There is a universal drive for gambling that I am at loss for understanding. Some people bet on horses, dogs, on anything that is able to run more or less straight in a suitably controlled environment. Ostriches, even! However, these arrangements are really elaborate random number generators. Actually each different type of betting service that exists is basically a way of crafting “exciting” random number generators. If, for example, you go to a cock fight (as in Magnesium Photographer Alan Dejecacionʼs Sunday at the Cockfight), you get a binary-based random number generator. On the other side of the scale, the odds of you winning the French Lotto is seriously against you: 7 balls within a set of 49. My mind turned into goo when I tried to calculate the probabilities. I soon found out on my trip to a little known town in India that there is no stupid way to buy and sell dreams.
Shillong lies in the province of Meghalaya in northeast India. There the local people bet on random numbers using an original and unique random number generator: one group of old men shoot arrows at a target made out of straw tied against a wooden pole, then another group of men count the arrows. The bets are made on the last two digits, i.e. if you place your bet on 42, and the shooter manages to stick 442 arrows in the target, you win. If the shooters are having a bad day or drinking too much tea and miss, you can go drown your sorrow in booze. Simple. Fascinating idea.
Being in the vicinity, I felt the urge to investigate and have a look for myself. I was very excited about trying and find out about the whole thing. Not that the prospect of seeing old men play with archery equipment is not an exciting one, but I am more into peopleʼs reactions than in the thing which causes the reaction. After some misguided directions from random strangers, I found the spot. Indeed, the place is fairly small and easy to miss, a patch of not very well tended grass, really. When I got there people were mostly busy trying to catch glimpses of some sort of action happening in the stadium on the other side of the river, where the clamour crowd was clapping and giving hints that some sort of important sport event was developing. My guess was cricket. Cricket is huge in that part of the world.
I wasnʼt totally blown away by what I discovered. Indeed, the action was far from frenetic. There was the preparation phase when everybody carefully laid arrows in front of him, readied their bows and smoked. Then one of the men cried something incomprehensible, and everybody started shooting. Relentlessly yet calmly, and almost without pause, they sat or crouched behind some invisible line and shot arrow after arrow. Some didnʼt even blink. When they ran out of arrows, everybody gathered around the target and started removing the arrows mingling within the bundle which were not properly stuck into the target. While the judges counted and sorted them by fitting them ten by ten into what resembles a barbecue grill, the archers took care of finding back their own misdirected arrows. Though I suspect that at some point they would also go retrieve their good ones, I have to admit that I didnʼt stick around long enough to witness this.
All this takes place without excitement, calmly, while drinking tea and commenting on the weather. At some point, while taking pictures, I found myself in front of one of the archer. He had stopped shooting and was waiting patiently until I got out of the way. He could have offered me a cup of the aforementioned tea! Where was all the fever of gambling? Where were the shaky hands, the screaming ladies waiting for some blood to be shed, waiting for that target to eat dust? Where is the damn arrow I should have had piercing my hat, à la John Ford?
I had some tea and on my way back I climbed on top of a building under construction to see what was happening in the stadium. It was a football match, not cricket. Luckily I hadnʼt bet on that.
[Text kindly edited by Manny Santiago]