Of gambling and taboos

It’s that time of the year, when you get a little down because you have no money to spend on a proper holiday. So a few weeks back, I tried my luck in online bingo and I won myself a few dollars to buy gifts and stuff for friends and family.
And it got me thinking about how much gambling is frowned upon in our societies. I remember, as a teenager, we used to go to a disused stadium in our little town, and play cards for money under the crumbling pavilion. The most popular game was matatu, which I think is played only in Uganda. Recently, someone developed a software and you can play it online via Google, without having to worry that askaris will pounce on you and drag you off to jail. In those days, as the gang gambled away their pennies, a couple of boys would be on the lookout. Being a football stadium, it was easy to see anyone entering from a mile off, and we knew the faces of the askaris from the Municipal Council, so it was easy to see danger long before it arrived, and we would flee to the safety of the surrounding bushes.
Parents used to warn us against cards. They would scream stuff like ‘Don’t play cards or else you will become a muyaye.’ Bayaye are brats, spoilt kids, petty thugs who roam the streets looking for a chance to pickpocket. But I loved the card game, and I especially loved the thrill of making and losing money by chance. I was often lucky, both in cards and other gambling activities. I remember playing the lottery game JADA Scratch for Cash a few times, and I often won something. Sadly, I’ve never hit the jackpot.
Why is it that cards got such a bad image? There were many ways to gamble. We sometimes would use bottle tops (a game called ‘peke’, where you dig a hole in a ground and stood several feet away. The one who threw in the most tops won). The prize would not be money always. Sometimes we gambled for mangoes, or books, or pens. When adults found us playing these other games, they would never yell at us to stop. Today, I see youth gambling through pool, Ludo – both of which have become so popular you find a gang of idle youth playing them on every street – and mweso. No one will frown when they see you playing such games, but the moment you are caught with cards, it’s a police case.
Youth playing pool by the roadside in a Kampala suburb
In Nepal, gambling is deeply ingrained in the culture, and playing cards is so popular that you find a deck in every office, especially those in rural towns. During tea breaks, or when there is no electricity, or at the slightest excuse, they will play a game of cards. It has become something of a religious ritual during the famous festival, Tihar, when families reunite in ancestral homes and when friends gather – it’s like Christmas, only that it is nearly a whole month of Christmas. A whole month of idleness, of festivities, of drinking, and of gambling. It is hard to think of Tihar without cards, just as you cannot separate Carols from Christmas.
They play the game anywhere. In offices, in living rooms, in temples, in dark rooms, on the rooftops, in the balconies. I always thought it made one of my favorite restaurants sexy, almost like a little illegal casino. This was Shalom, in Rato phul (red bridge), Danghadi town. It always had a haze of hookah smoke hanging above the tables like mist in a horror movie scene, and pretty Magar girls walking around like Chinese spies in a James Bond movie.
When the Moaist rebellion cropped up, they assumed the role of moral guardians of the society. They banned gambling, and thus playing cards, among other thing. They once attacked a village of hereditary prostitutes, Munha, and beat up the girls whose only crime was to be born in the caste of entertainers. Badi. Not many Nepalis liked this, for the Maoists were attacking the very foundations of their cultures, beliefs that they had held valuable for centuries.
Kathmandu nightlife. You get a feeling sometimes
that Nepalis aren’t welcome in some places.
Maoists marching against something or the other.
Today, Nepalis are not allowed into Casinos. There are about half a dozen in Kathmandu, mostly based in five star hotels. I visited the Radisson, and was welcomed with pretty girls who made me feel like Sean Connery. I went with a Nepali friend, who loved to gamble, but who was afraid to go into the casinos alone. ‘If I’m with you,’ he told me, ‘they will think I’m a foreigner as well.’ He spoke heavily accented English, the kind Nepalis think are English yet is really Nepali English. So at the entrance, I did all the speaking. They let us in without trouble. However, Nepalis normally wouldn’t find it difficult to enter these casinos, for the casinos have to make money and will look away if a national walks in. But when the police raid the place, which they often do, they pounce on anyone who they think is a national and whisk him away to jail. But this friend knew if he was in the company of a foreigner, the police would not touch him. Indeed, in our night at the Radisson, he told the cops who interrogated him, ‘I’m merely his driver. He invited me in for a drink.’  The cops left him alone, and he won a tidy sum that night. 
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