The Chess Players Premchand Eng trans

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The Chess Players [1924]

(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

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2 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!)

*takes place in 1856

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t 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

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3 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."

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Mirza had to go. Begum Sahiba groaned on seeing him. "Chess is so dear to you that you would not care even if someone was dying. There can hardly be another person like you!"

Mirza: "What could I do? Mir Saheb wouldn't listen; he wanted me to finish the game. With great difficulty I managed to come away."

Begum: "Does he think all the others are good-for-nothing like him? He also has a wife and children, or has he abandoned them?

Mirza: "He is very addicted to the game. I have to play whenever he comes over." Begum: "Why don't you send him away?"

Mirza: "He is senior in age and higher in status. I have to show him due respect."

Begum: "Then I will send him away. He might feel insulted; so be it. We don't depend on him for our food."

Addressing the servant girl, she said, "Hariya go and fetch the chess board. Tell Mir Saheb that he may leave since Mirza Saheb has decided not to play anymore."

Mirza: "Oh no! Don't you do such a thing. Do you want to embarrass me? Stop Hariya, don't go."

Begum: "Why don't you allow her to go? Okay, so you have stopped her; let's see how you stop me."

Immediately after blurting out her intentions, Begum Sahiba made for the drawing room. Poor Mirza turned pale. He pleaded with his wife, "For god's sake please don't go. You will be the cause of my death if you go there."

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5 Begum had the room to her own! She overturned the board; threw out a few chess pieces while the rest rolled under the shelves. She, then, bolted the door. Mir Saheb saw the pieces flying out, heard the sound of bangles, saw and heard the door being closed with a bang, and rightly surmised that Begum Sahiba had declared war. He quietly withdrew and took the path that led to his own home.

"You have taken extreme steps," Mirza told his wife.

Begum: "If Mir Saheb comes here again I will show him the door. You spend your time playing chess, and I have to manage the house! Will you be going to the doctor now or are you still pondering over the matter?"

Mirza stepped out of the house but instead of going to the doctor he reached Mir Saheb's house and related the entire incident. Mir said, "When I saw the pieces flying out, I immediately recognized the danger and escaped. It seems your wife is very

hot-tempered, but you should not allow such behaviour. She should not concern herself with what you do outside. It is her responsibility to manage the affairs of the home and she should not bother about other things."

Mirza: "Well, what do we do now? Where do we meet to play?"

Mir: "Where is the problem? Here is such a big house; we will play here."

Mirza: "But how do I convince Begum Sahiba? When we played at my place she used to be angry, now if we start meeting here she probably will bury me alive."

Mir: "Oh, let her grumble; after a few days she will get used to it. But you must try to be a little assertive."

For some unknown reasons Mir's wife preferred that he remained away from home as much as possible. She, therefore, never criticised his love for chess, but rather reminded him whenever he delayed in removing himself from the house. Mir, however,

misconstrued his wife's behaviour and thought that she was very gentle and serious-minded. But when the chess players began meeting in the house and Mir Saheb remained at home for the entire day, it caused much grief to Mir's wife. It was an infringement on her freedom. The whole day she craved to peek out of the door. The servants also started whispering among themselves. Hitherto, with Mir Saheb remaining away from home, they had no work to do; they had been least bothered about who visited the house or who went away. But now they had to remain on their toes all the time - sometimes they would be asked to bring betel leaves and sometimes sweets. And the hookah, like a lover's heart, was always burning. The servants complained to Mir's wife, "Master's love for chess has made our lives miserable. This constant running around has caused blisters on our feet. What kind of a game is this in which players sit in the morning and rise only late in the evening! It is alright to play for an hour or so. Well, we don't have any complaints - we are mere servants and will obey the orders unquestioningly; but this game is a dangerous one and it brings some kind of ruin on the homes of the players. People outside speak ill of master, and we feel very bad about it because we eat his salt. But what can we do?"

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6 There were a few old-timers in the neighbourhood who, while discussing amongst

themselves, predicted doom for the kingdom because of the behaviour of the noblemen. "There is little hope for the kingdom," they said, "when this is the state of our noblemen, then it is only god who can save the kingdom. This empire is destined for doom because of chess. There are bad times ahead."

An atmosphere of despair prevailed in the kingdom. There were daylight robberies but there was no one to listen to the complaints of the people. Wealth from the villages was sponged away and found its way to Lucknow where it was wasted on the pleasures of life. The kingdom's debt to the English Company grew larger and larger with each passing day. Owing to the complete absence of governance, there was a laxity in the collection of annual taxes. The Resident issued cautions from time to time but who was there to listen? Everyone was intoxicated in life's pleasures. No one had ears to listen.

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Anyway, few months passed after the chess players began meeting in Mir's house. New moves were contemplated, and fresh strategies were devised. There were occasions when the chess players quarrelled and almost came to blows in the heat of excitement. But the two friends always made up readily. Sometimes the game would be abandoned midway over a disputed move and Mirza would walk away in a huff; Mir remained sitting at home. But after a good night's sleep, everything was forgotten and the two friends would meet as usual at Mir's place in the morning as if nothing had happened. One day while the two players were thus immersed in a game of chess, an officer of the king's army arrived on horseback and asked for Mir Saheb. Mir was horrified. What fresh trouble was coming his way? Why was he being sought? This portended something sinister. He had all the doors closed and instructed the servants to tell the soldier that he was not at home.

Horse rider: "He is not at home! Where is he then?"

Servant: "I don't know. What work do you have with my master?"

Horse rider: "Why should I tell you? There have been summons from the king, perhaps some soldiers are required for the army. Is he a vassal or a jester? He will realize the true worth of things when he has to go to the front."

Servant: "I will convey your message."

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7 The horse rider went away. Mir was shaken to the roots. "Friend, what will happen now?" he asked Mirza.

Mirza: "Yes, this seems to be deep trouble. There could be summons for me too." Mir: "The wretch said he will come back tomorrow."

Mirza: "This is indeed troublesome. We will die for no reason if we have to go to the front."

Mir: "There is only one way out. We should stop meeting in my house; instead let us find some secluded spot near the River Gomti. Who can find us there? The man when he comes tomorrow will have to return back without me."

Mirza: "That is a marvellous scheme. There can be no better scheme than this."

Meanwhile, Mir's wife had engaged herself in a conversation with the horse rider. "You have made quite an impression," she told him.

"I make such rustics dance to my tune. Their intelligence and courage have been blunted by chess. They will no longer remain at home henceforth even by mistake," the rider replied.

From the next day onwards both friends started sneaking out of their homes even before the break of dawn. Carrying a small mat pressed under the arms and a box of betel leaves they would make their way to a ruined mosque that had probably been built by Nawab Asfaudullah. On the way they would buy tobacco and chillum (clay pipe). Immediately upon reaching the mosque they would spread the mat, fill up their clay pipes and begin playing chess. Once the game began they forgot everything else, and not a worry in the world could trouble them. Barring a few words like "Checkmate" and "check" no other words escaped their lips. Not even the most devoted of the yogis could have shown so much concentration while meditating as these two did. When they felt hungry in the afternoon, they would go to an eatery and have their meals. After resting awhile and smoking their pipes, they would enter the combat zone once again.

Sometimes meals were also forgotten.

Meanwhile, the political situation in the kingdom was turning for the worse. The

Company's forces were marching toward Lucknow. There was panic, and people fled to the villages with their children. But our two players were least worried. During their sally to the mosque and back home, they had to make their way through narrow lanes; the only worry that troubled them was that they might get noticed by some king's official and compelled to offer military service. They wished to enjoy the vast annual returns from their estates for free without having to fulfill their obligations to the king. One day the two friends were playing chess in the mosque. Mir was in a precarious situation. Mirza was harassing his king with checks. Just then soldiers could be seen marching toward the city. These were British troops who were advancing to gain control over Lucknow.

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8 Mir: "We must see to this; let's watch them from the corner."

Mirza: "We will see them, where is the hurry. Check, once again."

Mir: "They are carrying artillery guns too; there may be around 5,000 soldiers. They are so young and have faces like red monkeys. The very sight of them causes terror.

Mirza: "Sir, stop the farce. You had better use such tactics on somebody else. Here, check once again."

Mir: "You are a strange person. Here the city is under threat and all you can think about is check. Have you considered how you will return home if the city is besieged?"

Mirza: "We will see to that when we have to go home. Save your king now; this is checkmate!

The troops disappeared into the distance and could no longer be seen. It was 10 O'clock and the players settled down for another game.

"What about our meals, today?" Mirza asked.

Mir: "Today is my day of fasting. Are you feeling hungry?" Mirza: "No; I wonder what might be happening in the city."

Mir: "Nothing unusual must be happening. People may be having a siesta now after their lunch. The Nawab might also be relaxing."

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The two friends continued to play and it was soon 3 O'clock. It was Mirza who was in dire straits at this point of time. The clock tower announced 4 O'clock and troops could be heard returning. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah had been taken a prisoner and was being taken to an unknown destination. There was neither any uproar in the city nor a drop of blood shed. Not even a drop of blood had been shed! There could not have been any past incident when the king of a free nation was captured so peacefully, without a drop of blood being shed! This was not the non-violence which would have pleased the gods. This was cowardice; that sort of cowardice over which even the biggest cowards would have wept in shame! The king of a great nation like Awadh was taken a prisoner but the city of Lucknow was sunk in a pleasurable slumber. This was political degradation of the worst kind!

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9 Mirza: "Sir, stop a while. I don't feel like playing; poor Nawab must be shedding tears of blood."

Mir: "He has reasons to weep; how will he receive the same comforts in captivity? Check!"

Mirza: "There are so many ups and downs in life! It is a pitiful situation."

Mir: "That's true; here, check once again. This is checkmate, you have no way out." Mirza: "Oh my god, you are so heartless! Don't you feel even a pang of sorrow at such a big calamity? Poor Wajid Ali Shah!"

Mir: "First save your king, and then grieve over Nawab's situation. This is curtains for your king."

The last of the troops disappeared from sight, taking the Nawab with them. Immediately thereafter, Mirza readied himself for another game. The pain of a defeat is hard to bear. "Let's recite a dirge to mourn Nawab's capture," Mir said.

But Mirza's patriotism had evaporated following his defeat and he was getting impatient to get even.

Dusk had fallen. The bats in the ruined mosque raised a din. The swallows returned back to their nests. But the two players remained firm in their places like two blood-thirsty adversaries. Mirza had lost three games in a row and the fourth game was also not going in his favour. Everytime he would resolve to win and that made him extra cautious. But despite all caution a single bad move would turn the tables against him. Following every defeat, his desire to take revenge would intensify. Mir Saheb, on the other hand, was in high spirits. He was singing "ghazals" and from time to time clicked his fingers as if he had discovered some hidden treasure. Mirza found the "ghazals" very irritating but expressed his appreciation nevertheless in order to camouflage the rising anger. But as he continued to lose, his patience deserted him so much so that he even made his irritation evident. "Sir, do not take back your moves. This is ridiculous that you should make a move and then take it back. Make a move and that should be final. Why do you keep touching the pieces? Until you have decided your move, you should not touch the pieces at all. You take half-an-hour to make a move! This is not permitted. Whosoever takes more than five minutes to make a move should be considered as having lost. There, you have taken back your move once again! Keep that piece back in its place.

Mir Saheb's queen was in trouble. "When did I ever make a move?" he asked innocently. Mirza: "You have made your move; please place that piece on that square."

Mir: "Why should I keep it there? When did I ever release that piece?"

Mirza: "If you do not release the piece till the day of judgement, would that imply you have not made your move? You are cheating because your queen is in trouble."

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10 Mirza: "Then, you must accept defeat in this game."

Mir: "Why should I accept defeat?"

Mirza: "Then you put your piece on that square where you had placed it earlier." Mir: "Why should I place it there? I will not do so."

Mirza: "Why will you not place it there? You must."

The war of words intensified. Both held their grounds and no one was willing to yield. The talks took a turn for the worse and subjects irrelevant to the game of chess began to be mentioned. "One can know the rules of chess only if it has been played in the family for generations. Your family has always been engaged in cutting grass, how can you play chess? One does not become an aristocrat just by inheriting an estate."

Mir: "What! Your father must have cut grass. In our family we have played chess for generations."

Mirza: "Pshaw! You have spent your life working as a chef for Gaji-ud-din Hyder and now you are acting high and mighty. It is not a joke to be an aristocrat."

Mir: "You are besmirching your ancestors, they must have been chefs. In our family we have always dined with the king."

Mirza: "Stop it you grass-cutter, don't talk rubbish."

Mir: "Hold your tongue; else the consequences will be bad. I am not used to hearing such nonsense. If someone gives me dirty looks I would not hesitate to gouge out his eyes. Do you have the guts?"

Mirza: "You want to test my guts, do you? Let's have a duel unto death then." Mir: "Who is afraid of you?"

Both friends drew out their swords. It was a royal era; everyone carried swords or daggers. Both were pleasure-seekers but not cowards. Their political sentiments had been deadened; why should they die for their king? But both of them had abundant personal valor. Both took up positions; the swords glinted. There was the sound of steel clashing against steel. Both fell down injured, and both died while writhing in pain. The two had not shed a tear for their king but sacrificed their lives defending the queens on the chess board.

It had grown dark. The chess board was laid for a game; the two kings on the chess board, seated on their respective thrones, appeared to be crying over the deaths of the two braves.

There was a deafening silence all around. The collapsing vaults of the ruin, the crumbling walls and the dust-coated minarets watched over the corpses and swayed their heads in grief.

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