India: The Chess Match
By Elizabeth Knight
"Do you play chess?" asked
Ashu, smiling broadly and hovering over the game cupboard,
as eager as a puppy who knows it’s dinner time.
"Uh, well," I began, wondering
if there was a polite way to decline, "I guess
I know the rules, but — "
"Good! Good!" He was so
exuberant that I wished I really did play. It had
been years since I had so much as seen a chess set.
I moved in with a family in Varanasi, a Hindu holy
city nestled on the left bank of the Ganges river,
a week ago. Since then, many fine points of etiquette
from my guide books have crept into reality—shoes
off at the door, complimenting the mother’s cooking,
and always eat with the right hand (especially difficult
as I am left handed).
There was nothing about obligatory
games of chess in the guidebooks, but I felt like
I was stuck. Nevertheless, I was getting more comfortable
around Ashu; at first, we had regarded each other
cautiously, like school children inspecting a new
kid. Apparently, Ashu decided to let me into the club.
I knew he was close to my age, but his enthusiasm
made him appear more like a kindergartener than a
young man finishing his first year at Benares Hindu
"I will play white, you will
"Be careful," warned Vikee,
his older brother. "He’s very, very good!"
At least it will be over quickly.
Their mother came gliding out of
their small kitchen, elegant in her sari and bare
feet despite being inundated with two bowls of salty
snacks, a teapot and several clay cups. I was instructed
to call her Chacheji (a rough translation of "aunty").
I practiced saying it to myself many times: in bed
at night, on walks around the city, and in the awkward
silences which still punctuated our conversation,
but it still didn’t come easily. She wore a set of
green plastic bangles on her wrists. When I had politely
admired them, she ran to her jewelry box and produced
a similar set, in pink, which she presented to me.
I accepted with embarrassment, unaccustomed to such
generosity. The bracelets were too big, but Chacheji
insisted they looked lovely on me, and they did add
a certain flair to my baggy, cotton salwar kameez.
"Chai!" she announced,
pouring the sweet milky tea and placing the snacks
beside the chessboard. I started to thank her, but
bit my tongue. The last time I had thanked her, I
was told that that was not part of the culture; a
lady considered it her duty and thought it strange,
not considerate, to be thanked for such a small task.
Ashu made the first move as I took
a sip of my chai. "Svadist, delicious,"
I said out loud. This was how I practiced the few
words of Hindi I knew; I said them whenever I had
the chance. The brothers found it amusing, and they
would laugh every time I spoke in my crude approximation
of their language. They inspected the phonetic transcriptions
I put in my notebook, giggling when I misheard them
or misspelled something, which was often.
I moved a pawn. Vikee was standing
behind me, gazing at the board and sucking on his
teeth every time I picked up a piece. The scrutiny
made the already harrowing task of trying to remember
the rules, let alone any strategy, even more improbable.
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