Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Shatranj ke Khilaadi

Come Friday evening, me in tow, grandpa would amble towards the banana trees grown as intercrop in the coconut grove. With a pen-knife, he would snip a couple of fully grown leaves of the plantain tree. He would then carefully segregate the spines of the leaves for me to carry home for the weekly ritual.

Grandpa would splice and cut the spine into specified shapes to fashion two sets of pieces for playing Chaturangam. The thick end would become the king, the slender pieces would make the pawns. The minister, the chariot, the horse and elephant (not queen, rook, knight or bishop as in the modern version) were made from the remaining portion.

That was part of the preparation for the weekly visit of M, the headmaster of the local school who would play Chaturangam with him. M was not just a sparring partner of grandpa: he was also grandma’s cousin.

Even since their common passions – astrology, poetry, literature and Chaturangam brought them together, grandpa and M would spend the weekends in each other’s company pursuing these interests. This was a routine practised for decades.

The two would exchange pleasantries sipping the hot tea which grandma would make as soon as M came in trudging the stone-paved path flanked by crotons and hibiscus. After the cuppa, a mandatory walk in the sylvan paddy-fields discussing a poem that had appeared in the recent issue of the Mathrubhoomi weekly or a story in Mangalodayam. This would be followed by a wash in the pond in the compound.

The two would then walk back to their favourite spot, the wooden platform in the sit-out, and place themselves a few feet apart, each leaning against a pillar. Grandpa would use charcoal to reinforce the fading lines of the 8x8 square drawn on the wooden platform.

They would soon move on to more serious business. They could be seen discussing the post-partition trauma. It could as well be a debate about the influence of an aspect of asterism in astrology. At times, they would try their hand at a paperless translation of a verse from Kalidasa’s Shakuntala into Malayalam.

After dinner, they would shift gears and move over to a series of games of Chaturangam. Not many words would be spoken after that. You could only hear grunts and ‘hum’s which had specific meanings – a doubt, a question, an exclamation, a challenge, a compliment – anything, depending on the variations in the pitch, length and intonation of the ‘hum’.

And the game, aided by a hurricane lamp, would go well past midnight. The spells of silence between two moves would be interrupted only when they decided to break for a session of pan-chewing.

Me, a six-year old lad, was like Snowy in the Tintin comics, their constant companion (but without his entertainment value) but nor much of a nuisance either. I would look forward to Friday evenings and the rendezvous between the two.

That Friday evening looked no different. The usual routine ensued: pleasantries, tea, a long walk, some nuances of poetry and astrology, a wash and dinner, followed by chathurangam. When the discussions died down and the two settled down to a game, they entered the zone of silence broken by grunts and ‘hum’s. I felt sleepy. Head on grandpa’s lap, I lay on the mat and dozed off.

It must have been a little – or a long – later. Lifting my head off his lap as gently as he could, grandpa said, “Let me fetch some water.” The words that broke the silence and the movement disturbed my slumber. Grandpa walked towards the kitchen.

From the corner of my eye, I watched uncle’s left hand moving towards the square. In a swift, but stealthy movement, he snatched a piece of his opponent and flung it into the darkness of the courtyard.

When grandpa returned, it was uncle’s turn to take a break. Using the opportunity, I sneaked to grandpa about uncle’s unethical action. Unmoved by the revelation, he admonished me in soft tones, “Shh… later.” Grandpa lost that game.

Later, I asked grandpa about uncle’s impropriety and his (lack of) response to it. He said, “The game was in a stage where unless he did that, he would lose.”

I could not digest that one. “But why should you let him win?” I queried.

“You have to let others win too,” he explained, “if you want to continue playing.” As that sank into my young mind, he added, “At such critical stages, I always go to fetch water or get a replenishment of betel leaf and accompaniments.”

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