Story 67: To Pot

‘THAT FELLOW OMPRAKASH has been filling the boy’s mind with rubbish,’ said Vishwas, my husband of thirteen years, regional officer at Palem’s Grameena Vikas Bank. It was a warm Wednesday night, and we were seated around the oval dining table we’d bought with the previous month’s Holi bonus. At eight p.m. the power would be cut across the Dhavaleshwaram Mandal for two hours; so we’d adjusted our dinner time to half past seven. Only one house in Palem – east or west – had the money (or maybe it was status) to install a backup generator. Ours was not it.

‘I am not concerned whether or not the boy can hear us,’ said my husband, raising his voice a couple of octaves so that it would carry across to Srujan’s bedroom. ‘I am not saying anything blasphemous, am I?’ He mixed a dollop of fresh yoghurt made of buffalo milk into his rice, and signalled for the jar of pickle to be slid across the table. ‘I am only saying that it is fine and good for a boy of twelve to be playing chess. But if he thinks that someone is going to pay him money to play a game, it is my duty as his father to set him right. Is it not? Anyway, this is all Omprakash’s fault. I will make sure that I have a word with him next time he comes to the bank. I mean, it is fine and good for him to coach our boy for the district tournament, but if he thinks he is going to turn him into some sort of a grandmaster –’

Fine and good. Vishwas’s go-to phrase during passionate moments. And the way he clipped the wings of that last sentence, without finishing it, and shook his head at the plate from which he was eating, I sensed that he and Srujan must have had a quiet ride back from Dhavaleshwaram that evening. Upon reaching home, Srujan had walked straight into his room without a word and stayed there since. Unlike Vishwas, he didn’t mind eating by candle light; he liked to say that the dining table was not big enough for three.

‘Now you don’t go supporting him, okay?’ said Vishwas. ‘Something wrong with this pickle – still needs time to set… listen, it was me who got him into the game, right? It was me who taught it to him? Who bought him his first board? Who told him that it was not a horse but a knight? Can he not trust me to know what is good and bad for him? These fellows – they paint all these beautiful pictures for the boys, and before you know it they all think they’re going to win the nationals. Do you know? That’s what Omprakash has been telling him – that the boy is good enough to compete in the nationals next year –’

The door of Srujan’s cabinet slammed shut from inside.

‘See? He is listening!’ said Vishwas. ‘I am asking you – say he does go to the nationals. Okay? Say he wins the nationals. Do you know how much work that is going to take? How many hours he will have to practice? And after all that, what is he going to get? A trophy. A certificate. Meanwhile his studies are going to go to pot. You realize that, don’t you? Already that convent in Dhavaleshwaram – what is its name? Saint Bernard’s. Yes, it is saying candidates need at least ninety percent to be eligible for their entrance.’

Go to pot. Another of Vishwas’s pet phrases. When he was angry, everything went to pot. The government. The Reserve Bank. The country. Today’s generation. Yesterday’s generation.

He lowered his voice. Now we were co-conspirators, Vishwas and I, plotting against Srujan. As always, he would lay out the strategy. I would execute it.

‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I understand him. I do. I am his father. I know how the future must look so bright and great – he has been reading that biography of Kasparov’s that I’d bought for him two years ago. All this time it has been gathering dust, and now suddenly he is interested.’

He placed his hand on mine and shook it, as if to awaken me to the seriousness of the issue. ‘You talk to him. Tell him that this is not going to work. Out of every hundred thousand people who want to become a professional chess player, one succeeds. And that one ends up being poor and miserable. He won’t even make as much as I am making at this little bank. You will tell him to be practical, won’t you?’

At eight p.m. sharp, the house went dark. As I lit the two candles one by one, Vishwas grumbled under his breath about how the trains in the country were never on time but power cuts always were. He went out to Mandiramma Banda to discuss matters of national importance with other men of the village. As manager of the local bank, as an outsider, and as someone who could punctuate his Telugu with the occasional English idiom, he commanded a certain respect from the people of Palem. One did not mess with a man of money.

Five minutes after Vishwas left, Srujan came out of his room and asked for food.

‘Amma, you don’t have to tell me the entire story of nanna’s childhood again. I know it by heart! What he needs to understand is that I am not him, and he is not me. Just because he failed at something doesn’t mean I will too. Omprakash Uncle said that times have changed now. There is plenty of government support for sportspeople. Plenty of scholarships. He said he will help me apply for the biggest ones. I am telling nanna that I will not neglect my studies. I will play chess in my free time. I will make sure I will do my best in both. Is that not possible?’

Of course, Srujan had other interests too. He liked to play and watch cricket. He had been recently spending much of his pocket money at the movies. I wanted to ask him which of these other pastimes he would sacrifice in order to make room for chess, but that would only irk him further. So instead I told him to eat some more rice.

‘Enough,’ he said. ‘I am full.’ For a while he played with a lock of hair that turned around his right ear. He had thick, curly hair. Even without a mother’s proud partiality, I could tell that he would grow up to be a handsome man. ‘What nanna doesn’t understand,’ he said, ‘is that this is my life. I must be given the freedom to plan it, don’t I?

‘Now you don’t take his side, Amma, please. I know that a man has to earn money, okay? I know all that. But I don’t want to be working in a bank when I grow up. I see how sad nanna is every morning, how much he curses the system. The system that, the system this. Well, Omprakash Uncle is offering me a way out. If I win the nationals, the world is going to be at my feet. Just one scholarship, and he will take me to one of the FIDE tournaments – and Amma, once I win one of those, there is no stopping.’

He began to speak now of all the things that he had been planning, and I realized that Vishwas had been right: the boy’s visions were mere fantasies. At least they seemed that way to me. But I couldn’t help being carried away by the light in his eyes, by the strident tenor in his voice – Vishwas had had these as a young man, before I had come into his life. I’d seen glimpses of it during the early days of our marriage, when he had spoken wistfully of the now-buried past. This was the first time I was witnessing it first-hand, the sheer naked force of a man’s ambition when he thinks that his destiny is self-evident.

I did not have the heart to stop him. At the end I extracted a weak promise from Srujan that he would not allow his studies to slide.

* * *

‘He won all his games today,’ said Vishwas, holding the rim of his plate tight with one hand and mixing the rice and dal with the other. I sat by his side and fanned him with a folded newspaper. As we entered the third month of summer, the electricity board expanded its daily power cut time by an hour, from half-past-seven to half-past-ten. In Vishwas’s voice I thought I heard a mixture of emotions: there was pride, certainly. A bit of surprise. But also something else that I could not quite place.

Srujan had been true to his word. He still found time to play cricket with his friends, to follow it on television. He still went to the movies. He studied for shorter bursts now, and the first month I’d been worried that this would show a detrimental effect on his report card. But his marks had shown an actual uptick. Vishwas grudgingly accepted that perhaps all that chess training was improving the boy’s memory.

‘I thought that fourth game was gone to pot,’ said Vishwas. ‘One piece down, pushed to the edges of the board, playing against the district champion, a boy who is fifteen, you know? I told Omprakash that unless the other fellow makes a mistake, our boy doesn’t have a chance – and Omprakash just smiles at me…’

I watched how tightly Vishwas was holding on to the plate. I placed a hand on his arm. He didn’t seem to notice.

‘We watch the game together, and you know what struck me? There was no one move that won it for him. No cheap tactic that he studied elsewhere and deployed in this game. He just kept defending, defending, grinding the other boy down, winning a small advantage here, a small advantage there – and he pulled even – and then he pulled ahead. Even after the game we could not tell just where he turned it around…’

And then Vishwas said the words that nailed that third emotion I was unable to define earlier. He said, ‘It was the kind of game I wished I had played.’ He said it a soft, whitened whisper, as if scared that Srujan would hear.

Between the ages of four and fourteen, Vishwas had been obsessed with chess – playing it, analyzing it, reading about it. He had been taught the game by his grandfather, who then took it upon himself to wheel the boy on the back seat of his Bajaj Chetak, from tournament to tournament. At fourteen, two things happened: one, his grandfather – a man of many healthy habits – passed away in a freak road accident. And two: his father gave him an ultimatum that if he wanted to play chess professionally, he had to win the district tournament that year.

Vishwas lost in the fourth round. To the eventual winner.

‘Maybe there is something to this,’ said Vishwas, looking up at me. ‘Maybe Omprakash was right.’

I asked Srujan about the game later, by the light of the candle. He had his left hand pressed down on an open book by his side as he ate. The first few times he did not hear me. Then he said, ‘Oh, yes. The boy made a few small mistakes, Amma.’

I tried to peek to see if I could make out what he was reading, half-expecting to find diagrams of chess pieces arranged in different formations. But instead I found graphs and tables. Rows and rows of numbers. Srujan was running his index finger down them, and his mouth was moving.

He did not say anything for the rest of the meal. I fanned him silently.

* * *

‘Listen,’ said Vishwas, leaning closer to me across the dining table, ‘it’s not about the money. Think how many doors will open for him now. You saw how they clapped today.’

That afternoon, Saraswatamma had called for a gathering of villagers at the school in Palem, and they had wrapped a golden shawl around Srujan. A sequence of important people spoke on the microphone afterward. To a man, they all touted the inevitability of the boy becoming a grandmaster in due course of time. At the end of the function, they asked Srujan to ‘respond’. He had, of course, been coached by Vishwas as to how to speak in a forum like that. He thanked everyone, said he was humbled by the honour, promised to do his best to fulfil his talent. He would not let them down.

They clapped for him. And Vishwas clapped the loudest and longest.

‘The scholarship will pay for his education at St Bernard’s,’ said Vishwas. ‘We don’t have to worry about his marks anymore. The headmistress got in touch with me last week, and she was literally begging me to enrol him at their school. Can you imagine? Sister Fatima herself called me and said we will be proud to have him attend St Bernard’s.

This too he said loudly enough for Srujan to hear from his room. The hall had become more cramped in the last few months; Vishwas had bought for Srujan a number of books to aid him with his play, and he had instated a timetable for the boy. His allowance had been cut in half. He was allowed to watch no more than one movie a week. And no more cricket on television except for the most important matches.

‘He needs all the free time for preparation,’ Vishwas explained to me, as my arm waved to and fro to fan him. ‘Things are about to get serious now. He is going to meet people who are as talented as he is at the FIDE tournament. If he has to win, he is going to have to work hard. Enough loafing.’

That night, there was a skip in Vishwas’s step as he walked out of our house, on his way to Mandiramma Banda. I tried to imagine the scene there: all the important men of the village congratulating him for Srujan’s success, and Vishwas basking in this unexpected fillip to his status. He was not just an English-speaking man of money now; he was also the father of a prodigy who had scored a two-year scholarship at St Bernard’s. I was certain that before the night was over, Vishwas would have repeated – with due modesty, of course – at least once the story of how Sister Fatima had called him.

Srujan stuck his head out of his room and asked, ‘Is he gone?’

He pulled back the chair at the dining table – the same one that his father had sat on just a few minutes ago – and asked for food to be served. ‘Did you know, Amma, that the scholarship I am on for the next two years was actually paid for by tax payers of Dhavaleshwaram Mandal?’ he asked. ‘The sports minister gave the cheque to me as if it was his money.’

There was nothing in his free hand today, no book, but his forefinger and thumb were smeared in dried blue ink.

‘Don’t look at me like that,’ he said, his voice pained. ‘I have been working on my game the whole week. Nanna is already on my back. I don’t want you as well asking me all sorts of things.’ For a while he ate in silence. Then he said, ‘Did you know that banks create money out of nothing?’ He clicked his ink-stained fingers. ‘Just like that – out of nothing!’

That morning, when I was cleaning his room, I’d come across a copy of a book called The Secret History of Banking. It was hidden underneath the mattress of his bed, while the revised and expanded edition of Your First Move lay on the side table. Flipping through the pages of both books, I found one filled with hand-written notes and numbers, and the other almost untouched.

‘Did you know that to understand the history of the world, it is important to know the history of money? We use it every day – we buy, we sell, we spend, we save, we fight over it – and how many of us know anything about it? It is the bankers that control everything. Have you ever felt that there is this invisible thread controlling all of us as mere puppets? Well, the bankers hold the threads!’

I kept fanning him, nodding, and occasionally reminding him to eat. He went on in that vein for a good part of an hour, until his eating hand had become dry.

* * *

‘I am proud of him,’ said Vishwas, ‘so proud of him. Sister Fatima was so impressed by him, you know. She had a look at his certificates, his trophies, and she nodded like this –’ he made a grave expression with his face that made me laugh – ‘and she says, good child.’

That morning, Vishwas had taken a day off at the bank to drive Srujan to St Bernard’s for his interview. Sister Fatima had insisted that no entrance examination was necessary. After all, a boy who had won four district chess tournaments in a row was above reproach. They’d returned in the evening with a set of textbooks and a complimentary schoolbag that Sister Fatima had given them. Srujan could start attending from the beginning of next term.

‘You know,’ Vishwas was saying, ‘Sister Fatima even told me privately – you don’t tell him – that she is willing to waive the academic requirements to get a distinction certificate from the school. As long as the boy passes, and as long as he maintains his ELO ratings, they will be happy to give him a good reference. And you know how valuable that is with colleges and such.’

He shook his head as if in disbelief. ‘Can you believe this?’ he asked me. ‘Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remember that this is actually happening. What a lucky boy – he has been blessed by the gods of chess. Now all he needs to do is make sure he does not waste his talent. The last couple of years – they’ve been quite something, haven’t they?’

I did not point out that Srujan had not been opening any of the books that his father had been bringing him lately. Instead, he had been foregoing movies altogether and saving up his sparse allowance to buy books of his own. Once a week he had been going to Dhavaleshwaram as before, but now he returned from each trip with four or five books under his arm, a studious frown on his face. When, once or twice, I asked him what they were about, he just smiled and shook his head, as if to say: you wouldn’t understand.

As soon as Vishwas went out for the night, Srujan entered the room and took his place at the table. I sat by his side, waiting for yet another long monologue about his pet topic of the month – microfinance – but instead he chose to eat in silence. The only sound that travelled between us was the soft swishing of the folded newspaper.

‘You must talk to him!’ he said at last, washing his hand in the plate. ‘I don’t like this school. I don’t like the idea of travelling ten kilometres every day to attend that – that prison! And you must tell him this – I hate chess!’

* * *

‘I don’t know what happened to him today,’ said Vishwas. ‘The first two games were easy enough, but on the third, he made an error that was quite unlike him. Remember at the first district tournament, he beat an older boy? It’s the same boy again here. Head to head, our fellow is leading nine to zero going into the game – we’re both confident, Omprakash and I – but he makes the silliest mistakes.’ Vishwas nodded, as if he had teased out the solution to the puzzle. ‘I understand,’ he said. ‘It’s a lack of focus. Omprakash and I spoke about intensifying his memory drills.

‘This is what happens as you go up the ladder – in any endeavour.’ He looked at me sideways, as though I were accusing him of something. ‘Preparation, hard work, focus, intensity – all these become more important than talent. Talent is necessary, but also cheap.

‘He is a little disappointed. I had a bit of a stern word with him after the match. Omprakash and I have this thing going – he plays good cop, I play bad cop. You talk to him a little, just tell him that today is just an aberration, won’t happen again if he just bucks up a little. He needs to appreciate what he is being given. Talent, support, infrastructure – everything is in his hands.’

After Vishwas left, Srujan told me gleefully that he lost the game on purpose. ‘I will go crazy otherwise, Amma,’ he said. ‘Two hours of memory, one hour of drill, two hours of tactics, and one hour of strategy every day. That’s all I have been doing these last two years. When I think of the board now, of the pieces, my heart begins to race. And not in a good way!

‘Tell him, Amma. Tell him that I want nothing to do with chess anymore. You will tell him, won’t you?’

* * *

‘No, no, no, you don’t understand!’ said Vishwas. ‘If he told you that then he doesn’t understand either.’ He raised his voice so that Srujan would hear every word. ‘He has a first-class coach in Omprakash. His father actually understands him. Do you not know how badly I suffered, Madhavi, because my father had nothing to do with my interests? But I will tell you one thing, our boy is much, much more talented than I was. And his school – Sister Fatima –’

He paused, breathing heavily, overcome by sudden ardour at the effrontery displayed by his son. He gazed at the library of chess books that he had built for Srujan over the last two years.

‘No, no, no,’ he said, and his head shook with violence. ‘You don’t understand. This is what he chose, isn’t it? This is what he told us is what he wants. And now that we’re all supporting him in his journey, he wants out? No, no, no, that is not how it works. Tell him to buck up. If he needs help, we will get him help. Sister Fatima knows a very good psychologist who works with all the athletes at the school –’

* * *

‘Did you know what your son did today?’ Vishwas asked me. ‘He resigned in the final of the tournament after two moves. Just resigned. And when I asked him later why, he said he doesn’t want to play chess anymore.

‘Yes, yes, yes, I know you told me that this was brewing. All of this is actually your fault. Have you ever given the boy the discipline he needs? Do you have any idea what a shameful thing it was to face all those parents of players at the tournament? Omprakash told me that he had never felt so insulted in his whole career as coach. No student of his has ever quit a game like this after one move. What was he trying to prove anyway?’

A quiet click of the bolt came from inside Srujan’s room. I placed my hand on Vishwas’s arm. He shook it off.

‘Sister Fatima – she was understanding about it all, bless her. She said these things happen. The boy’s rating may fall because of this, but it will still stay above what it should be. She asks me not to worry, to allow him some time to find himself again. She is such an angel for saying these things. But what has happened to our boy – so ungrateful when everything in the world has been placed at his feet.’

The bolt of Srujan’s door slid open. He stepped into the living room and said to me, ‘I am hungry.’

‘Does he even know how much he has insulted his school today, the school that is paying for his scholarship from its own pocket? He was playing under the name of St Bernard’s, and everyone was laughing behind our backs. Does he know anything about this or is he only worried about what he wants?’

Srujan kept staring at me with a neutral expression. ‘Amma. Hungry.’

I went into the kitchen to get Srujan’s plate. In those few seconds, father and son spoke not at word to each other. On my return I found Srujan occupying my chair.

‘Don’t give him food,’ said Vishwas.’

‘What?’ said Srujan. ‘I am hungry.’

‘Then starve!’ said Vishwas. ‘One of the biggest problems in our world is that some people get food too easily.’

Srujan looked up at me. ‘What is he talking about?’

Vishwas got to his feet, snatched the plate from my hands, and hurled it against the bookshelf laden with chess books. As it thudded against the spine of Endgames and clattered to the floor, he pointed his index finger at Srujan. ‘You!’ he said. ‘I will tell you what I am talking about. Understand? I’ve had enough – enough of listening to you, to your whims and fancies – and your lack of commitment –’

Srujan pushed back his chair and stood up. His adolescent growth spurt had happened in the last two years, so now he stood four inches taller than his father. For a moment, I could see, Vishwas was nonplussed. Then he must have reminded himself that his son would not strike at him, so his courage returned.

‘I don’t have to listen to this,’ said Srujan. ‘I came out to eat. If I am not eating, I might as well go inside.’

‘No, you’re not going to get a room of your own from now on,’ said Vishwas. ‘I am going to break down this wall, make it one big room.’

Srujan laughed, actually laughed at this. ‘Are you serious?’

‘Yes, I am serious!’ said Vishwas. He strode into Srujan’s room and came out holding a bunch of books under his arm. ‘What filth are you reading these days? Is this why you’re so distracted? Is this why your focus is so broken?’ He tossed the books on the living room floor, one after the other. ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ said Vishwas. ‘Gold and War: A History. Lords of Finance. What is this rubbish? I am going to burn them all. Burn them all right now!’

Srujan crouched on the floor, and quietly began to pick up the books one by one. Vishwas stood towering over him, hands hoisted on hips, chest heaving. For a long time none of us spoke. Then, Srujan stood up to face his father once again, all his books piled up against his arm. I did not know what he was thinking – how did one read a teenager’s face? – but there was a deep calm in his eyes, as if he were daring Vishwas to do his worst.

Vishwas held the boy’s gaze for a moment longer. Then his mouth broke into a crooked, cruel smile. He looked at me. ‘Can you believe this?’

Srujan threw at me the merest of glances, as if to reassure me, and then without a word went back into his room.

* * *

Vishwas came home from Mandiramma Banda a bit later than usual that night. I sat up waiting for him, and when he arrived I pretended not to notice the whiff of arrack on his breath, and the tilt in his gait. I gave him a hug, told him he was a good father. He seemed to believe me at first, but when he came into the living room and saw the grey spot on the wall where Srujan’s plate had hit that evening, something in him turned over and he began to cry.

We sat at the dining table, he on his chair, me on mine. I held his hand while he wept quietly. At last he rubbed himself on the eyes with the back of his hand and said, his voice slurring, ‘Will you help me carry that shelf out to the backyard?’

Vishwas doused a bottle of sunflower oil on all the chess books that he had bought for Srujan in the previous two years, and after taking two cautionary steps back, threw a lit match onto the pile. He held on to me as the flames cackled. I rubbed his back and told him again that he was a good father, because he was. And he sobbed and hid his eyes from me as his dream slipped away from him a second time.

Srujan’s bedroom window opens out to the backyard. I do not know if he watched his books burn that night. But from that day on, neither my husband nor my son ever spoke of chess or played it.