‘The Chess Players’ is the first story in The Divine Arbiter and Other Stories.
It was in the time of Wazid Ali Shah. Lucknow wallowed in the pursuit of pleasure. Big or small, rich or poor, everyone appeared to be sunk in the morass of self-indulgence. While some found their enjoyment in dancing and singing sessions; others managed to derive it merely in a dose of opium. In every sphere of life it was the pursuit of pleasure that manifested itself. Whether it was administration; literary or social circles; art, commerce or industry; it was this streak of hedonism that manifested itself everywhere. The state officials indulged themselves in sensual enjoyment, poets in narration of love and pains of separation; artisans in kalabattu1 and chikan2 embroidery and traders in selling collyrium, perfumery and cosmetics.
The intoxicating effect of this pleasure seeking could be seen reflecting itself in everyone’s eyes. No one was concerned with what was happening in the rest of the world. Here one could see a partridge fight in progress. Elsewhere the preparations for a quail fight would be in progress. Or it would be chausar3 that would be laid out amidst the din of onlookers. At yet another place it would be an intense battle of chess that would be razing. From king to the most ordinary person everyone seemed to be humming the same tune.
This infatuation for pleasure had reached such a level that even beggars, after they had received their alms, would look for opium or some intoxicant rather than buy bread. ‘Playing chess, ganjifa4 or cards sharpens your mind, improves the thinking power and you get habituated to solving complicated matters.’ These kinds of arguments would be advanced by many with great passion.
So if Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali too spent most of their time in sharpening their minds in this manner, what objection could be there to any rational and thinking person? Both owned large estates and had no worries about earning a livelihood. They would spend the entire day sitting and chatting at home. What else could they do after all? Every morning after breakfast, both the friends would settle down with a chessboard in front of them, arrange the pieces and then the moves and counter moves would commence. Thereafter, they would not be concerned whether it was afternoon or evening or the day was over. Again and again messages would be sent from inside that their food was ready. A reply would be sent that they would be there soon; let the table be set. In the end the cook would be constrained to lay down the food in the drawing room itself and the friends would perform both the tasks simultaneously.
Mirza Sajjad Ali did not have any elder at home; therefore, the sessions would take place in his drawing room. It was not as if others in his household were happy with his conduct. What to talk about the family members, the neighbours and even the domestic servants commented with disdain every day:
‘It is a very inauspicious game. It destroys the family…god forbid if someone gets addicted to it…it makes you a good for nothing person…it’s a disease.’
Even Begum Sahiba, the wife of Mirza was so averse to it that she would always look out for an opportunity to reprimand him. However she found hardly any occasion for it. She slept till late in the mornings; in the meanwhile the chessboard would already be set. At night she would be asleep by the time Mirza would return to her bedchamber. She would of course keep venting out her anger on the domestics.
‘They are asking for paans5? Tell him to come and collect it himself…They have no time for eating? Go and throw the food on their table…they may eat it if they want or let the dogs feed on it if they so desire.’
However she could not say anything to him in person. In fact she was not so upset with her husband as with Mir Sahib. She had named him Mir Bigadu6. It was perhaps because Mirza ji7 would ascribe all the blame to Mir Sahib while giving his explanations.
One day Begum Sahiba had a headache. She told her maid, ‘Go call Mirza Sahib. Let him bring some medicine from the doctor. Go, hurry up.’
When the maid went and told him, Mirza said, ‘I will be there soon.’ Begum Sahiba was in a foul mood. How could she tolerate that the husband keeps playing chess while she is suffering from headache? Her face turned red. She said to the maid, ‘Go and tell him that he must come immediately otherwise I would go to the doctor on my own’. At that time Mirza ji was at a very exciting juncture in the game: another two or three moves and it could be the mate for Mir Sahib. Feeling irritated he said, ‘Is she on her last breath? Can’t have even a little bit of patience!’
Mir said, ‘Why not go and hear what she wants to say. Women are always a little temperamental.’
Mirza: ‘Yes and why should I not go! After all, it is a matter of two moves or so and it is going to be the mate for you.’
Mir: ‘Don’t be under such illusions. I have thought of such a move that your pieces will remain where they are and it would be mate for you. Go and listen to what she is saying. Why hurt her feelings unnecessarily?’
Mirza: ‘Now that you say that, I’ll go only after it is mate for you.’
Mir: ‘I will not play. You go and hear what she has to say.’
Mirza: ‘What yaar8, I will be obliged to take her to some doctor. I know she doesn’t have any headache; it is just an excuse to irritate me.’
Mir: ‘Whatever it is, you have to do that for her sake.’
Mirza: ‘All right, let me make one more move.’
Mir: ‘Not at all…until you go and listen to her I will not touch the pieces.’
Mirza Sahib felt obliged to go inside. Begum Sahiba changed her stance but said in a pained voice, ‘you are so enamoured with this godforsaken chess. I may die but you will not deign to get up. I doubt if there would be any other man like you.’
Mirza: ‘What can I say, Mir Sahib refuses to listen. It was with great difficulty that I managed to get rid of him.’
Begum: ‘Why, does he think everyone else too is a good for nothing person like him. I’m sure he too has a family and children; or is it that he has got rid of all of them.’
Mirza: ‘He is a big chess addict. But as he comes here to visit me I feel obliged to play.’
Begum: ‘Why don’t you tell him to get lost?’
Mirza: ‘He is a man of my own standing; in fact, two notches higher than me in age as well as social stature. Therefore, I have to give him some regard at least for that.’
Begum: ‘Then, I will myself tell him to get lost. Let him feel annoyed, if he so desire. It is not as if we are dependent on him for our living. Hariya, go and bring the chess board from the drawing room. Tell Mir Sahib that Mirza Sahib will not play now; that he may leave.’
Mirza: ‘No no, don’t do such an outrageous thing. You want to bring disgrace upon me? Wait Hariya, where are you going?’
Begum: ‘Why don’t you let her go? If anyone stops her it would be as if he sucks my blood. All right you stopped her; let me see if you can stop me.’
Saying that the infuriated Begum Sahiba walked towards the drawing room. Poor Mirza’s face turned pale with helplessness. He started pleading with his wife, ‘For God’s sake I implore you in the name of Hazrat Hussain. All right, anyone who goes there will see my dead body.’
But Begum did not pay any heed. She went up to the door of the drawing room but suddenly her feet seemed to get tied down at the thought of facing a man who was not her husband. She peeped inside. There seemed to be no one there. Mir Sahib had changed the positions of a few pieces on the board and as if to show his innocence, he was taking a stroll in the veranda outside. Embolden by his absence, Begum went inside, overturned the chess board and threw some of the pieces under the bed and some in the veranda and locked the door from inside. Mir Sahib, standing at the threshold saw the pieces being flung out and heard the sound of glass bangles. When the door was locked from inside, he understood that the Begum was in a foul mood. He thought it best to head to his home.
Mirza said, ‘It’s really unbelievable what you have done.’
‘Now, if ever Mir Sahib comes here I will have him shown the door. If you had shown so much devotion to God as to this chess game you would have become a wali9. You are forever playing chess and I am wrecking my head over the household affairs. Now are you going to the doctor or not?’
When Mirza left his home, instead of heading towards the doctor, he reached the house of Mirza Sahib and narrated the whole story to him. Mir Sahib said, ‘When I saw the pieces falling out of the window, I guessed as much that very moment. So I ran off immediately. She seems to be a woman with a short temper. But the way you have pampered her is also not done. How does it matter to her what you do outside the home. Her duty is to take care of the household; why does she have to meddle with other things?’
Mirza: ‘Any way, tell me where we are going to have our sessions now.’
Mir: ‘What is there to worry about? I have such a big house. Let’s start playing here itself.’
Mirza: ‘But how am I going to bring my wife to agree to it? When I was staying right inside the home, she was so upset. Now if I sit here the whole day she will probably not leave me alive.’
Mr: ‘Let her keep venting out her anger; in two three days she will be all right. But you must do at least this much: today onwards be a little strict and assertive with her.’
For some unknown reason the wife of Mir Sahib considered it apposite that he remained away from home. She never criticized, therefore, his fondness for chess; on the contrary sometimes when Mir Sahib would be late in leaving she would remind him of it. For this reason Mr Sahib had developed an illusion that his wife was of an extremely modest and serious nature. However when the chess sessions started taking place in their own drawing room and Mir Sahib started staying at home the entire day, his wife started feeling very uncomfortable. Her independence was getting affected. She would yearn the entire day for an opportunity to peep out of the door.
The domestics also started gossiping. Till now they had been twiddling their thumbs the entire day. They were not bothered if anyone came or left the house. Now they were under pressure the entire day. Sometime they would be ordered to bring paan, sometimes to bring sweetmeats. And now the hookah fire would be smouldering the entire day like the heart of a lover. They would go to the Begum Sahiba and complain to her that Sahib’s chess had become a veritable slavery for them and how running around the whole day they had developed boils on their feet.
‘What kind of a game is this where you start in the morning and don’t let up till the evening! It is enough to play for an hour or two to amuse oneself. But then who are we to complain; we are after all our master’s slaves, whatever orders you give we’ll have to execute…but this chess is a very inauspicious game. No one who indulges in it has ever prospered; some catastrophe or the other surely befalls the household. Entire neighbourhoods are known to have got ruined because of the addiction of one person. Here in the whole neighbourhood everyone is talking about this only. We are obedient servants of our master. But we feel bad hearing such things talked about him every day. But what can be done?’
Hearing this, Begum Sahiba said, ‘As far as I am concerned, I myself don’t like it. But if he does not listen to anyone then what can be done.’
In the neighbourhood the few old timers that were still left started speculating about all sort of inauspicious happenings, ‘Now there is no saving us. When this is the state of the wealthy people then god only can help the country. The entire kingdom is going to be destroyed due to this chess. Prospects are very bleak indeed.’
In the kingdom anarchy prevailed already. People were robbed in broad day light. There was no one to hear their grievance. The entire wealth of villages around was flowing to Lucknow and getting squandered on prostitutes, performers and various other pursuits of self-indulgence. The debt of the English Company10 was increasing day by day. Due to lack of good governance even the annual taxes were not being collected properly. The Resident11 issued warnings time and again but everyone here was intoxicated with pursuit of pleasure; no one was bothered in the least.
Anyway, many months had passed since the chess sessions started in the drawing room of Mir Sahib. Every day new gambits were tried, new castles made and new formations were employed. Sometimes there would even be recriminations and it would even come to exchange of hot words but the two friends would make up soon. Sometimes it would so happen that the game would be given up and Mir Sahib would leave the drawing room and go inside his room and Mirza ji would return to his home feeling annoyed. But the mental rancour would come to end after an overnight sleep. Next morning both the friends would again assemble in the drawing room of Mir Sahib.
One day both the friends were deeply immersed in their game of chess, when an officer of king’s army riding on horseback came enquiring about Mir Sahib. Mir Sahib was scared out of his wits. ‘What is this calamity that has befallen on us? What is this summons for? Now there seem to be no saving us from the doom.’ All the doors were ordered to be closed. The servants were instructed to inform the trooper that Mir Sahib was not at home.
Trooper: ‘If not at home then where is he?’
Servant: ‘I don’t know about that. But what is the matter?’
Trooper: ‘What can I tell you? He is summoned at the court. Perhaps some soldiers are to be requisitioned for the army. Is he a landlord or what! When he has to go to the front he will realize what it is all about.’
Servant: ‘All right, you may go. He will be informed.’
Trooper: ‘Informing him is not the issue. Tomorrow I will come myself. I have been ordered to bring him along.’
The trooper left. Mir Sahib was petrified. He asked Mirza ji, ‘Tell me sir, what to do now?’
Mirza: ‘It’s a big problem indeed. I hope I too have not been summoned.’
Mir: ‘The wretch said he will come again tomorrow.’
Mirza: ‘It’s a misfortune, what else? If we are to go to the front, we might die for nothing.’
Mir: ‘There is only one way out; just don’t be at home when he comes. Tomorrow onwards we can go and install ourselves in some deserted spot across the Gomti River. Who will come to know about it? The fellow will come and go back on his own.’
Mirza: ‘Great, what an idea! And there seems to be no solution except for this.’
On the other side, the Begum of Mir Sahib was telling the trooper, ‘That was really a smart trick you played on them.’
‘I can make such idiots play around my little finger. All of their intellect as well as courage have been devoured by chess. Now onwards they will not stay at home even by mistake.’
The next day onwards both the friends started leaving their home while it would still be dark. Holding a small carpet under their armpit, carrying a box full of paans, they would go across the Gomati to an old deserted mosque, which was built perhaps by Nawab Asafudollah 12. On the way they would pick up tobacco and chillum13 and once they would be at the mosque, they would spread the carpet, prepare the hookah and start with their chess game. Thereafter, they would not be concerned any more with anything in the world. Except for a few words like check or mate, no other phrase would come out from their mouths. Not even a yogi would be so concentrated in his meditation. In the afternoon if they would feel the pangs of hunger they would go and have some food at some wayside eatery and after having a bout of hookah thereafter their battle would recommence. Sometimes, they would not even bother about food.
On the other hand the political situation in the country was becoming terrible day by day. The Company forces were advancing towards Lucknow. There was turmoil in the city. People were fleeing to the villages taking their families along. But the two players were not at all concerned with that. Passing through the lanes and by lanes every morning, they would be scared lest anyone in the employ of the King happened to catch a sight of them and they got apprehended for nothing. They wanted to consume the proceeds of their estates worth thousands of rupees per year without doing anything in return for the King.
One day both the friends were playing chess in the ruins of the mosque. Mirza was on a somewhat weak footing. Mir Sahib was posing him checks again and again. At that moment soldiers of the Company were seen approaching. It was a White Army which was coming to capture Lucknow.
‘English army is approaching, god help us.’
Mirza: ‘Let them come, first guard yourself against the check, here is the check.’
Mir: ‘We should watch them, let’s come and stand aside here under a cover.’
Mirza: ‘You may watch them after a while, where is the hurry, another check.’
Mir: ‘There are canons too. Must be five thousand young men…their faces look like those of red monkeys. Seeing their faces alone one gets a fright.’
Mirza: ‘Janab14 don’t make excuses, try these tricks with someone else, here is a check.’
Mir: ‘You are a strange person. Here there is a calamity over the city and you are thinking only of check. Have you got any idea, how we are going to get back home if the city is surrounded.’
Mirza: ‘We’ll see when it is time to go home. Here is a check. Now it is the mate.’
The army passed by. It was ten in the morning. The game commenced again.
Mirza: ‘How are we going to manage our food today?’
Mir: ‘Today it is a day for fasting. Are you feeling very hungry?’
Mirza: ‘No, but I wonder what’s happening in the city!’
Mir: ‘Something or the other must be taking place. People must be sleeping after having their food. Huzoor Nawab Sahib must also be in his pleasure chamber.’
Once both the gentlemen started again with their game they went on till three in the afternoon. Now Mir appeared to be the weaker party. It was about four o’clock when the sounds of the retreating army could be heard. Nawab Wazid Ali had been taken into custody and the army was taking them towards some unknown destination. There was neither any furore nor massacre in the city. Not a drop of blood had been shed. Till that day, perhaps no other sovereign of an independent state had been defeated in such a peaceful manner without a drop of blood being shed. It was not ahinsa15 on which the gods bestow their blessings. It was the height of cowardice, on which even the biggest cowards would shed their tears. The ruler of a huge state like Avadh was made a prisoner and its capital, Lucknow slept soundly wallowing in luxurious. This was the lowest ebb of political downfall in the kingdom.
‘Huzoor Nawab Sahib has been captured by these tyrants,’ said Mirza.
Mir: ‘Let it be, here is a check.’
Mirza: ‘Janab, let’s stop a while. In a moment like this you don’t feel very nice. Poor Nawab Sahib must be shedding tears of blood at this moment.’
Mir: ‘What else he has except to cry. Would he get such luxuries there in custody? Check.’
Mirza: ‘No one has good times forever. What a painful situation it must be!’
Mir: Yes that it is indeed; here another check! Now this is the end, there is no way you can be saved.’
Mirza: ‘By god…you are so heartless. You don’t feel sad even after witnessing such a sad event. Oh poor Wazid Ali Shah!’
Mir: ‘First save your king; thereafter you can mourn Nawab Sahib. Here it is a check and here is the mate!’
The army passed by taking the king away as a captive. As soon as it left Mirza set up the board once again. The pangs of defeat are terrible. Let’s read a prayer mourning Nawab Sahib’ said Mir. But Mirza’s patriotism had vanished after his own defeat. He was getting impatient to take his revenge.
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Written content copyright (c) Dinesh Verma, 2017