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It's time for rain gambling

D. Murali

Did you know that there was a time when rain gambling was a popular sport.

IT is on a rainy day that we seek alternative pastimes, such as getting wet and drying up, or going for a snack of pakodas with tea, or generally soaking work in some monsoon talk. If you are in Mumbai these days, or in Gujarat, Bihar, Punjab or all those other places that are shown on the TV as getting lashed by the unrelenting monsoon, you're waiting for some normalcy to return soon, and perhaps idly tossing a coin to check if your hopes could come true.

But there was a time when rain gambling was a popular sport, I learn from Anne Hardgrove's Community and Public Culture, published by Oxford University Press. It seems courtyard in No. 67 Cotton Street was a popular location for gamblers to assemble in Calcutta in the 19th century. "Bets on the rainfall were registered during three periods in the day, from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. or noon; from noon to 9 p.m., and sometimes until midnight." Brokers would handle bets on "how much rain would fall during a certain period of time and when." Bombay, too, has been recorded as having played host to rain betters. But then the Anti-Gambling Act was clamped in place towards the end of the 19th century.

A case that went to the High Court then was about Motiram and Khimji, both "accused of running a shed as a common gaming house" with more than 30 stalls "to register wagers on the rainfall and of course to collect a commission on every bet placed." Police had searched the stalls and found "the existence of certain devices," called `Calcutta mori' rain gauge. It looks like they never wanted to wait for the announcements from the Met Department on how many centimetres of rain fell where.

Well, cases make interesting reading, more so the old ones. This one ended with a ruling that gambling on rainfall did not fall under the scope of the 1886 Act. How so? Because, as the defence argued, rain gambling "operated on the principles of betting (which was legal), not gambling (which was illegal)." In the latter, there is an active role required of gamblers, and that didn't happen when people simply watched rain fall, just as you do now, looking out the window.

Here's some more on the subject from Anne, citing government archives and law reports: "Rain gambling was defined as a monsoon event, when bets were placed on the amount of rain that would fall within a three-hour period, a period of time known in Hindi as pahar. In order to calculate the precise quantity amount of rain that had fallen, a tank was fitted with a spout from which rainwater would overflow once a certain quantity had fallen." No contest, no race, you'd agree; it was only a shot at the future, on how a contingent event would ultimately shape up. In Hindi, this was `barsat ka satta.'

Then came the Bill to amend the Prevention of Gambling Act (Bombay IV of 1887). From its proceedings, Anne notes how rain gambling was said to have "a demoralising effect by attracting gamblers from the rural mofussil and other `disorderly' persons, encouraging them to idleness, and inevitably leading to `dissipation ... and the ruin of families.'" The then proposed legislation outlawed instruments used as a means of gambling "even if they were only watched and not played or tampered with by any of the contenders."

These days, stock markets move with the monsoon and the Finance Minister's Budget spoke of how "weather insurance scheme appears to be more promising, at least in the design." So, in addition to staring at share prices on the monitors, should we not be watching too a tank with a spout perched on the windowsill, even if there are no contenders around?

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