Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature and Premchand's Shatranj ke Khiladi

The last time I checked on Amazon, no one had reviewed The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature. But that may be because the book is a difficult read, because in its six hundred or so pages the editor Amit Chaudhri anthologizes all the major writing in India in the last century and a half. Amit Chaudhri’s effort is nothing short of astonishing; he must have read through hundreds of translations from the multitude of Indian languages to assemble such a wide-ranging anthology as this. The collection is more meticulous and well researched than Salman Rushdie’s Mirrorwork, which proclaims that the best Indian writing since independence has been in English. Certainly, a lot of good writing has been in English, but the vernacular was and still remains a powerful medium for creative expression.

(In May 1999, the literary critic Pankaj Mishra in an article for the New York Review of Books wrote that despite the success of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which sold 100,00o copies, the market for Indian writing in English in India hasn’t really opened up (as opposed to the West where there seems to be a significant audience for Indian writing). For instance, Amit Chaudhri’s novel, Freedom Song sold a modest 4000 copies in India while literary novels in Malayalam or Marathi sell tens of thousands of copies. )

I was leafing through Chaudhri’s anthology, and in the section on Hindi I saw a short story by Premchand. The Chess Players was written in 1924 but is set in a much earlier time. I read the first two sentences and felt a stab of nostalgic yearning for the Hindi stories that I had read in high school. For years now I haven’t read even a page in Hindi and I have to labor through a paragraph when I see one. As I read more of the Premchand story, I wished I had a copy of it in Hindi with me, so I could be closer to the subtle rhythms of the language that Premchand must have used.

Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Raushan Ali are the chess players of the story, obsessed with the game. Indeed this is the story that Satyajit Ray used for his well-known Shatranj ke Khiladi. It is set in Lucknow of the mid nineteenth century when it was the principal city of the Awadh province, ruled by the Muslim king Wajid Ali Khan. The Lucknow that Premchand depicts in the story is in a sensual stupor, its residents far too busy in indulgent pursuits to be aware of the political ferment of the time.

Like others with their own preoccupations – reveling in opium induced ecstasy or betting on quail and partridge fights – Mirza Ali and Mir Ali too are absorbed in their long chess games every day. This goes on until domestic pestilences – such as Mirza Ali’s wife who disallows any chess games in the house – force them to escape one day to the desolate countryside where they play in an abandoned mosque. But that same day, the soldiers of the East India Company march through the countryside on their way to Lucknow. Curiously – and this is perhaps the central theme of the story: the extraordinary insouciance of the two players in face of all the tumult around them – the political maneuvering that will bring Lucknow under British control does not interest them, but the maneuvers on the chess board that shall affect no one do. So even as Wajid Ali Khan surrenders to the British army without so much as a whimper, the two chess players continue to fight a pitched battle. Such is the intensity of their game that they start a quarrel over their moves; they start to fight with their swords and slay each other.

The ending struck me as rather contrived and abrupt, out of step with the nuanced story, its irony, humor and well-thought out historical setting. In the movie, Ray presents a different, a more poignant climax: the two chess players do get to the point where they could have killed each other – in fact Mirza even fires a shot at Mir – but miraculously both survive uninjured. In the last few seconds of the movie, Mirza (played by Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir (played by Saeed Jaffrey) have expressions of deep disquiet, as the enormity of where the game of chess has led them slowly sinks in.

6 comments:

Senthil said...

I somehow never could understand the nuances of Hindi or Tamil, thanks to my sidelining them as 'unimportant' languages during school. Sigh...
And I had not even heard of this movie. Hopefully I'll find this in some video shop around here...

Hari said...

I too never paid much attention to Hindi or Tamil when I was young, though these were the two languages I spoke most. Now I wish I had.

I saw Shatranj ke Khiladi a long time ago (on Doordarshan!), and thought it was very boring. When I saw it again a few months ago, I understood the context better and enjoyed it, though some parts of it were too long.

Rashmi said...

Thanks Hari ..for this post. I'll
probably go get 'Shatrang Ke Khiladi' myself. Like you, I watched it years ago and had a similar reaction!

BTW, it'll be great if you can put up a list of books you're reading currently (somewhere alongside your blog)..and keep it updated.

kartik talamadupula said...

This comment is probably very off temporally- but I've always known Shatranj ke Khiladi as (apparently?) the single movie that Satyajit Ray made in Hindi. Now I must see it somehow. Thankfully, Netflix seems to carry it.

javieth said...

I love the literature because i think reflects many aspects of our lives. But i love most the simplicity with witch things are explained is what catch my attention. The literature for me is very impressive like the effect what i feel when i buy viagra

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