Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Prem Chand's story 'Shatranj Ke Khiladi' in English

Here is my translation of Premchand's short story 'Shatranj ke Khiladi'. This is sixth of the most popular short stories of Premchand translated by me  and posted on this blog. Hope lovers of Premchand would enjoy reading it. I have used the Hindi version of the story for my translation.


       A scene from Satyajit Ray's film 


                 The Chess Players

                  (शतरंज के खिलाड़ी)

It was in the times of Wajid Ali Shah. Lucknow was drowned in sensuality. The big and small, the rich and the poor – all were sunk in it. Some were engrossed in dance and music; some just revelled in the drowsiness induced by opium. Love of pleasure dominated every aspect of life. In administration, in literature, in social life, in arts and crafts, in business and industry, in cuisine and custom – sensuality ruled everywhere. The state officials were absorbed in fun and pleasure, poets in descriptions of love and separation, artisans in zari and chickan work, businessmen in dealings in surma, perfumes and cosmetics. All were drowned in sensual pleasures. No one knew what was happening around the world. Quail fights were on. Rings were being readied for partridge fights. Somewhere the game of chausar was being played, with its attendant shouts on the winning throw. Elsewhere a pitched chessboard battle was on.  From the king to the pauper – all were engrossed in these pleasures. So much so, that if beggars received money in alms, they preferred to spend it on opium or its extract rather than bread. ‘Playing games like chess or cards or ganjifa sharpens the mind, improves mental faculties and helps in solving complex problems.’ Such arguments were being forcefully advanced. (People subscribing to this thesis can be found even today.) So if Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali spent most of their time sharpening their wits, how could any thoughtful person take exception. Both of them were hereditary Jagirdars, free from the worries of a livelihood; they enjoyed their good food without having to work at all. What else could they do?

Every morning, after breakfast, both the friends would spread the chessboard, set up the pieces and  engage themselves in the tactics of chessboard warfare. They would forget whether it was noon, afternoon or evening. Repeated messages from inside that food was ready were ignored, and the cook was forced to serve food right there in the room, as the two friends continued their play. There were no elders in Mirza Sajjad Ali’s family; as a result the game was played in his dewankhana. However, members of Mirza’s family were far from pleased. Not to speak of the family, even the neighbours and servants made uncharitable comments: ‘This is an inauspicious game and can ruin families. God forbid that anyone should get addicted, for it makes a person unfit to do anything.  It’s a serious disease.’ Mirza’s begum was so hostile to the game that she would seek out occasions to berate her husband. But she rarely got this opportunity. The game would begin while she was still asleep, and Mirza would come inside only when she had gone to sleep. However, she would expend her ire upon the servants. ‘Are they asking for paan?  Tell them to come and take it themselves. Have they no time for food? Go and throw it to them. Let them eat or cast it to the dogs.’ But face to face she was helpless. She wasn’t resentful against her husband so much as against his friend, Mir sahib. She had named him Mir, the spoilsport. It is possible Mirza, to save his own skin, also threw all the blame on Mir sahib.

One day the begum had a severe headache. She sent her maid to call for Mirza sahib, so that he could go to a hakim and bring some medicine for her. Mirza sent the maid back saying he would follow. The begum was hot-tempered. She lost her patience. How could her husband play chess while she had a headache?  Her face became red with anger. She said to the maid, ‘Go and tell them to come immediately, or I shall go to the hakim by myself.’ Mirza was in the midst of a very absorbing game. Mir sahib would be checkmated just in two moves. He spoke in irritation, ‘Is she on her last breath? Why can’t she wait?’  

Mir sahib interjected, ‘Why don’t you go? Women are delicate things.’

Mirza retorted, ‘Oh yes, you want me to go because you’re facing defeat in the next two moves.’

Mir said, ‘My dear, don’t be under any illusion. I have thought of a counter move that’ll turn the tables on you. Go and attend to her. Why are you hurting her?’

‘I won’t go until I have checkmated you.’

 ‘I won’t make any moves. Go and attend to her.’

 ‘My dear, I’ll have to go to a hakim. There’s no headache. This is just a sham to harass me.’

‘Whatever it is, you’ll have to go.’

‘All right. Let me make one more move.’

 ‘Not at all. I won’t touch my pieces until you have gone and talked to her.’

When Mirza sahib went in, the begum changed her tactics and said, groaning with pain, ‘You love this wretched game so much that you don’t care even if I am dying. What kind of a man are you?’

Mirza replied, ‘What could I do? Mir sahib wouldn’t let me go.’

‘Does he think all are as idle as he. Does he have any children, or has he cleaned them up?’ 
‘He’s such an addict. Whenever he comes I am forced to play.’

‘Why don’t you drive him away?’

‘He is my equal in age, and two places higher in rank. I have to oblige him.’

‘Ok, then I shall drive him away. What if he is offended? Does he feed us? Oh Haria, go and pick up the chessboard. And tell Mir sahib that Mirza sahib won’t play anymore. Tell him to go home.’

‘For God’s sake, don’t do anything of the kind. Would you have me humiliated?  Oh Haria, stop. Don’t go.’

‘Why don’t you let her go? Anyone who stops her will drink my blood.  All right, you stopped her. Let me see how you stop me.’

Saying this begum sahiba moved towards the dewvankhana. Mirza’s face turned pale. He began to plead with her. ‘For God’s sake. In the name of Hazrat Hussain. You would see me dead if you went there.’ But the begum was in no mood to listen. She walked up to the dewankhana, but she stopped. She wouldn’t go in, in the presence of an outsider. She looked in but there was no one there. Mir sahib had displaced a few pieces on the board and had gone out for a stroll to show his innocence. The begum went inside and overturned the chessboard, threw some chessmen under the dewan and a few others out through the door. Then she shut the door and bolted it from inside. Mir sahib saw the chessmen being thrown out and heard the sound of bangles, and the door being bolted. Realizing that the begum was inflamed he slinked away.

Mirza sahib said to his begum, ‘You’ve been terrible.’

The begum retorted, ‘If Mir sahib comes here, I shall drive him away from the doorsteps. Had he devoted himself to God like this he would have become a saint. You keep playing chess and I remain enslaved to the domestic chores. Are you going to the hakim, or are you still unwilling?’

Mirza came out, but instead of going to the hakim he went straight to Mir sahib’s and narrated the whole story.

Mir sahib replied, ‘When I saw the chessmen being thrown out, I understood everything and ran. She seems so hot-tempered! But you have pampered her so much. This is not good. Why should she bother what you do outside? It is her duty to manage the household. Why should she worry about what you do?’  

‘Never mind,’ said Mirza, ‘Where shall we play now?’

“Why worry? This is a big house. We can play anywhere here.’

‘But how shall I make the begum accept this? When I sat at home she kept on creating trouble. Now if I sit here she won’t let me breathe.’

“Let her shout. She’ll get used to it in a few days. But from now onwards be a little tough with her.’


For some unknown reason Mir sahib’s begum preferred to have her husband away from home. That’s why she never objected to Mir sahib’s love of chess, so much so that if Mir sahib delayed going out she would remind him. Because of this Mir sahib was under the illusion that his wife was very courteous and sober. But when the chessboard was spread in the devankhana and Mir sahib stopped going out, the begum became edgy. Her freedom was curtailed. She hardly had any chance to have a glimpse of the outside.

And there was murmuring and whispering among the servants. Up till now they had sat idle, warding off flies. They were never bothered by guests. But now they had to take orders the whole day. Now to fetch the paan, now sweets. And the hookah kept smouldering like a lover’s heart. They would go and complain to begum sahiba. ‘Mirza sahib’s chess has become a nuisance. Running about to execute orders, our feet are blistered. What sort of a game is this that goes on from morning till evening! It should be enough to play a game for an hour or two. But we can’t complain. We’re his slaves and have to obey the orders. But this game is evil. The person playing it never prospers. A misfortune is bound to fall upon such a house. So much so that we have seen whole neighbourhoods being ruined one after the other. Everyone in the neighbourhood is talking about it. We’re his faithful servants and don’t like to hear him maligned.’ On this begum sahiba would say, ‘I also don’t like this. But he doesn’t listen to anyone. What can I do?’

In the neighborhood there were a few people of the old school. They had begun to foresee many unhappy consequences. ‘Nothing good will come of it. When our aristocracy is behaving in this manner, God alone can save the country. This kingdom will be ruined because of this game. It’s an evil sign.’

And indeed there was great disorder in the kingdom. People were being robbed in broad daylight. There was no one who could listen to their complaints. All the wealth from the countryside was being sucked into Lucknow and blown on prostitutes, buffoons and in sensual pleasures. The blanket of debt to the English Company was becoming wetter and heavier every day. Because of the absence of good administration taxes were not being collected fully. The Resident was constantly threatening but people, drenched in voluptuous pleasures, were not listening.

Nevertheless, months passed and the game of chess went on in Mir sahib’s dewankhana. Newest strategies were being charted, newest castling moves devised. There would be arguments and accusations, but soon the two friends would be reconciled. Sometimes the game would be terminated midway, and the estranged Mirza sahib would walkout and go home, and Mir sahib would go inside. But the night’s sleep would dissolve the last day’s resentment and the two friends would be back in the dewankhana.  

One day the two friends were submerged in the quicksand of chess when an officer of the king’s army came riding on a horse asking for Mir sahib. Mir sahib was stunned. What was this? Why these summons? This was no good. He shut the doors and said to the servant, ‘Tell him I’m not at home.’

“Where’s he, if not at home?’ asked the rider.

‘I don’t know. What’s the matter?’ asked the servant.

‘I can’t tell you. He has been summoned. May be, he has to provide some soldiers for the king’s army. Jagirdari is no fun. If he has to go to the battlefield, he’ll know what it is.’

‘All right, your message will be delivered.’

‘It’s not that. I shall come again. I have been ordered to bring him along personally.’

The rider went away. Mir sahib was terrified. He said to Mirza sahib, ‘Now, tell me what to do?’

‘It’s big trouble. Even I may be summoned.’

‘He said he would come again.’

‘This is a calamity. What else! If we have to go to the battlefield we would meet an untimely death.’   

 ‘There’s only one way out. They should not find us at home. We can spread our board somewhere on a lonely spot on the bank of Gomti. No one will know. And the fellow will return empty-handed.’

‘Wonderful! Nothing can be better than this.’

And here at home Mir’s begum sad to the rider, ‘You’ve given him a good rebuke.’

The rider said, ‘I know how to make such fools dance. All their sense and courage has been eaten away by chess. Now they won’t stay at home even by mistake.’


From the next day both the friends would leave their homes before dawn. With a small mat under their arms, holding a box-full of paans the two friends would make their way across the river Gomti to an old deserted mosque that had been built perhaps by Asaf-ud-Daula. On their way they would buy tobacco, a chillum and wine; and they would enter the mosque, spread their mats, light their hookah and start playing. Then they would forget the world. No other words except ‘check’ and ‘mate’ would come out of their mouths. No yogi would be so focused in his meditations as these two. When in the afternoon they felt hungry they would go to an eatery and eat something; smoke their hookah for a while and then restart their play. Sometimes they would forget even to eat.

On the other side, the political situation in the kingdom was deteriorating every day. The Company’s forces were advancing upon Lucknow. The city was in a great turmoil. People were fleeing to the villages with their families. But our two players were unconcerned. They came out of their houses and sneaked through narrow lanes, hiding themselves from the eyes of the king’s men. They wanted to enjoy the benefits from their Jagirs yielding thousands of rupees annually by doing nothing in return. 
One day both the friends were playing chess sitting in the decrepit mosque. Mirza’s position was somewhat weak. Mir sahib was threatening him with ‘check’ after ‘check’. In the meantime they saw the soldiers of the Company passing by. It was the gora army moving towards Lucknow to capture the city.

Mir sahib said, ‘The English army is advancing. God be kind.’

Mirza said, ‘Let it come. Check. Save your king.’

‘Let’s watch. Let’s stand in a corner.’

‘Do that later. What’s the hurry? Check.’

‘They have the artillery too. There must be some five thousand men. Their faces red like monkeys! One is afraid to look at them.’

Janaab, don’t make excuses. Don’t use these ruses. Check.’

‘You’re a strange man. Here the city is in danger, and you’re only thinking of “check and mate”. Have you thought how we shall go home if the city is besieged?’

‘We shall see when it is time to go.  Here is check.  And mate.’

The army marched away. It was ten o’clock. A new game was set up.

Mirza said, ‘Where shall we eat?’

‘It’s a roza day today. Are you feeling very hungry?’

‘Oh, no. God knows what’s going on in the city!’

 ‘Everything must be as usual. People must have eaten and would be sleeping peacefully. Nawab sahib must be having fun in his harem.’ 

Both of them set up another game. It was three in the afternoon. This time Mirza’s position was shaky. The four o’clock bell was ringing as they heard the sound of the army’s return. Nawab Wajid Ali had been captured and the army was escorting him to an unknown destination. There was no commotion in the city, and no fighting. No bloodshed. Nowhere the king of a free country would have been defeated so quietly, without any bloodshed. It wasn’t the kind of non-violence that would please the gods. It was a form of cowardice on which even great cowards would have shed tears. The king of a vast country like Awadh was being driven away as a prisoner, and the city of Lucknow was sleeping peacefully. This was the nether of political downfall.

Mirza said, ‘The tyrants have captured Nawab sahib.’

‘Never mind. Save your king.’    

‘Wait a minute, janaab. I can’t concentrate at the moment. Poor Nawab sahib must be shedding tears of blood.’

‘He should. He won’t enjoy these luxuries there. Check.’

‘All days are not the same. What a painful situation!’

‘That’s true. Here, check again. Now it’s mate. There’s no escape for you.’

‘By God, you’re so cruel. You are unmoved even after such a great calamity. Oh, poor Wajid Ali Shah!’

‘First you save your own king. Mourn for Wajid Ali Shah later. Here’s check and mate. Give me your hand.’

The army marched away with the king as their prisoner. Mirza laid another game as soon as they were gone. Defeat is always painful. Mir said, ‘Come on, let us sing an elegy to mourn Nawab sahib’s fall.’ But Mirza’s loyalty to the king had disappeared with his defeat. He was bent upon taking revenge.


It was evening. In the ruins the bats had begun to flutter and scream. The swallows had returned to their nests. But the two players were still playing, as if two bloodthirsty warriors were engaged in a mortal combat. Mirza had lost three successive games and the fourth one too didn’t seem to be going his way. He was playing with the determination and caution, but each time some move somehow went wrong and weakened his position.  His desire for revenge was sharpened with each defeat. On the other hand, Mir sahib was bursting into ghazals, and teasing Mirza sahib, as if he had unearthed a secret treasure. Mirza sahib was irritated but he would utter words of praise for Mir sahib to overcome his embarrassment. But as his position progressively weakened he was losing his patience, so much so that he was losing control over himself. ‘Now don’t change your move again and again. What’s this? You make a move and then change it. Make your move only once. Don’t touch a piece unless you are moving it. You’re taking too much time. This is against the rules. If someone takes more than five minutes to make a move he should be treated as the loser. Now you changed your move again. Please put the piece back.’

Mir sahib’s vazir was about to be taken. He said, ‘I haven’t moved yet.’

‘You’ve made your move. Please put the piece back where it was.’

‘Why should I put it back? I had never let it go from my hand.’

‘If you don’t let go your piece till eternity, does it mean you haven’t moved it? Now when your vazir is being taken you have started cheating.’

‘It is you who is cheating. Winning or losing is by luck. No one wins by cheating.’

‘Then, you have been checkmated in this game.’

“Why have I been checkmated?’

‘Ok, then replace the piece in the same square.’

‘Why? I won’t do it.’

‘Why not? You’ll have to.’  
Tempers were rising. Both were unwilling to yield. Then the argument took a different turn. Mirza said, ‘You would have known the rules if someone had played chess in your family. Your ancestors were grass-cutters. How could you learn to play chess? Nobility is something different. One does not become a nobleman just by receiving a jagir.’

‘What? It is your father who must have been a grass-cutter. In our family we have been playing chess for generations.’

‘Oh leave it. You have spent your life working as a cook at Gazi-ud-din’s.  To become a nobleman is no joke.’

‘Why are you blackening the faces of your ancestors? They must have been cooks. Our family has always dined with kings.’

‘You grass-cutter, don’t make tall claims.’

‘Hold your tongue. I’m not used to listening to this kind of language. If someone stares at me I pluck out his eyes. I dare you.’

‘You want to test my courage? All right, let us test each other’s to the end.’
‘I’m not afraid of you.’

Both the friends drew their swords from their hips. It was the age of chivalry. Everyone was equipped with a sword or a dagger. Both friends were pleasure-loving but no cowards. They had become devoid of political will. Why should they die for kings or kingdoms? But they were not deficient in personal courage. Both of them fought on, and fatally wounded, died writhing in pain. They who could not spare a single drop of tear for their king died defending their vazirs on the chessboard.

It was getting dark. The pieces still lay on the chessboard. It was as if both the kings sitting on their thrones were shedding tears at the death of these warriors.

Silence reigned all around. The broken arches, the ruined walls and dust-laden pillars of the mosque were watching these corpses and cursing their fate.
                                                               (Hindi, Madhuri, October 1924)