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Rain gambling in 19th-century Kolkata: Babus betting on Rain!

6 November, 2021 11:23:12
Rain gambling in 19th-century Kolkata: Babus betting on Rain!

There is rain and then there is rain in Kolkata. The incessant rains battering the city even post monsoon had brought a pall of gloom. But there was a time, long ago, when dark clouds overhead on a bright day would be watched by Calcuttans with a lot of hope and anticipation. And if the Rain God decided to please the mortal worshippers with a bout or two of heavy showers, it would mean winning tournament bounties for some, literally. How, you may wonder. Well, a heavy drizzle ensued a gathering for a very special kind of a game. What was the game? A gambling based on rain -- speculating on rainfall.

Strange though it may sound, Calcutta, the new capital of British India, was once upon a time way different from our wildest dreams. The city was flourishing under colonial rule and was gradually developing into a thriving metropolis. From the late 18th-century to late 19th-century, social and cultural activities in the city were largely determined by British tastes and traditions. This was also the time of emergence of the aristocrat Bengali ‘Babu’ class. The babus were neo-urban, high-class, flamboyant Bengali gentlemen — a class that came into being as a result of close interactions with the British in the late 18th and 19th century. They were the affluent class who challenged the conservative style of living in colonial Calcutta. Kaliprasanna Singha’s famous book, ‘Hutom Pyanchar Noksha’ is a fine commentary that makes a mockery of the Babu culture of 19th century Calcutta. Moral corruption spread as quick as a contagious disease; people resorted to telling lies, cheating, accepting bribes and committing forgeries. They were not called out for their crimes; they were patted on their backs for being clever!


Amid this social-cultural backdrop, the nouveau riche Babus would while away their time devising speculative games like betting on rainfall. This was a very popular game in the Burrabazar area of Central Calcutta. The moment the first drop of rain fell, the punters would search frantically for a large room or hall in the vicinity to initiate the game. They would assemble in the mouth of gutters, waiting for torrential rain. A heavy rainfall would ensure great volume of water to rush out of the gutters. The participants betted on the volume of water that would rush out of the sewage. The punters would invest anything from an ana to a whole rupee.  Money would change hands at lightning speed. If the rain stopped abruptly or if the amount of water the punters had betted did not emerge from the gutter due to less rain that was expected, he would lose the game and return home, a pauper. But if the gamblers’ expectations of a torrential rain did fructify, joyous shrieks would reverberate the air that could be heard from a distance of even two kilometres! An article was published in a daily morning newspaper of the time that said, “If it rains, people from the Khotta (meaning Biharis) and Marwari community shout so loudly that there is a great risk of abortion in pregnant women.” It is evident from this report, how popular this game was in 19th century Kolkata. Not like the people of contemporary Kolkata who feel frustrated if it rains heavily, the babus of 19th century Calcutta would be drowned in a pall of gloom if it did not rain a great deal. Is the Rain God listening? 

Source: Hutom Pyanchar Noksha

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