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Image: Varanasi, India
  Photo: Stefan Tordenmalml
Image: Varanasi, India
  Photo: Skip Hunt

Varanasi, 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 University.

"I will play white, you will play dark!"

"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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