The late afternoon calm lulls Kottivakkam Kuppam to sleep. The streets are empty, except for a few children scampering about in the sun; a handful of fishermen are out on the sand preparing nets to catch kola fish, the season’s specialty. For many, the day is almost over — the men who went to sea early in the day are back and the fish-sellers are done with their morning rounds. But, for the women who’ve nestled at a street corner of the tile-roofed settlement, the day has just begun. Seated on bamboo mats around a worn-out board that bears a hand-drawn pink pattern of checks, they crane their necks towards the one who holds the brass dice — she rolls a 12 and slaps her thigh with a cackle — there’s nothing more addictive for a fisherwoman than a game of dhayakattai.
She lounges under a shade after a hard day’s work to play the game that sometimes swallows three to four hours of her day. Kasimedu, Nochi Kuppam… stroll through any fisherfolk settlement in the late afternoon and you can see women seated in circles and engrossed in the game. No one knows the origin of seaside dhayakattai. “Women have been playing it in the kuppam ever since I was a child,” says Devagi from Kottivakkam Kuppam.
Some women, such as Shakila, prefer to keep off from the dhayakattai gang. “My husband doesn’t like it,” she says. “It’s addictive. You tend to forget your family, work, and all your responsibilities if you sit down to play.” Dhayakattai has been around for years — the Pandavas lost their kingdom to the Kauravas in a similar game. But the version that fisherwomen play is different. The rules are similar to that of the traditional game while the pattern of the board is different.
To succeed, each ‘kaai’ or coin has to travel along the ‘neck’ to reach the last square, that’s represented as a face in the fisherfolk’s version of the game. Once a kaai completes its entire lap and crosses over, it turns a ‘pazham’. A player gets to roll the dice again if she rolls 1 (dhayam), 0, 5, 6, or 12. “There’s no limit to the number of players,” explains Devagi. “There can be five or four per team.” The two teams travel up the board as the dice are rolled to finish the outer lap before entering the neck — this lap is not easy though. “The opponent can ‘cut’ a kaai and send it to the starting square by landing her’s on the same spot,” says Shakila. “Each team should have similar variety of kaai; this can be broken pieces of a glass bangle, pebbles or tamarind seeds.” she adds.
The games are fiery — tempers flare as the coins close in on the last square. “Devi, dhayam podu!” yells her teammate as she sends the long, cuboidal dice clinking to the ground. In that moment, as eight pairs of eyes peer in unison at the rolling dice, the waves seem to come to a standstill. For the women, nothing else matters once they pick up the dice; there’s gambling involved occasionally – which is perhaps why some women in the community dislike the habit.
Getting a dhayakattai player to talk is nearly impossible. She cannot afford to take her eyes off the board even for a moment. “So how long does one game last?” I ask a greying woman with her hair tied in a knot. She ignores me and watches the game like a hawk. When I persist, she snaps. “20 minutes. Now can you please stop talking?”