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The Chess Players

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(This is only a feeble translation of "Shatranj ke khiladi" by Munshi Premchand. Better translations are available. The story is about two friends - Mirza Sajjadali and Mir Roshanali - who lived in Lucknow during Wajid Ali Shah's reign. People in Lucknow lived a luxurious and carefree life because all the wealth from the rural parts was siphoned off and conveyed to Lucknow. Thus, Lucknow was immersed in pleasure while the rest of the kingdom suffered. The kingdom was in heavy debt to the British East India Company, and the British were looking for an opportunity to annex the kingdom. The two friends enjoyed large properties bestowed upon them by the king, and thus had an obligation to serve the king. The two are ardent chess players, and, having no work to do, spend their days playing chess. Initially, they used to meet at Mirza Sajjadali's house to play. But, Mirza's wife could not put up with her husband playing chess the whole day; she, in fact, felt it was Mir's fault. One day Mirza's wife gave vent to her anger and threw off the chess board. The friends thought it prudent to now play at Mir's house. Mir's wife, for reasons of her own - probably a secret love affair - had been quite happy with the previous arrangement when Mir used to stay away from home the whole day. But, now, when the two friends began meeting in Mir's house, her independence was curtailed. One day, a royal officer comes in search of Mir purportedly to conscript him in the army. A conversation between the officer and Mir's wife seems to suggest that the two had connived to scare away Mir into playing chess somewhere else instead of in the house. Whatever the case, the two friends are indeed scared and decide to play in a ruined mosque far away from their homes. One day, while playing, they see British troops taking away their king as a prisoner. Although under an obligation to serve their king, the two continue playing chess as if nothing had happened. During the course of their game, a disputed move of the queen on the chess board results into a quarrel between the friends. The quarrel takes up a violent form and the friends draw out their swords and engage in a duel. Both are killed! The two friends who had not lifted a finger to defend their own living king, cross swords and are killed while defending the lifeless king pieces on their chess board!)

It was the period of Wajid Ali Shah's reign and Lucknow was immersed in a luxuriating gaiety. Everybody - the big and the small, and the rich and the poor - was enjoying the pleasures of life. Some took pleasure in enjoying dance and music, while others found sublime bliss in the consumption of opium.

Every activity in life was directed at seeking pleasure. An atmosphere of merry-making pervaded the government; the literary circles; the social sector; the realm of the arts, trade and industry; and conduct. Government officials were immersed in sensuous pleasures; poets penned reams on love and parting of lovers; artisans created the best artefacts; and businessmen did brisk business in collyrium, scent and cosmetics. Everyone was intoxicated with the pleasures of life, and no one was aware of what was happening elsewhere in the world. What mattered most to people then were quail fights, partridge fights, or a game of chausar or chess! Here a quail fight is already in progress, while arrangements are being made there for the start of a partridge fight. Here is a chausar board neatly laid out and awaiting the players, while there a fierce battle is already underway on the chess board! There is an uproarious jubilation ringing all around. Everyone, from the king to the pauper, had this carefree attitude. Such was the situation prevailing then that if a mendicant was offered money, he would buy himself some opium or liqour rather than bread!

It was liberally expounded that games like chess and cards sharpened the intellect; these games helped to cultivate a habit of tackling difficult situations. These arguments were presented forcefully by their champions (the world, even to this day, is not lacking of such people). Under such circumstances if Mirza Sajjadali and Mir Roshanali spent much of their time in sharpening their intellect, why should any right-thinking person have had any objection? Both had large properties; they did not have to worry about earning a living. They had nothing to do. So both friends met after breakfast everyday and, after laying the chess board and arranging the pieces, would settle down for a battle of wits. The battle would turn so engaging that both of them would lose count of the hours. There would be frequent reminders from inside that lunch was laid. "We are just coming," would be the reply but the two would make no further move to carry themselves to the dining room. Finally, the servants had to bring the dishes in the drawing room itself, and both friends found it convenient to eat and contemplate their next moves at the same time.

There were no elderly persons in Mirza Sajjadali's house and, so, the chess games were held in the drawing room. But other members of Mirza's family were not quite happy with this arrangement. It were not just members of the family but even neighbours and servants passed malicious comments: This is a very wretched game; it ruins the home. God forbid that anyone else should become addicted to it. The game makes a person thoroughly useless. It is a terrible disease!

Begum Sahiba, Mirza's wife, had such a deep aversion for the game that she never lost an opportunity to tick off her husband. But she rarely got this opportunity because the chess board would already have been laid early in the morning while she was still asleep and the contest would continue late into the night when she had retired to bed. Begum Sahiba vent her anger on the servants. "What! He wants betel leaf? Tell him to fetch it on his own. He doesn't have time for his meals! Go and dump the food on his head - let him eat or feed it to the dogs." But Begum Sahiba could not admonish her husband personally. In fact, she was not so much against her husband as she was against Mir Saheb. She had nicknamed Mir as "Mir the spoiler". Possibly, Mirza also never hesitated from shifting all the blame on Mir in order to appear blameless himself.

One day Begum Sahiba had a headache. She told the servant to ask Mirza to get some medicines from the doctor. "Go at once," Begum ordered the maid. When the servant girl conveyed the message, Mirza told her to tell the mistress that he was coming immediately. But Begum Sahiba had no patience. She told the girl to go back and tell her master that if he did not make haste then she would go to the doctor by herself.

Mirza was playing a very interesting game; he was sure that the next two moves would secure him a win. He was irritated by the pestering of the girl. "Can't she show some patience," he said irritably.

"Why don't you go and see for yourself? Women are very sentimental," Mir reasoned with him.

"Oh yes! You want me to go because you are on the verge of losing," Mirza replied.

"Sir do not suffer from any delusions. I have thought out a move that is sure to turn the tables. But, go. Do not hurt Begum Sahiba's feelings," Mir said.

Mirza: "So you have thought of a move, eh? Then I will go only after checkmating you."

Mir: "I will not play. First go and listen to what Begum Sahiba has to say."

Mirza: "Friend I will have to go to the doctor. I don't think she has a headache - it is only a ruse to harass me."

Mir: "Whatever it may be, but you have to go to her."

Mirza: "Okay, let me make just one more move."

Mir: "No way. I absolutely refuse to continue the game unless you go and see what is the matter."

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