I am, undeniably, the unluckiest person that I know on a roulette table. I first tried my wits on the chips on infrequent but unfettered trips to Goa’s casinos. But I threw in the towel after losing a couple of thousand rupees over time. I realised I was a wobbly match to the wealthy and seasoned elite for whom the casinos are a regular pilgrimage. They would make a smooth knowing entry, flutter over different games and decamp in a few hours with smug faces and heavier wallets. Left in their wake, with gritting teeth and furrowed brows, were amateurs like me. “Never again,” was the thought when I last left a Goa casino in 2014.
That was until I set eyes upon the unassuming kiosks on Shillong’s streets, which hung small blackboards on the sides of the shutter each day, with two numbers written in chalk for all to see. Parimpal, my cab driver, must have seen my gaze riveted to those boards many times, and so on the fifth day in the city, he offered to introduce me to what was seemingly the state’s most popular addiction after kwai (betel nut): a game of teer, also known as rongbiria or thoh tim, Meghalaya’s daily dose of hope to thousands who bet on two rounds of archery. But first, we had to buy our lottery tickets from any of the licensed counters spread all over Shillong.
We walked over to one at Police Bazaar in the town centre. Given my disastrous luck, I capped my contribution to a crisp Rs 100, the only amount I was willing to sacrifice. Parimpal chipped in with another Rs 100 and we decided to split the spoils, in the event that lady luck chose to bless us. I experienced a minor, muted version of a Goa flashback — here, the people stretching their arms across the counter to get their tickets, were holding on to Rs 10 and Rs 20 notes. Only a few clutched onto a grand sum of 500. One could bet with a Re 1 as well. This certainly felt more at home.
The kiosk owner explained that everyone had to choose a number between one and 100 — our pick was 55. The actual game then proceeds like this: a bunch of archers try to shoot at a cylindrical bamboo thatch target. After about three minutes, the total number of arrows that have hit the target are counted. Out of this total, the last two digits are declared the winning numbers. As the rules go, every single rupee is multiplied by 80 in round one, and 70 in round two. For example, if the total number of arrows that hit the target are 739 and a person has chosen 39, the money invested is multiplied by 80. If one wins both rounds, the total invested money (from both rounds) is taken and multiplied by 4,000. About 600-700 arrows are shot in round one and 300-400 in round two.
It was 3 pm by the time we wended down to a small field at Sophlong from the town centre. I could have easily missed it from the road, if not for an odd sight of scores of men with phones attached to their ears. These were proxy betters getting calls from all over Meghalaya — friends in far-flung villages or cousins in distant towns, asking them to put in money on their behalf. As we entered the field, we saw more ticket counters. Each had a blackboard with two numbers separated by a slash. These were the winning scores from the previous afternoon, and would change swiftly when today’s rounds were over. Phones rang incessantly and different numbers were bandied about, some even referred to dreams from the night before — a common way for locals to steer them towards their lucky number for the day.
Soon a shaded, ringed gallery around the grassy patch began to fill up with archers from different clubs. We bagged a spot close to Khun Shynrang, a 24-year-old archer. He took out a clutch of small arrows from a quiver and started inspecting them, readying himself for another day of creating or collapsing fortunes. Shynrang finished fast and had time enough to light a pipe and chat with us about his experience of taking up archery — less for the love of the sport, but more to earn a quick buck. He told us that there were about 15 archery clubs in Shillong, with 20 members each. On any given afternoon, three or four clubs participate with all their members. While he had not placed a bet, he would get Rs 250 just to show up and play. We wished him luck as other excited troops of betters started to fill up the galleries to watch.
The archers took their positions, held up their bows, strings taut against the arrows balanced on them. One of the organisers from the Khasi Hills Archery Sport Institute signalled for the game to start and out swished the arrows from the U-shaped gallery of archers. Some went smack dab into the haystack, others were a little wayward. When Round One was over, the crowd spilled onto the field, closer to the target, even as the organisers tried to keep them at bay while counting. It took a long time for them to yank the arrows out of the hay, make clutches of 20 and announce a definitive number. It was 747! Close, but not good enough, going by the frustrated sighs around us. Not a single person in the vicinity seemed to have bet on 47. The kiosks quickly chalked in 47 onto their blackboards.
In 20 minutes, the second round of arrows raced at the cylindrical target and the sequence was repeated. Shynrang asked what number we had bet on and gave us a thumbs up for luck before running to join the betters for inspecting the hay. Ten excruciating minutes later, a voice piped up — 456. So close! If only one of the arrows had fallen short of the target. Shynrang squeezed out of the crowd and patted my back in condolence at having lost by a whisker.
Even though Parimpal walked out with his head hung low, I had my chin up. After all, I was happy to be easing the gap on my gambling luck. This was a sizable improvement from my former luckless days. Next stop, Goa.
Supriya Sehgal is a Delhi-based travel writer.