My secret double life when I played Tambola

“My name is Nida Bab —- ur” My voice went MIA midway as I nervously introduced myself . It was 1999. I was 16 and conducting Tambola at Lahore’s Services Club for the first time. I remember one of the ‘uncles’ asking if anyone was interested in conducting one of the houses. We had played Tambola as a family before too. Even in cities like Quetta. Or at least my brother and I’d be there even if we weren’t old enough to play. My parents always took me for a confident, brave girl. I still, to this day, don’t know why. They nudged me and there I was. The object of many stares. I was the new kid on the block. A block that monopolized in mostly older men from The Armed Forces and their families.
So every Saturday evening, I voraciously learned about life. About war, love, marriage, infidelity, racism, language, sports, natural disasters, history. I’d like to attribute a chunk of my life’s knowledge to these grandiose evenings.
6 and 5… Indo Pak war.. 65, Arab-Israel 67
All the wives… 55
Flirty, dirty , 30… Naughty at the age of 40 unlucky for some – a baker’s dozen – 13

Devastating earthquake, 35

Over the ropes, 6

Roman Gangsters – 27

Tony Blair’s den – 10

Heinz varieties.. 57. (I appreciated this fact decades later as I voraciously shopped for Heinz ketchup on my monthly grocery rampages. ).

Sweet 16 – call for whistles.. (yes I too was 16)

Fat lady in a fix – 86
That summer of—- a love story that never completed… 42
You get the picture?

And then I was advised by parents and other grownups to come up with more creative ways to announce numbers. So I did my bit. I thought about numbers. I thought about words. And tried to put them all together and hoped everyone noticed what the new kid had done. I used fancy words like midnight and haunting when talking about 12. Grandpa with a son -81. I was all for equal gender representation and I didn’t want the grandpas to feel left out. Or replace Bhaati Gate with Golden Gate – 48 . After all I was bringing a little San Francisco into Lahore. I want to Break Free at 23. This I suspect was a subconscious release of pent up emotions of a hormonal teenager. And no. I didn’t end up breaking free. But back then, with my chic new Tambola lingo, I thought I was doing great service to my country and its honourable defenders. I took my part-time fame seriously.

I’d even ask some of my friends to come and see me in action. I’d dress up. And pay particular attention to my otherwise mediocre wardrobe. I’d try to subdue the galloping horses in my heart as Saturday approached, as an attempt to hide my bloating enthusiasm. I worked on my English accent so it didn’t sound too English.. or too Urdu-ish. Something in between that would leave a good impression. “Oh, she speaks good English.” Or “who does she think she is anyway? Shakespeare?” It was either of the two or maybe something barely acceptable in between. But at least on my face all the uncles and aunties were polite and rather amused. Or bemused. I remember sometimes going without the parents and instead taking my younger brother and a couple of friends. We’d laugh, act as if it wasn’t a big deal when I rose from the commoners table and stepped on to the Majestic throne of the ‘Caller.’ And we’d eat the famous BBQ chicken, kabab, chicken Handi, and sesame seed naan. And then I’d sign on my father’s membership card. Because this was the ‘when-you-have-no-money- way to go about it. This was me bursting at the seams of cool-hood. While doing my job with a rather non-chalant attitude, I vowed to defend my numbers and words with all the courageous valour I had learnt as the daughter of an Army Officer. I would have paraded down to the caller table and saluted to my loyal audience if I could’ve. Like I said. It was serious business for me.

Over the years, my tambola adventures led me to conduct at Defence Club and then Lahore Gymkhana. Gymkhana was like the Beethoven of Clubs and tambolas. But by then it was just something I did over the week. A double identity. Whenever I wasn’t studying for an exam or working on an important project. Or later on not busy with work. I’d tag along with my doting parents and conduct my concert of numbers. After I got married, I even dragged my poor husband to witness my secret double life. I still, to the day don’t know if he was impressed. Or if he had second thoughts that day. I fear I won’t have the stomach to ask him. And well after kids and then moving to Canada it all came to an abrupt stop.

Almost after 2 decades since the day it all began I got the chance again when I visited Pakistan a few months ago. Lahore Gymkhana Club. Time stood still within those walls. The same words. The same numbers. The same witty exchanges between veteran Tambola goers (with exceptions of a few faces that had sadly departed to their higher calling). Numbered sheets, neon highlighters, clipboards, fried fish, chicken chops, club sandwich, servers, polite salaams and eye-waves from afar, claps, cheering over winning money, booing over loosing, rapt attention and bathroom and phone breaks midway, post-game frustrations over not winning a single penny. I didn’t exactly feel the uncontrollable excitement the 16 year old once felt . But I felt welcome. I felt at home. I saw my parents sitting with me like they once did. I saw what a long way we’d all come. And I also saw how nothing had really changed. Like riding, or swimming, or driving.. tambola also sinks into your bones. And whether you come as a 16 year old, a 36 year old or a 56 year old, it’s like you never left.

P.s; for those who may mistake this for an addiction. Please do so by all means ☺️. I have seen how Bingo is played. So it’s pretty similar. But we like announcing our numbers with fun descriptions that lend meaning to otherwise ordinary numbers. You have to experience the whole Pakistani Tambola / Army culture in real life to understand it. Also, there are no in-betweens here. You either love it. Or you don’t. You obviously know my side.