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.

Rupa: Humayun Ahmed

‘Would you care to hear an interesting story?’

I looked at the man in surprise. We had struck up an acquaintance only a short while ago – and that too, not a very deep one. He had enquired whether I was waiting for a train. Yes, I had replied, asking him out of courtesy where he was going.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ he had replied with a smile. ‘I’m here to receive my wife. She’s coming from Chittagong. The train’s two hours late. I don’t feel like going back. I thought I’d wait instead of going all the way home and then returning to the station.’

That was the extent of our acquaintance. If a person were to ask on the strength of this faint connection, would you care to hear an interesting story, one is bound to be at least a little surprised. I was not particularly inclined to having strangers tell me stories. And besides, I have observed in my long experience that stories that are said to be interesting never turn out that way.

I remained silent. The man would understand the significance of my silence if he were intelligent. If not, I would be forced to hear his story.

The man did not prove to be even remotely intelligent. Taking a tin of paan out of his pocket and preparing one for himself, he began his story.

‘You must be very irritated with me. It’s natural, here’s a man who has started pouring out his tale without so much as a by your leave. But do you know what the problem is? It’s a special day for me. And on this special day I have the urge to tell someone my story. If you permit me, I shall tell you.’

‘Very well.’

‘Do you like paan?’

‘No I don’t.’

‘Try one, it’s a mishti paan. You’ll like it.’

‘Do you also offer paan along with your story on this special day?’

The man laughed. Quite amiably. He was about forty. Very handsome. His sparkling white kurta and pajama suited him very well. He appeared to have dressed carefully for his wife.

‘This incident took place about twenty years ago. I was studying for my Honours degree at Dhaka University – in physics. It’s probably too dark here for you to see me clearly. If there had been enough light you’d have realised I am quite handsome. Twenty years ago I looked like a prince. In fact I was known as The Prince amongst students. The funny thing is that the girls paid me no attention. I don’t know if you’ve noticed – women are never attracted to men for their appearance. They notice everything about men except their looks. None of the girls at the university ever came up to me to make friends or even to talk. I didn’t take the initiative either. Because I stammered. I could not speak fluently.’

Interrupting him, I said, ‘But you’re not stammering now, your speech is quite smooth.’

‘My stammering was cured after I got married. It was very bad earlier. I tried all kinds of treatment – from talking with marbles in my mouth to homoeopathy and even amulets from the Pir – no stone was left unturned. Anyway, to go back to the story. My subsidiary subjects were mathematics and chemistry. A girl in the chemistry subsidiary class almost made me stop breathing. How lovely she was! Long lashes, dark eyes. Eyes that laughed all the time. Have you ever fallen in love?’

‘No.’

‘If you haven’t, I won’t be able to explain my state of mind. The very first day that I saw her, I literally fell ill. I didn’t sleep all night. My throat grew parched every few minutes. All I did was take drinks of water and pace up and down in the veranda of Mohsin Hall.

‘We had only two subsidiary classes a week. I wanted to weep with frustration and misery. What harm would it have done to have a subsidiary class every day? Two classes a week of fifty-five minutes each meant a hundred and ten minutes. These hundred and ten minutes went by in a flash. And besides, the girl was frequently absent. There were times when she wouldn’t attend classes two weeks in a row. On those occasions my impulse was to jump from the roof of Mohsin Hall and put an end to all my agony and torment. You won’t understand how horribly I suffered. Because you’ve never been in love.’

‘You haven’t told me what the girl’s name was. What was it?’

‘Her name was Rupa. I didn’t know it at the time though. It wasn’t just the name – I knew nothing about her. I didn’t even know which department she studied in. All I know was that chemistry was one of her subsidiary subjects and that she came to university in a Morris Minor. The number was V 8781.’

‘Didn’t you make enquiries about her?’

‘No, I didn’t. Because I was constantly worried that if I did I would discover that she was friendly with someone else. You’ll know what I mean when I tell you about something that happened one day. After the subsidiary class had ended, I suddenly noticed her smiling and talking to another boy. I began to shiver. I thought I would collapse. I came away, not attending any more classes – and in a short while my body was wracked by a fever.’

‘How strange!’

‘Of course it was strange. I passed two years this way. I virtually abandoned my studies. And then I did something extremely bold. I found out her address from the driver of the Morris Minor. And then I wrote her a letter, without addressing her. I no longer remember exactly what I wrote, but the sum and substance was that I wanted to marry her, and that she must agree. Until she did, I would stand in front of her house, without eating. A fast unto death. Does the story seem interesting?’

‘Yes it does. What happened after this? Did you put the letter in the post?’

‘No. I delivered it personally. Handing it to the doorman, I said, you know the apa who lives here, the one who studies at the University? Give her this letter. The doorman took it obediently, returning in a short while to say, apa says she doesn’t know you. She’s right, I told him, but I know her. That’s enough.

‘And so I camped outside the gate. As you realise, it was an insane idea. I really was out of my mind then. I couldn’t think logically. Anyway, from nine in the morning till four in the afternoon, I stood uneventfully in front of the gate. I noticed a few curious eyes observing me from the first-floor window now and then. Around four in the afternoon a man emerged from the house and told me sternly, “Enough of your madness. Go home now.”

‘ “I shan’t,” I answered even more sternly.

‘ “We’re informing the police. They will arrest you.”

‘ “I don’t mind. Go ahead.”

‘ “You rascal! Is this any place for your drunken antics?”

‘ “Why are you abusing me? I haven’t abused you.”

‘Burning with rage, he went back into the house. And it started raining immediately afterwards. Incessant rain. I got soaked, but I couldn’t care less. I knew as I did that I was getting a fever. After spending the day under the blazing sun, I would never be able to stand the rain. But I was desperate by then – I wasn’t afraid of the outcome. I was collapsing with hunger and exhaustion. I thought I would faint any moment.

‘Meanwhile, I had succeeded in attracting the attention of curious passers-by. Several of them asked me, what’s the matter? Why are you getting drenched here in the rain? I told all of them, don’t worry about me. I am a madman.’

‘The girl’s family may have informed others about this strange incident over the phone. Three different cars arrived at their house. The passengers threw angry glances at me before entering.

It was nine at night. The rain had not stopped for a moment. I was burning with a fever. I couldn’t stay on my feet anymore. I sat down, splaying my legs out. The doorman came up to me and whispered, the sahib wants to call the police, but apa isn’t willing. She’s weeping at your condition. Sit tight.

‘I sat tight.

‘It was eleven o’ clock. The lights went on in the veranda of their house. The door to the drawing room opened and the girl came out. Followed by all the other people in their family. None of them stepped off the veranda. The girl came up to me alone. Standing in front of me, she said in an impossibly tender voice, what’s all this madness?

‘I looked at her, bewildered. Because it wasn’t the same girl. A different one. I had never seen her. The driver of the Morris Minor had given me the wrong address. Possibly deliberately.

‘Tenderly the girl told me, come inside. Dinner’s served on the table. Come now.’

‘I rose to my feet. I tried to say, please don’t mind, I’ve made a mistake. You’re not the same girl. You’re someone else. But looking into her eyes, soaked with compassion, I could not say this. No woman had ever looked at me with such softness.

‘I couldn’t walk properly because of the fever. You don’t seem well, she said. Take my hand. No one will stop you.

‘The rest of them stood on the veranda, looking at me harshly. Ignoring them, the girl held out her hand. With an intense love that man has not been given the power by god to ignore. I took her hand. I’ve been holding it for twenty years now. Sometimes I feel a sort of restlessness. I have the urge to tell my wife this story of mistaken identity. But I cannot. Then I seek out a stranger like you and tell him. Because I know that this story will never reach my wife. All right, I should go. The train’s here.’

He stood up. The lights of the train could be seen in the distance. The railway lines were rumbling. The train was indeed about to arrive.