There comes a time when column writers come face to face with a phenomenon known as the ‘writer’s block’. This is when the urge to pen thoughts comes to a full stop and one’s mind begins to feel like an empty shell. Blessedly, this is a temporary phase, the passing of which can be accelerated. Whenever beset by this malady, I usually take a long drive on the first road I see and am usually rewarded by the most insignificant of things or occurrences. The current piece is an outcome of such an exercise.

Driving aimlessly on a remote mountain road in the hills near Islamabad, I halted at a small tea stall for a cup of ‘doodh patti’. Moments later my attention was arrested by a young boy, who was busy playing with what appeared to be a homemade wooden top. As I sipped my delicious hot beverage, I watched the child wind a piece of frayed thread around his toy and then launch it with a deft twist of the wrist. Gradually, the boy, the tea shop and the hills around me faded into the mists of time, to be replaced by another scene, a long long time ago.

My school years in Lahore were characterised by what can best be described as ‘fad fever’, which gripped students in waves and included such objects of adoration such as marbles, yoyos, water balls and the king of all crazes - tops. These spinning gyroscopic contraptions came in all sizes and colours, often becoming the focal point of games and competitions that sometimes ended in fist fights.

These games included one, where a player launched his top at several others (belonging to remaining players) placed inside a circle on the ground. The aim of this ‘strike’ was to scatter as many of the targets as possible in a manner that they rolled out of the circle. These then became the ‘booty’ of the player and so the game went on with almost everyone getting his turn at shooting at the colourful pile inside the circle.

Another game consisted of two players drawing a start line and a finish line some distance apart and then launching their tops in a bid to push the opponent’s ‘asset’ across the finish line.

We often used our expertise with the top to impress our classmates, especially from across the gender divide. We would perform a trick by launching and then catching the spinning top in midair so that it spun on our palm. Experts in this field performed the trick by doing a long ‘launch’ and pulling the top back onto their palm from an increased distance.

While tops came in conical shapes, the desi version of this contraption was a multicoloured, flat, round disk called a ‘Chapni’ or (if small), a ‘Phirki’. Our annual family visit to Shalimar Gardens to see Lahore’s famous ‘Mela Chiraghan’ or Festival of the Lamps usually ended, to our mother’s great chagrin, with a visit to the ‘Chapni’ seller’s stall.

Any ‘top tale’ would be meaningless without a reference to the doyen of top makers - Taj Din. This gentleman ran his business from a small kiosk on Lawrence Road, characterised by a huge top dangling on a wooden arm. He was a tall figure with a rather abrupt method of dealing with his young customers, who tried his patience to no end. Distinguished by his dishevelled red hair and rustic style of dress, old Taj Din can best be described as the last word in creating tops and yoyos, and has been irreplaceable since his passing many years ago.

And so ends my ‘top’ story in the hope that childhood nostalgia will encourage some of my readers to unlock old trunks and after considerable rummaging, locate a faded wooded cone with a steel spike at one end and that their home will once resound with the click and whir of a spinning top.

The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.