Always Ready for `Parcheesi'

IT'S a rainy afternoon and my 7-year-old daughter Erica wants to play ``Parcheesi.'' I glance around the kitchen at the lumpy piles of laundry, the stacks of unpaid bills, the dishes in the sink. But I've been away for 10 days, not an easy separation, so I give myself over to her desires. Still, I try for something I might enjoy more, something that might take less time. ``How about a bike ride?'' I ask, forgetting the rain. ``What if we read a book together?''

She is a child of definite wishes. ``I want to play Parcheesi with you,'' she insists.

She sets up the board on the living room rug and calls to me as I try to wash one last cup. ``Mommy? Do you mind being red? I'm green, and red goes with green.''

I settle myself across from her and study the board with its four starting circles, the cross-shaped route, the final paths leading up to Home. Why is it she loves this game? Why don't I?

There was a time - perhaps I was seven - when I, too, begged my parents to play Parcheesi with me. And, in fact, there are still board games from my childhood, like ``Clue,'' that I play willingly with my children. But my 7-year-old self, that lover of Parcheesi, eludes me.

Parcheesi isn't specifically a child's game. The box cover refers to it as ``The Royal Game of India,'' a pastime enjoyed by adults. And indeed ``Games of the world'' (published by the Swiss Committee for UNICEF) dates its origins back to 6th-century India, perhaps earlier.

One photograph in the book shows three modern Indian princesses playing pachisi ``in the courtyard of the maharaja's palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan.'' Another photograph, taken at a social center in Amritsar, six veiled women bend over a beautiful pachisi board made of embroidered cloth. What do these women have in common with my young daughter? What have I lost?

Erica gives us each a blue cup for shaking the dice and proposes a variation on the rules, that we each have our own die. ``Then we can't throw doubles and make blockades,'' I say.

``Oh, you're right,'' she says. She shows me the tower she's built in the center of the board with the blue and yellow pawns. Later, when our red and green pieces enter this communal space, she'll arrange all of them in a pattern.

It's an abstract game, Parcheesi. There are no pictures of children rescuing pets and going to the circus, no Lord Licorice and Queen Frostine to encourage younger players around the board. It must be design, not the possibility of narrative, that appeals to her.

I start out well. On my first throw I roll a five, which means I can begin one of my pawns on its journey. Three red pawns are out of my starting circle before Erica finally throws a five. ``I think you're going to win,'' she says. She's a competitive child, and a few months ago she would have made this prediction with an angry note of panic in her voice, as if she'd experienced proof that the forces of the world were arrayed against her. But today her tone is philosophic.

``She's grown,'' I think, wondering if this is one of the reasons we play games with our children, to teach them to adjust to a world where everyone loses some time. She repeats the same prediction at other junctures, warding off the possibility that her four pawns might not reach home first. By forecasting disaster, perhaps it won't happen - a form of magic that is not the exclusive province of 7-year-olds.

We move our pawns around the board, hoping not to throw doubles three times in a single turn. Sometimes we forget the complicated rules. Halfway around, I have the opportunity to capture one of her green pawns and send it back. ``Please make a different move,'' she says, and I do. But is this acquiescence wise? If her father were playing, he'd refuse her request. It's not that he's any more competitive than I am: ``Scrabble'' once brought out such fierce desires to triumph in each of us that we had to put it away for a year. But he's less protective of our children.

A few moves later Erica lands on one of my pawns and sends it back to the starting circle, explaining what might seem a betrayal. ``I had one piece still at the beginning, and now you do, too. We're even.''

And, in fact, the game does become more exciting after this. We travel around the board. Once again refraining from capturing each other, from maintaining our blockades too long. Toward the end we each have two pawns left, heading up our home paths. ``You're going to win,'' she asserts again, but the game turns in her favor. She throws double twos on her next turn and moves her pawns into home.

Only an hour has passed since we started playing, not very long. As we pack up the game I think about what we've just done. For a brief time we created a world in which it didn't matter which of us was older or more experienced, who was the parent, who the child. We started out equal: the same number of pawns, the same dice. (It's not that skill and intuition can't enter into Parcheesi. But our game didn't involve such mastery.)

And I feel calmer, closer to my daughter. I sense that a balance between us has been restored, the harmony that was disrupted when I was away from the family for 10 days. Those Indians who through the centuries have carried their cloth pachisi boards rolled up, always ready for a game, may have known something that I'm just beginning to learn.

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