A game of goats and tigers

Author: Janani G
In Tamil Nadu, there is a game, by the name of “Aadu-Puli-Aatam”. Roughly translated, it means “Goat and tiger game.” I first learned of this game when I was 5 and had come to India for summer vacation.

My grandmother taught it to me, hoping that I would understand and play it with her. 

“The white shells are the tigers, and the black beans are the goats.”

Unfortunately, I was a bit too young and a bit too foolish to comprehend the rules. She could only watch in barely concealed amusement as I took the game’s playing pieces and proceeded to scatter it. I suppose she was just thankful that I didn’t try to eat them.

And so I never learned how to play that summer.

My grandmother tried again when I was 8. I was a bit smarter by then, so I could understand the rules.

“The tiger will try to trap and eat the sheep, so you must place the pieces strategically.”

Needless to say, the concept of “strategy” was lost on me. I would blindly place the pieces, trying to make the board look as attractive as possible. My poor grandmother could only chuckle at my antics and give up on having a good game. She would then join me in making all sorts of designs using the pieces. She would have made a beautiful lotus design, and I, a very questionable smiley face.

Of course, my design was the better one- she said it herself.

In my childlike foolishness, I believed that this game was invented by my grandmother. I would proudly parrot to everyone I saw that my grandmother was the creator of a game called “Aadu-Puli-Aatam”.

Looking back, I can’t help but cringe at my confidence, as I boldly declared that this old folk game of Tamil Nadu was invented by my grandmother, to the adults around me, who magnanimously decided to humour me in my naivety.

So at the age of 8, once again, I never learned how to properly play.

Come the age of 11, when I move to India, permanently.

What 11-year-old would want to stay inside and play an old board game? Have the patience to sit for an hour or so, and carefully plan? That certainly wasn’t me. And so, the game remained untouched, gathering cobwebs in an abandoned shelf.

Throughout the years, a plethora of excuses are made.

“I have homework.”
“Why don’t we go for a walk instead?”
“Paati, it’s time for your serial, let’s watch that.”
“It’s such a boring game!!”

After that last excuse, she never bothered to ask again.

When I turned 17, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer.

I watched, as she slowly became a shell of what she once was. Growing so small, and thin. So weak, yet so strong, as she battled through that debilitating disease. The arms that had once held me so tightly, no longer could- yet I never stopped feeling safe in them.

Suddenly, I wanted to play Aadu-Puli-Aatam. The game that my grandmother was so fond of. I don’t know why that urge overtook me. Perhaps it was guilt, for never trying to play before, or maybe I believed that somehow, we could go back to simpler, better times.

And so I attempted to recall all the rules and strategies she had taught me.

I tried to play with her, that game which she had longed for so much.

The burden of old age and her strenuous treatment had caused her to lose much of her memories; of herself.

How could she, who didn’t even remember my name, remember how to play this game?

But she had once painstakingly taught me, so I attempted to return the favour.

“The white shells are the tigers, and the black beans are the goats”

She scatters the pieces.

I try again.

“The tiger will try to trap and eat the sheep, so you must place the pieces strategically.”

She blindly places the pieces on the board, making designs with them.

I join her. This time, I tell her that the random swirls she placed were far better than the intricate flowers I made. I think she smiled at that, and for a moment, it was as though we had gone back to those precious summers in the past.

I try again.

But she is too tired, too exhausted, and too weak.

I don’t try again.

When I turn 18, she passes away.

I will never get the chance to try again.

 The board sits, gathering dust, lingering with broken promises, and a game that will never be.

For now, I pray that wherever she may be, she gets to play a good round of Aadu-Puli-Aatam. 

Even if it’s not with me.

5 thoughts on “A game of goats and tigers

  1. With the pandemic going on, I’ve learnt not to take anything for granted and this piece surely reminded me that

  2. I think everyone needs to read this. It’s time we start feeling grateful for every small thing in life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.