Short Stories

The Game: Humayun Ahmed

Babu Nalini Ranjan, ‘third sir’ at the Khairunnesa Girls’ High School, suddenly learnt to play chess one afternoon. He couldn’t stand the game. Two people staring at a board for hours in the most annoying fashion – why? Still he was forced to learn. Jalal sahib, the geography teacher, was an old friend of his. He could not turn Jalal sahib down. During the lunch break he learnt how the pawn moved, how the knight jumped two and a half squares, how the bishop stood diagonally, his staff raised. ‘It’s a cerebral game, pandit,’ said Jalal sahib seriously. ‘Exercises the brain.’

Nalini babu could not quite understand how it exercised the brain, but he defeated Jalal sahib in their very first game. Smiling wanly, Jalal sahib said, ‘I took it too casually. Another game?’

There was no time. English composition in the fourth period. Nalini-babu rose to his feet. But he couldn’t teach very well that day. The game of chess began to haunt him subtly. This had never happened before.

They played two games after classes. With a wooden smile Jalal sahib said, ‘I see I have to work on my defence seriously with you.’

Jalal sahib worked on his defence seriously in the third round. The hour for his prayers went by. The game went on till the evening. Unable to lock the office up for the day, the peon Bachhu Mian paced up and down in the veranda with an irked expression. Jalal sahib sighed after the game. ‘You seem despondent,’ said Nalini-babu.

‘One more round,’ requested Jalal sahib. ‘The last one. You won’t win this time – I’ll play an ultra-defensive game.’

‘Not today. I have to go to the tutorial.’

‘Come on, it won’t take long.’

The final game ended in a draw. Jalal sahib emitted quick breaths. ‘Let’s go,’ said Nalini-babu.

‘Another round.’

‘No more, it’s late.’

‘Just sit down and play, it’s not very late.’

Nalini-babu sat down again. His triumphal march began. The people of Niyamatpur came to know in a very short time that an unbelievably good chess
player lived in their town. No one could defeat him. His fame remained undiminished for fifteen years.

Fifteen years was a long time. He lost two teeth in this period, and developed cataract in his left eye. And on a rainy July afternoon he retired as assistant headmaster. His farewell citation read:

‘Babu Nalini Ranjan is an uncrowned king of the world of chess. He has created history by defeating Bangladesh’s chess champion janab Asad Khan three times in a row.’

It was true. Asad Khan’s sister-in-law lived in Niyamatpur. He had visited her in some ill-fated hour, agreeing to a game of chess out of sheer curiosity. He had assumed that it was just another case of a small town where everyone extolled the skills of an average player. Even when the game began he did not realise his mistake. He saw that the short, thin man knew nothing about chess openings. For obvious reasons, he didn’t even know as much as those who had read a book or two on the subject. As a result of which Asad Khan captured the pawn in front of Nalini babu’s king on his fifth move, smiling contemptuously. But the smile began to hurt his lips when he saw his bony opponent suddenly pouncing with both his knights. Asad Khan was astonished, but the people of Niyamatpur behaved as though there was nothing unusual about losing to Nalini babu.

All Asad Khan’s joy at visiting his sister-in-law paled that year. A fortnightly magazine published in Netrokona said – The veteran chess player Babu Nalini Ranjan of Niyamatpur, a teacher at Khairunnesa Girls’ High School, has defeated the national chess of champion of Bangladesh resoundingly. It is worth mentioning that this record-breaking chess player has lost to no one in the past ten years…

It was unbelievable but true. Nalini babu had won every single time. People used to travel long distances to play with him. Once, the secretary of the chess federation arrived with a foreigner. Niyamatpur had never been witness to a more momentous event. Even those who knew nothing about chess thronged the venue. A holiday was declared at Khairunnesa Girls’ High School after the lunch break. Twice the federation secretary warned Nalini babu, ‘Play a very cautious game. The person I’ve brought is from Belgium. A highly rated player.’

‘I always play a cautious game.’

‘No need to hurry your moves, all right?’

Nalini babu nodded. He had understood.

‘It’s best to play the Giuoco Piano defence with him. You know it, don’t you?’

‘No sir, I don’t.’

The secretary’s brow was furrowed. The furrow deepened when he saw Nalini babu responding to P-K4 with R4.

‘What are you doing? Are you experimenting against him? What sort of move is this?’

The foreigner also said something in English. Babu Nalini Ranjan was a teacher of English, but he could not decipher a word. His face falling, the secretary said, ‘I thought I was going to put an untrained talent on display, but looks like I’m going to be humiliated.’

They played three games. One was drawn, Nalini babu won the other two. The secretary’s astonishment was boundless.

‘Why don’t you play at Dhaka?’

‘I have to teach at the tutorial. And besides, I don’t keep well. Asthma.’

‘No, you must come.’

‘I am a poor man. No money.’

‘How can you be poor?’

The secretary embraced Nalini babu.

At babu Nalini Ranjan’s farewell on the rainy July afternoon, therefore, the subject of chess cropped up repeatedly. And at the end Suruj Mian – president of the meeting, secretary of the school committee and chairman of the municipality – announced in a most mysterious manner that he had made arrangements for a fitting display of honour for babu Nalini Ranjan, the pride of Niyamatpur, unbeaten at chess. He was giving the school fund a cheque for fifteen thousand rupees. Anyone who defeated Nalini babu would get this money. And if no one could, the school fund would get the money after Nalini babu’s death.

There was tumultuous applause. The headmaster had to hold the cheque up high to show it to everyone. No one had imagined such a dramatic move from Suruj Mian.

On an October evening Nalini babu had a severe attack of asthma. The air seemed very thin. He strained to fill his lungs. A pulse in his throat bulged repeatedly. But despite the state he was in, he sat down to play the final game of chess in his life. He would play it to lose. Today he would lose to his old friend Jalal sahib, who would win fifteen thousand rupees. The money would be used for Nalini babu’s treatment. Warm clothes would be bought for winter, for he suffered terribly terribly in the cold. Jalal sahib had persuaded Nalini babu after a great deal of effort. One defeat would make no difference.

The game was being played in the school hall. Jalal sahib was playing the challenge game. Many spectators had gathered out of curiosity. Nalini babu’s position worsened. A careless move lost him a bishop. Soon afterwards, one of his rooks was pinned. A murmur rose amongst the spectators. Nalini babu saw tears in Jalal sahib’s eyes. The undefeated chess champion of fifteen years was about to lose. Jalal sahib’s face was unnaturally pale. His hand shook as he moved his pieces.

Sobahan sahib the homoeopath said in surprise, ‘Nalini babu is in deep trouble.’

‘It’s all Nalini’s pretence,’ said Jalal sahib hoarsely. ‘He will fix it at once, just watch.’

‘Are you weeping, Jalal?’ asked Nalini babu softly.

‘Of course not. There’s something in my eye.’

Jalal sahib began to rub his eye in order to get rid of the invisible object.

Was that a faint smile on Nalini babu’s lips? He challenged the king with a check from his knight. The king moved one square. A second check with the pawn. The king moved yet another square. Nalini babu brought his black bishop out of a seemingly invisible city. An astonished Sobahan sahib said, ‘My goodness!’ ‘Check,’ said Nalini-babu, pushing the bishop in front of the pawn.’

Despite his best efforts, he was unable to lose the final game of his life. Deep in penury, the pride of Niyamatpur died practically without medical treatment on November 12, 1975. Tuesday. Khairunnesa Girls’ High School was closed for two days to mark the occasion.

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