"The passion for playing chess is one of the most unaccountable in the world. It slaps the theory of natural selection in the face. It is the most absorbing of occupations. The least satisfying of desires. A nameless excrescence upon life. It annihilates a man. You have, let us say, a promising politician, a rising artist that you wish to destroy. Dagger or bomb are archaic and unreliable - but teach him, inoculate him with chess."
H.G. Wells, Certain Personal Matters, 1898
Never having sat across a chessboard, I should think that observation of Wells is a bit of an acerbic exaggeration. However, if the stories of chess and its lovers were considered, that remark would appear anything but an overstatement. A recent review of The Immortal Game, a book chronicling the history of chess with a touch of personal attachment, took me back to a tale of Shatranj ke Khilari or The Chess Players, a compelling short story by one of the maestros of Urdu-Hindi literature, Munshi Premchand.
The story is, of course, better known for its screen version, directed by the legendary Satyajit Ray. While the film remains a personal favourite for a number of reasons (great overlaying of the parallels between the state of politics and the state of mind of the populace, appropriate casting, sincere recreation of ambience), reading the story itself was a reintroduction to the masterly craftsmanship Premchand wielded with his pen.
It’s a pity I read the story in Bengali translation. Pity because language is such a big part of Premchand’s writing, as indeed it is of the culture his writing mirrors. I have read his stories in the original language before and have been charmed as much by his skillful use of the Hindi/Urdu vocabulary as by his layered writing style and the themes his stories discuss.
The Chess Players is one such layered story. It tracks the chess exploits of two friends, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, both belonging to the gentry of Lucknow, a city known for its tehzeeb or culture. While Lucknowi traditions and artistic legacy has mostly been the subject of exaltation in most written works, in this story of Premchand, this same legacy becomes the author’s diatribe. That’s mainly because of the period in which the story is set. The time is British India and the setting the luxury-steeped province of Awadh, ruled by Wajid Ali Shah, a king devoted to art, artists and courtesans and equally impervious to matters of the state.
Wajid Ali Shah’s hedonistic ways seem to infect his subjects as well, and the two chess players are no exception to the pattern. Like their Nawab’s obsession with extravagant indulgences, the Mirza and the Mir are obsessed with the game of chess. Morning, noon, and night, it’s the one thing that plays on their minds and the one thing their minds play with. For a while Mirza’s house is the centre of their duels, even as his wife detests the chessboard as if it were her competitor in hogging her husband’s attention. Soon her intolerance for the game reaches the point where she throws away the chessboard even as an intense battle is on between the two players.
Premchand then shifts the scene of chess combats to Mir Roshan Ali’s house. This place has its own set of problems. On the one hand are Roshan Ali’s servants, exasperated to suddenly work round the clock for serving the two playing masters. Not only that; there’s also Mir’s wife, whose adulterous affair with her lover is halted because of the presence of her husband in the house. The lover comes up with a devious plan—posing as a messenger from the king’s court, he announces Wajid Ali Shah has ordered Roshan Ali to appear in the court so as to enlist his services in the military. Alarmed at the possibility of such a scenario, the two friends quickly shift the venue of play again to the ruins of a mosque—their final spot. They select this place because of the privacy it offers. Anything to keep their game from getting interrupted.
The story’s focus is tight; it remains concentrated on the chess players and their keen contests on the 64-square board. The only interjections come in the form of political reportage. As the momentum in the chess battlefield intensifies, so does the battle between the British and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. The latter is a tepid affair though, and before long, the British hold the king captive. Premchand describes the event in this way:
Never before could the king of an independent country have been defeated so peacefully, without bloodshed, like this. This was not the ahimsa [nonviolence] with which the gods are pleased. This was the kind of cowardice at which even the biggest cowards shed tears. The nawab of the spacious land of Avadh was departing as a prisoner, and Lucknow was drunk in the sleep of sensual pleasure. This was the last extreme of political decay.The climax of the story highlights how a simple pastime, when turned into an obsession, can lead to fierce ego clashes. In the final scene, Mirza Sajjad Ali is seen desperately trying to win at least one round of the game, already having lost thrice in a row. The clouds of his anxious heart seem to find a resonance in the darkness of the evening reverberating with the cacophony of nocturnal creatures. His difficulty in answering the moves of Mir Roshan Ali wasn’t helping either. Soon his restlessness transformed into an incensed verbal attack on the Mir. He accused the latter of foul play and finally delivered check. When the defiant Mir refused to concede defeat, the war of words reached an extreme, where friendship gave way to an acrimonious attack on each other’s ancestors. Shortly, even this wasn’t enough to prove their pride, and a sword fight commenced between the two. Premchand remarks how when their king was captured, it hadn’t bothered either of the chess players, yet when it came to personal egos, they had all the courage in the world to fight for its prestige.
[Source: "THE CHESS PLAYERS": FROM PREMCHAND TO SATYAJIT RAY by Frances W. Pritchett]
The story ends on a bloody note as the two friends are slain by the edge of each other’s swords. Premchand ends the story and his critique of the prevailing apathy to politics by observing how the two friends had not shown an iota of concern when the British were seizing their territory, yet, to protect the pawns of their artificial battlefield, they were ready to even kill each other. The irony is not lost one bit as the annihilation of the The Chess Players is complete.
Note to self: Buy a Premchand anthology in Hindi as the first New Year purchase.
Premchand, Hindi literature, Chess