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This story was published as part of a weeklong series produced by the WGLT Newsroom in March 2022.

Indians in B-N: Families blend history with new customs in games and activities

McCormick family plays carrom
Emily Bollinger
Anya McCormick plays carrom as her mother Punitha McCormick looks on.

It's game night at Don and Punitha McCormick's home in Bloomington. For them, the food they serve to friends is just as important as the games they play.

Don McCormick works as a pastry chef in Peoria. Punitha is a business technology analyst at State Farm. Don uses his culinary creativity to create a truly Indian experience for their guests who came on a snowy winter Sunday.

Indian snacks
Emily Bollinger
The McCormicks provide a spread of Indian snacks for a game night in February.

At the dinner table is an array of Indian snacks including panipuri, a deep-fried ball-shaped shell with potato filling. Flavors burst in your mouth after you puncture the shell and fill it with sweet water.

"It's that sweet, sour, salty, spicy all in one bite. It just comes in all kinds of different packages I guess you could say," McCormick said.

From there it's on to the living room. In the center is a large carrom board that Don McCormick bought for Punitha's father's first trip to the United States. Carrom is a popular game in India. It's similar to billiards. The goal is to get each coin into a corner pocket by hitting with it another coin called a striker.

The McCormicks also broke out Ludo. It's similar to Trouble or parchisi or its board game adaptation parcheesi. It's a strategy board game that uses dice. The goal is to get your pegs all around the board and home first.

"Games are a very common ground. A lot of the games, even like carrom, you don't even have to speak the same language."
Don McCormick

Next is chowka bara. The concept is similar to Ludo, only instead of a die, they use a tool common for board games in India – tamarind seeds used in cooking.

"It's just a cheaper version (of) dice. If you don't have dice at home, you'll always have tamarind seeds in an Indian house," Punitha McCormick said.

You score the seeds based on how they land when you roll them. The white side is one point, black is two points. The McCormicks also play Chutes and Ladders. Its predecessor was a game created in India called Snakes and Ladders. Milton Bradley redesigned the game with chutes to make it more kid friendly. The McCormicks say those are just a few of games they play with family and friends. Having a good time matters most. But they haven't been able to do it the last two years because of the pandemic.

"I do miss that a lot. Sometimes with Indian families when we get together, there's a lot of families where it's any board game, it's not specific to an Indian game (such as) carrom, we do get excited. We are like 'Oh my gosh, we haven't played this in years,'" Punitha McCormick said.

McCormick Family
Emily Bollinger
Punitha and Don McCormick pose for a photo behind a carrom board with their daughter Anya.

Punitha McCormick grew up in India. Her husband Don grew up near Galesburg. So their's is a blended household. Punitha said when their daughter's friends come over, they play more western games such as table tennis and foosball.

The Gadhirajus in Bloomington say they play mostly American games because those are the games their pre-teen boys are most familiar with. But Vasu and Surya Gadhiraju say there's one tradition from their Indian culture that remains: They play on the floor. Their home near Tipton Park is well furnished, but Surya Gadhiradju didn't have it that way growing up in India.

"When I grew up we didn't have a lot of furniture," Surya Gadhiraju said. "We sat down and ate. That's how it was."

The Gadhirajus says they don't have game nights all that often, but they have their favorites to pass the time, like Chinese checkers. Son Manu, an eighth-grader at Kingsley Junior High, demonstrates as he moves marbles around the board, removing each marble her jumped over, trying to leave one marble on the board.

“Three is the best I can do, so far at least,” Manu said. When a reporter asked if that was good, Manu deadpanned, “I’d like to think so, but my mom makes it known that it’s not good.”

Vasu Gadhiraju said she can usually get down to one marble after a few tries, but it's all in good fun she says. Vasu said their family likes games that involve strategy like Sudoku and the card game Uno. Vasu Gadhiraju said she wants her kids to be well rounded and enjoy the games they play. She said her family played lots of games while she grew up in India, but it offered little diversion from academics.

"It wasn't we had time to play games or we had time to do something else, it's 'you are going to succeed and whatever it takes, you will get through this,'" Vasu Gadhiraju said.

Games for academics

In some Indian households, games and academics were directly linked.

Shrima Karthik lives in Bloomington with her husband Karthik Baluswamy and their 5-year-old son Arav. Shrima Karthik became a very good chess player at a young age, but she said not by choice.

"It was forced on me. Now I ask my son, ‘What do you want to become?’ But back in those days (parents) made decisions for us," Karthik said.

Shrima Karthik said the reason chess is so popular in India, aside from the game's origin in India, is because it makes you smart. Chess remains popular among people of Indian heritage in the U.S. They make up a much larger percentage of the K-through-12 students in junior chess in Bloomington-Normal than their roughly 3% of the overall population. Kartik said emphasis on chess gets to a big cultural difference she noticed when she moved from India to the U.S.

Shrima Karthik and Karthik Baluswamy pose for a photo with their son Arav at their home in Bloomington.
Eric Stock
Shrima Karthik and Karthik Baluswamy pose for a photo with their son Arav at their home in Bloomington.

"In India, we give so much importance to education, our extracurricular things are secondary, like being athletic," Karthik said.

Shrima Karthik works remotely as a technology consultant with a firm in Chicago. She said she has started to teach chess to their son. She hopes she has better luck than teaching the game to her husband. Karthik Baluswamy said math is not his thing.

"I've been a sales and marketing guy for 10 years, I know the trick of market play, whereas on the chess game, I still (was not) able to get it," he said.

Baluswamy said his games of choice growing up were much simpler such as five stones, where you throw a stone in the air and try to pick up another stone with the same hand. It's good for hand-eye coordination. Baluswamy said they played games like that as kids because that's all they had. And that's much different than kids growing up today.

"I'm a late 70s kid, so I've seen the transition of non-electronics to electronics," Baluswamy said. "That's how I've seen the game part changing over a period of time from whatever sources were available."

Wife Shrima Karthik said she's grateful her son has so much more available to him than they had growing up. She said she wants to give their son the life she missed, when she rebelled against strict family and social structures in India, but she said has to be careful not to give him too much, especially when it comes to screen time on their iPad. "It's a struggle for me to not give him the iPad. Every day he comes home (and says) 'Can I watch my iPad please? Can I watch my iPad please? Can I watch my iPad please?' No. No," Karthik said.

Shrima Karthik said she wants schools to teach children about games from their native land and from other places around the globe to give them lessons in cultural diversity.

Cricket for women

One game that may be most associated with the Asian Indian community in Bloomington-Normal is cricket. The ball and bat game that's a cousin of baseball has been played in Bloomington-Normal for well over a decade, but who is playing has changed.

Meghana Dhannapuneni of Bloomington never cared for cricket. When her husband would travel every weekend to play in tournaments, she found other things to do. Then when the pandemic hit in 2020 and most cricket tournaments stopped, there wasn't much to do. When cricket games resumed later that spring, Dhannapuneni said she needed a reason to get out of the house. So she and some of the cricket players' wives decided to form a team — with a few friends they recruited.

Then as Dhannapuneni explains, they had to learn everything.

"We were all new. None of us knew how to hold a bat, none of us knew how to hold a ball, how to throw a ball, how to catch a ball," she said. "We were all out there so we could get involved in some kind of activity outside of house, and that was how our team was formed."

Dhannapuneni's husband Risik Rangineni has played cricket since he was old enough to swing a bat. They got to talking and he decided to show up for a women's team practice. Soon he became their coach. Dhannapunen says her husband became a different person as their instructor, and that wasn't always easy.

"We did have lots of fights when coming back from practice sessions, (she would say) 'Why didn't you let me bat more, why didn't you let me do it like this?' But I said I know what I am doing, like a professional coach. I'm not professional but at least I coach," Rangineni responded.

Rangineni coached them well. They won a tournament against two other women's teams in Bloomington-Normal last summer.

Rangineni said even if most of the women are playing cricket just for fun, the younger women who show some skills could one play for the USA women's team and possibly make it a career in cricket.

"It might not be how the NBA (National Basketball Association), NFL (National Football League) or MLB (Major League Baseball) men's players make or even women's soccer players make in the U.S., but at least it would be a start," Rangineni said. Meghana Dhannapuneni was grateful to see most of her teammates came back after the first year, except for those families who had to relocate, and they recruited several more players. She said those women whom she had nothing in common with two years ago, except for a lack of interest in cricket, became good friends.

Now when Risik brings his cricket buddies over to the house after a match, the subject is no longer off limits.

"I used to complain all of the time whenever we have a gathering at home, and when his friends used to come back (after matches), I used to make a rule in the house that no one is going to talk about cricket because all of his talk about cricket and I had no clue about it," Dhannapuneni said.

Dhannapuneni said she now understands the pain and pleasure of the sport her husband has loved for decades. One of sports' greatest attributes are their ability to foster understanding among different people.

That's what Don and Punitha McCormick of Bloomington see as they raise their daughter to embrace the cultures her parents have melded as one in their home.

"Games are a very common ground. A lot of the games, even like carrom, you don't even have to speak the same language," McCormick said. "It's a good way to bring people together on any circumstance."

If the intent is to bring people together, the game of choice doesn't matter.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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