Saturday, 11 June 2011

chess and cigarettes and the blues


Chess and cigarettes and the blues. These are the things that remind me of her. Well, they remind of being in love with her, mostly. Which is odd, because we never played chess, neither of us smoked then, and I only started listening to the blues three weeks ago.

And yet, there’s something about the clink of a chess piece against a wooden board that reminds me of her.  The way my opponent moves his bishops, decisively and without a second’s hesitation, is uncomfortably similar to the way her fingers would move across her piano. The aura she exuded, one of calculated intelligence, was endearing but also frightening. She wasn’t a queen, because queens don’t have time to stop and think. Neither was she a knight, because she never leapt to conclusions, and never leapt towards anything.

She was a bishop. She thought in lines that were straight and not straight; she kept to her rules and never broke them, but if you asked me now I could not name a one of them. Even as I sit here, contemplating the game that unfolds in front of me she haunts my thoughts (Pawn to e5, I hear myself say, and I regret that I didn’t say Bishop takes King’s Knight instead, though it would have been a risky move, and foolish too).

We play for ten more minutes, our moves clacking against the board. After a furious exchange of pieces, with more than one deft manoeuvre on both our parts, we are left with a stalemate: he has no move he can make. We shake hands, and I walk outside the dreary hall, the game had been more challenging that I’d expected. They have announced a break; it will be fifteen minutes before they start the next round, which is to be the penultimate one today.

I find myself in the company of some other chess players in this tournament, most of them nonchalant about the whole thing, as if it is a matter of course that they take part in this sort of event. Perhaps for them it is. There are four of them, standing in the heat of the summer afternoon. One is a tall, fat man with brown hair and a face like a ghost who merely nods at me; he is the favourite to win this competition. Beside him is a boy, barely into his teens, but I am not fooled by his youth. I have seen him play, and it is with a kind of intense calmness usually only found on the faces of tigers stalking their prey. I have learnt more than a few things from him today, but I hope to learn more. His brown eyes bore into mine like he is trying to divine my strategies, and for more than a few moments I think he will.

The third one is a woman, wiry and short, who is wearing glasses of a shade of purple I did not know existed. She is smiling, and seems to be the only one here excited about the prospect of advancing to the next stage, to the nationals. She is the one who has waved me over, even as she speaks to the last of the four she nods me a greeting. But it is this last man who interests me the most, for it is him that I have just played, and just drawn against. He greets me wordlessly, and offers me a cigarette before taking one himself. The woman wrinkles her face with part-disapproval and part-exasperation, before taking the boy with her and moving three steps back.

We light our cigarettes, him with his lighter, I with the matchbox that is my constant companion these days, and descend into a silence more deafening than the trumpeting of a thousand elephants. I have never known how to talk to strangers; in some ways this is comforting, to know that other people don’t, either. I am being pulled back into my reverie, my memories of her coming back to me as if she were standing in front of me (I can’t understand it, they kill you, they kill you and leave you to die, and he let them! They leave your lungs a black, heaving mess, your throat atrophies and your fingers shake and he just continued buying the damn things-)

‘Good game’, he says, in a gravelly voice. I am grateful for the interruption. This is one thing I can talk about, so I do.

‘Yeah, I was a bit careless with my rook towards the ending.’

‘No, I think you did what you had to. If it hadn’t been my knight, it would’ve been my bishop.’ I wonder if he notices me almost wince.

The tall man in front of us (I have never been sure of names) speaks with a jovial lilt to his voice that belies his stern demeanour.

‘Your strategy with the queen was terrific; I’ve never seen anything like it before! Where did you think of that?’

And with that, we descend into a discussion of chess, its theory and its practice, with our two companions advancing from their position one inch at a time. They are both of them too much in love with chess to let something like nicotine stop them from discussing it. They might not be interested in the competition, but they’re certainly enamoured with the game. Much as I have been, for the last too many years.

We’re called back, half an hour later, earlier than we’d expected since these things usually run much longer than anyone expects them to even with the timers and the stern warnings.

My last game is against an old man. He is wearing a hat that seems to be made of some sort of rubber; for the life of me I cannot figure out why. My every move is interrupted by contemplations as to its provenance, but nonetheless we get done in the time we are allotted. I have beaten him handily, once he gave up his queen in a rather silly move it was easy going. He smiles at me, and thanks me for an interesting match, and shakes my hand before joining what seems to be his family.

There is another break, a shorter one this time, during which I find my previous opponent and his friends discussing what they might do if they do happen to advance. As they see me approaching the tall one (whose name I still cannot recall) gives me a toothy grin, and continues his earnest interrogation of my queen tactics. It is refreshing to talk to someone who is able to keep up with my rather long-winded theories.

When they announce the winner of the day, and all the ones who have advanced, I am not surprised to find that all my comrades and I have placed in the top eight. Of the 128 people here, only we will go through to the national rounds, in three weeks’ time. The woman takes my number and my e-mail, and tells me she is planning on car pooling it there, and I assure her that I will be very glad to join her.

As I walk back towards the bus stand, past the shops and the cafes and the eateries, my mind cannot help but return to thoughts of her. I wonder what she would have thought, to see me doing so well. Then I forcefully throw that notion out of my mind, find my music player and stick my earphones into my ears.

Though I’ve not listened to Chopin in a while, and I have been given some music by a man called Jeff Buckley (who I’ve been assured was the greatest artist to die before his time in recent years), my fingers still choose to listen to the same people I have been hearing incessantly since I discovered them, the musicians of New Orleans. As the trumpets and the strings and the pianos envelop me, there is only one thought in my mind.

It has been a good day.


Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Most Ancient and Excellent Sport of Cricket


I am crap at cricket, and it should not be surprising. As a batsman I have little-to-no hand-eye co-ordination, my arms are too weak to hit the ball farther than five feet, my legs stay glued to the ground, unable to move. As a fielder I am terrified that the ball will come my way, I have no speed when it comes to running, and my hands do a terrific imitation of a frog when I try to catch something. As a bowler I’m not that bad. I get the ball to spin (sometimes) and I trick the batsman with my googlies (rarely). I am crap at cricket, but despite this, I enjoy it a lot.

I enjoy playing cricket as much as any Indian boy who has grown up playing cricket. Watching it has its own joys, but playing it is special.

I love playing cricket, and like most people I know, the best memories of playing cricket have never been in grounds designed for that purpose. In many ways, gully cricket is truly the best form of the game, because cricket is intrinsically a game of location.

Everything is about placement. Placement, of the shot, the fielder, the line and length of the ball, these are what make the game enjoyable. But gully cricket, the kind of cricket I played, had its own idiosyncrasies. There was never a home advantage like the one you have when you play at your home, with the rules you’ve come up with.

The reason I write this is because I think anyone who’s ever played cricket in a place that is not a large ground adheres to some form of these rules, and any group of players will invariably come up with similar rules regarding the same place. Cricket is cricket, and when faced with a tree, or a wall, or a door, the cricket player’s mind works in certain predictable ways.

The first common-sense rule of playing cricket is conservation of ball. If anyone makes the ball go somewhere it is difficult or impossible to get it back from, that idiot should be out.

I had a friend whose front verandah was essentially a long, straight strip, with relatively low walls and houses on either side. The only way to play, then, was to hit the ball straight and on the ground. Anywhere else and you’d lob the ball into the building next door, and that’s an automatic out. Hit it straight and high, and it would go into your friend’s house, and that’s not much better. For someone who was used to having a large offside for long-pitch, it was painful to play.

The house in Marredpally had a few places and ways to play in them. In the verandah outside it eternally depended on what cars were there and whether you could get someone to move them. Whether we played short pitch or long pitch also depended on how much effort one wanted to put into bowling. And, of course, if the ball got hit into the terrace of the building opposite, you were out. I rather suspect that if you got onto that terrace today, you would find a graveyard of hundreds of old rubber balls, all waiting to be reclaimed.

The second common-sense rule of playing cricket is conservation of force. Anyone who hits the ball hard in a direction that is problematic has to be out.

The upstairs triangle was the shortest of short pitches. You could run from one end to the other with one large stride. Of course, the ball had to be out of the hands of a fielder for long enough to allow that to happen. The easiest way to ensure the batsman didn’t get easy runs, and also makes sure there were no injuries, was to declare full-toss wall out. There were perhaps two patches of wall this didn’t cover, one of which was the 2-d space and one of which was the boundary area (I find it rather hilarious that while full-toss wall was out, full-toss door was not. That margin of error must have been tiny).

The third common-sense rule of cricket is ease of getting out. Batsmen shouldn’t be allowed to just stand there, accumulating runs.

On long pitches this isn’t that much of a problem, given that bowlers have space to run, and batsmen can hit foolish shots and get caught out. On shorter pitches, however, like the third floor terrace at school, we’d find there was a necessity to also introduce the one-tup-one-hand rule. This was a pain, because seemingly safe shots would find their way into the single hand of a fielder after a bounce, or a fielder would catch something with one hand only to support it with his other. It was the cause of much drama, ruling whether or not a catch was with one hand or two. Other esoteric rules include things like the three times body rule, or the omniscient wicket keeper behind the batsman, allowing any edged shot to be caught behind.

The fourth common-sense rule of cricket is ease of getting runs. Batsmen had to get some credit at least for pushing the ball in such a way as to avoid every awkward rule introduced thus far.

On oddly shaped pitches (i.e. most, if not all, of the pitches I’ve ever played at) we’d have to rule certain areas of the pitch as mini boundaries. If a tree was in the way, or there weren’t enough fielders to police every area of the pitch, it was easier to just say that hitting the ball in certain directions guaranteed one or two runs. In sufficiently cramped spaces, touch-one-run might be a better idea than having to run at all.

Everyone has some form of these rules in their head, simply from having played cricket and knowing how it works. When I put up a status on Facebook about playing cricket with Hredai and Sharan, with rules like one-tup-one-hand, touch-one-run, and full-toss-wall out, Vallabh was able to not only diagnose it as extreme short pitch, but also specifically as Srikrishna’s garage.

I think that’s terrific.