete against each other. Image Credit: Subhendu Sarkar / Getty Images
There are 12 clubs in the city and on each day two compete against each other.
Image Credit: Subhendu Sarkar / Getty Images
Round 2 begins and more archers line up and shoot. After several rounds, a couple of elders officiating the games take charge.
Tension fills the air, as they begin counting the arrows after the final round. Hundred and twenty-two are stuck to the hay frame. The referee announces the lucky number in his gruff voice. It’s 22 today.
Bah Heh jumps with joy. Lady Luck has smiled upon him. Heprit and Ban pat his back. They have trained him well. The kid has finally learned the tricks of the trade.
Toni Kasai, one of the archers, packs up. He is unrattled by the betting circus. Some make a few hundreds, some a few thousands. Some win, some lose. He returns home richer by ₹200 every day. “As a boy, my father would bring me to this arena and teach me how to use the bow and arrow. It is my hobby and my pride. As a Khasi, I am glad to keep alive in this old and beautiful tradition.”
Toni will be back tomorrow at 3 pm, his bow and arrow in tow. So will Syiemiong. One for the love of the game, one for the love of money.