What started as a college project culminated as the world’s first board game in Hindi. Ushamrita Choudhury writes on the story of three technical graduates who became entrepreneurs with a landmark product.

“Designing board games seemed a suicidal idea in today’s age of fancy computer and video games. Explaining why we were making games in Hindi was another story in itself,” says Manuj Dhariwal, 27, a pioneer in the field of vernacular board games. English is the aspirational language today; why Hindi? Governments are hopeless; you can never work with them ethically! These comments are just part of a typical day in the lives of Manuj, Rajat Dhariwal and Madhumita Halder, three young, inventive and enterprising individuals responsible for developing Aksharit, the world’s first board game in Hindi.

Aksharit is the vehicle through which the trio launched their in-house production about five years ago, and though the journey for MadRat Games, their company, has been challenging so far, it has been enriching and fulfilling at the same time.

As technical graduates, Manuj, Rajat and Madhumita found themselves constrained by the analytical and logical business world. The free-spirited entrepreneurs wanted to explore the avenues of an unconventional career. Driven by earnestness to contribute to the field of education, and propelled by a passion for Indian languages, Rajat and Madhumita, now each others’ better halves, began teaching at the Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh. Their exposure to the organic style of teaching at Rishi Valley, where the duo taught for four years, encouraged them to venture into the entrepreneurial labyrinth.

Initially, it was about “Kuchh ache kaam karenge…” (Let’s do something good.) However, reality soon hit the team of ‘Rats’, as they refer to themselves, and their raw passion was tamed into a mature discipline. Aksharit, and MadRat Games, morphed into a serious business. “It wasn’t us creating games anymore,” says Madhumita. “Our effort had to shift towards running a business, one that’s profitable, scalable, and sustainable.”

So, while Manuj, the design graduate from IIT-Guwahati, is the ‘Ideating Rat’ on the game design and development front, Madhumita, the ‘Driver Rat’, is the key educator and artist, looking into the creative side of the business. As ‘Head Rat’, Rajat delves into every aspect of MadRat Games, right from strategy to operations.

A start-up's starting troubles

An infusion of Rs. 25 lakh, collected through the support of family and friends, got the ball rolling for Aksharit. As the ‘Rats’ kept burrowing deeper into their business, they encountered quite a few obstacles. “Hiring the right people, manoeuvring the business, and learning on-the-go are challenging,” says Manuj.

Not without reason, though; Madhumita recalls the time when she had to overlook the production by herself. Befriending non-Hindi speaking workers at the manufacturing unit, supervising production, developing a rapport with vendors — she had to dive into the raw operations of the firm. From sending couriers to sweeping their office floor, the trio has experienced the grind typical of start-ups such as theirs.

What makes Aksharit’s story fascinating, though, is the unusual space they’ve ventured into — the board game industry, valued at hardly Rs. 200 crore in India. MadRat is making the most of this untapped industry as they plan a blanket foray into the physical and digital medium. “Our consumer base has grown, and it’s quite varied. From public to international schools, and from children to adults, the scope for Aksharit has grown immensely,” Rajat observes.

The MadRat team, comprising 15 members, is also developing apps for various mobile and web platforms. From smart-phones, to Facebook, the youngsters are exploring every avenue possible to take Aksharit to the masses. From NRIs browsing for iPad apps to housewives rummaging through retail outlets for an Aksharit Kit, MadRat Games has surely carved a niche for itself where it matters the most — in the hearts of families, and in the minds of children.

Learning is Fun

“We take Hindi for granted, thinking children will learn it eventually, but, I remember how difficult I found the language,” says Tina Gholap, 30, a teacher at Serra International Pre-School, Pune. According to Tina, “Interactive games such as Aksharit will help children learn the language faster.” Peer-based learning, practised in a large number of schools these days, is the perfect platform to utilise Aksharit. Children find the game interesting and engaging, and playing it with friends from school, or with family at home, leads to a better grasp of Hindi. Initially positioned as an entertainment tool catering to families, Aksharit soon evolved into a learning aid for children.

Today, one can find three versions of Aksharit — Aksharit (ages 12 and above), Baal Aksharit (ages 8-14), and Aksharit Paheli (ages 10 and below). Reviews for both the versions have been encouraging. Swapna, author of the blog ‘The Mom Views’, and a stay-at-home mother, played one of the games with her niece, and she was impressed. She says the product is a “must buy”, as it makes children ask questions about the Hindi language, which is always an important step in the learning process.

Yogita Rani Sahu, a State Resource Group member from Chhatisgarh, experienced the benefits of using Aksharit at the junior level in public schools. Having interacted with children of varying learning capacities, she observed that playing with Aksharit increased the learning speed in children.

Basic problems related to the usage of matras have been addressed through this game. “Children enjoy playing Aksharit. Their Hindi language skills have developed considerably. Now, they also understand what they’re reading. They can create new words and express themselves, which is a great achievement.” Shivram Dubey, former Deputy Director at SCERT, Rajasthan, echoes a similar sentiment. “Where technology has no reach, Aksharit reaches. It’s a well-researched concept that has replaced blackboard learning with peer-based self-learning.”

Manuj, Rajat and Madhumita have seen the impact learning through play can have on teachers and students alike. “All the traits a teacher wants in her classroom, right from high interest levels to concentration to complete engagement, Aksharit is able to provide,” says Rajat.

The trio’s happy they’ve been able to develop a tool that aids learning in an easy and fun manner. “As long as there is Hindi, there will be Aksharit,” trails off Madhumita enthusiastically. Brimming with hope and confidence for a brighter future, MadRat continues to develop ingenious learning-based games and, in the process, “inspire some young guns to tread the unknown path.”