Young people, especially those that are heartbroken, are a showy lot. Ravi was no different. His world knew that he was, to use the archaic term, ‘licked’. Or as boys in Chittoor called it, ‘she gave him haath’. Like all rejected lovers, Ravi went into a stage of sleeplessness, lack-interest-in-life-ness, and solitude. He tried talking to her but the city girl was brutal: she would not budge. She even cracked smart lines (which part of get lost you didn’t understand?). Some thought she was overboard, and some, enjoyed it.
Then started a procession of speakers, veterans at the game of love, that argued, pontificated, and reiterated the rallying cry of all failed lovers: girls are vicious.
Ramesh, poet-cum-failed lover-cum-classmate told Ravi, while smoking endlessly into the night, “They look for status. Money. Bike? Cars! And not your heart. Never! Your heart Ravi, my dear brother, is of no value to them. Look at the irony! You don’t even possess your heart now, for in the name of love, you gave it away.” Ramesh sucked hard on the dying cigarette and as the smell of burnt filter filled the calm night, he shrugged as if saying ‘No further questions your honour’.
Ravi took to drinking. Once, when drunk, he carved her name on his arms with a switch blade. He listened to Telugu movie love songs and cried. His parents misunderstood his drinking as the usual juvenile enchantment with intoxication and admonished him as they saw fit. But Ravi walked through it all, like a zombie. He did start taking precautions to avoid confrontations with his folks. Himabindu on the other hand completely ignored him and stopped all contact. His efforts to gift her 200 roses were met with an icy ‘Get a life!’ So he spread the roses outside the college and told curious onlookers ‘Moksham for the flowers when she walks on them! Narakam for me, for she did walk all over me.’
Ravi stopped playing Chess too. The NGO Home panicked. They tried talking to him and cajoling him but Ravi just was not interested. ‘When love deserts, what can Chess do?’ He told Ramanan, the retired Commercial Tax Officer, who was utterly bewildered by that poetic line.
“Try ENO, it will help.” Ramanan said to Ravi.
At the end of the academic year, Bindu left Chittoor. Her father was transferred to Vizag. And Ravi was inconsolable. He somehow found her address in Vizag and wrote letters. When the letters didn’t elicit a response, he started sending Telegrams. “My life is as meaningless as playing without a queen.” “Your en passant killed this poor pawn.”
Bindu’s father made a phone call to his brother who was a top cop. The Circle Inspector of 2-Town station visited Ravi’s folks and explained in no uncertain terms that such acts can make life uncomfortable for Ravi. “I am sure he can get a loan and set up a pay-phone booth to make a living out of it, but think about it, your son will be a physically challenged person… right now he is only mentally challenged. Please fix your son unless you want us to do the honours.” The Inspector apparently told them. So Ravi, who had flunked his exams, was forcibly packed off to his uncle’s home in Mysore. His parents wanted him to realise his dream of becoming a Grandmaster. The Mysore uncle, who was the reason why Ravi started playing chess, wrote to them saying “I will ensure that this young Knight is back to the central squares. I will do all within my reach to move him from this dark, corner square.” Using chess metaphors, it seemed, was an age old custom in Ravi’s family.
All this while, an interesting development took place. Muniyandi, who was doing odd jobs at the Jaggery Mandi, made a come back to the NGO Home. A few of the regulars did rejoice upon his arrival but the emotion segued to rude shock when Muniyandi stood at the head of that huge chess table and announced, “I want to play a ‘simultaneous’. With all of you. Now! Thoo nee amma!” Muniyandi wanted to play all twelve of them simultaneously. Ramanan had a knowing smile on his face. He knew that it was the pictorial Chess problems book that he’d gifted that propelled Muni to take such a stance. ‘Tactics’ Bala, the guy with really curly hair and a pock marked face lit his cigarette at the wrong end and he coughed out like a bat flew into his throat.
The gang did agree for the match. Probably because they didn’t want to dampen the enthusiasm which Muni amply demonstrated. Who doesn’t like an underdog? As it turned out, Muni beat ten of them, drew with one, and lost a match. The net result of this exercise was that Muni started playing tournaments. The one-eye chess hurricane from Chittoor impressed the fraternity not just with his chess but also with his showmanship in the evenings. Snippets of Muniyandi’s exploits started appearing in the papers. The NGO Home gang pooled in money and bought decent clothes for Muni after the fiasco in the highly rated Palani tournament. Muniyandi entered the tournament hall clad in a blue and white checkered Lungi, unkempt hair, and with an unlit beedi dangling at the side of his mouth. The tournament organisers had a collective cardiac arrest. Some of the country’s best players were playing and they didn’t want an incongruity that was Muni to be a part of the otherwise perfect picture.
Muni left the hall and came back after a couple of hours. Drunk like a rapist in a Telugu movie and armed with a switch blade. He threatened to obliterate the reproductive systems of the organisers. The cops came in and all in all, it was seen as an insult to the fraternity in Chittoor. So the NGO Home gang took it upon themselves to make Muni presentable. They bought him nice clothes and got him to cut his hair. They even made him promise that he wouldn’t smoke or drink during tournaments. Of course, Muni also had to take an oath on his violence.
Through it all, Muni kept asking Ramanan on Ravi’s whereabouts. Ramanan visited Ravi’s folks and found out about Ravi’s Mysore plan. He wrote to Ravi and asked him to play in the prestigious Rajiv Memorial in Tirupathi, one of the most prestigious tournament in the state. But, Ravi wrote back, saying that he was not interested. The NGO Home gang then did a signature campaign and sent a letter with some 50 signatures and a thumb impression (of Muni’s) and urged him to come back. That did the trick and of course Ravi’s uncle in Mysore apparently told him ‘You are declining the love of so many people just because one girl was mean to you? It is like saving the queen and losing all your other pieces!’
Muni did bump into Ravi at the NGO Home but he was utterly shocked at the sight of his Lord. Ravi was a mere shadow of the man he was! Dark circles under eyes, a stubble, and a generally depressing disposition made Ravi look like a patient. Another man would have put a arm around, or even hug and say a few comforting words but Muni lacked that knack. He just flashed a bleak smile at Ravi and kept to himself. Ravi really didn’t care too much about Muni anyway, so the stalemate persisted.
They went to Tirupathi in an APSRTC bus. One of those Red ones. Muni, knowing that he won’t be able to drink during the tournament, was drunk. He smoked much to the irritation of his fellow passengers. There were also a bunch of piligrims from Tamilnadu and Muni tortured them by screaming ‘Govinda Govinda’ at every hill he spotted. The Lord’s seven-hills abode was another 40 km away but the Tamils didn’t want to take a chance and joined Muni in a chorus of ‘Govinda’. After a while Muni got bored of it and slept.
The tournament organiser was also the State head of the Chess association. Mr. Naidu escorted the gang from Chittoor to a wedding hall, where accommodation was arranged for all players participating in the tournament. They had arranged for cooks that made food for the players in the kitchen of the wedding hall. That night Muni picked up a fight with the head cook. He called his Sambar ‘Cow piss, thoo nee amma!’ Before they hit their beds, the players socialized and before long were playing rapid one-minute games with the aid of chess clocks.
The tournament went on smoothly. Muni and Ravi were the only ones from Chittoor that registered wins in the knock-out tournament. The rest became spectators. Ravi sailed through seven rounds. Though he was not at his best, he still was a handful. Muni on the other hand was the surprise package. In the seventh round, his opponent was Rao from Nellore, number two of the state. In the morning while inspecting the pairings along with Ravi, Rao asked him ‘So is this Muniyandi a rated player?’
Ravi said ‘No… but I hear he’s good. He has only one eye, I hope you know that.’
‘So that’s a free point for me right there huh?’ Rao said.
‘You can say that…’
Muni was playing black, popularly considered a disadvantage as White gets to make the first move. Rao played the first move, by moving the King pawn two squares up. Muni thought for ten minutes. It is unusual for players at this level to spend any time in the opening. Most of the opening moves are well theorized and are dispensed with, with minimal thought. Muni’s clock was ticking away. When he made the first move, he had consumed ten minutes of his two hours. He played the French Defence. It was not a popular opening as it cramped the Black in the opening stage and most times did not allow Black to castle his King. Rao started a vicious attack on Muni’s King. Muni, it appeared, was clueless. Around the 26th move, Muni stunned Rao by capturing a white pawn and placing his Queen in a beautiful position to charge Rao on the Queen’s side. Rao’s attack slowly dissipated and before long he was frantically defending his game. Around the 37th move, Rao capitulated and resigned.
It sent shockwaves through the tournament. ‘Was Rao too careless?’ ‘I thought Muniyandi played a brilliant, unconventional line’ and so on. Ravi was surprised but happy for Muni. The only thing that saddened him was that Muni would meet him in the final round.
The final round started. Muni played white and opened with the King pawn. Ravi played his favourite Sicilian defence, a combative opening where Black played for advantage and not just equality. Around the 30th move Muni sacrificed one of his Bishops. A gasp echoed in the hall. Most thought it was a blunder. Ravi too didn’t quite get it. Four moves later Ravi realised the beauty of the combination that Muni was playing. It gave Muni a staggering advantage to attack the King. Muni who was poring through the board all this while looked up and saw the look of devastation in Ravi’s eyes. Ravi looked at Muni and managed a feeble smile. Something happened to Muniyandi at that moment. He stormed off after playing a move and lit a beedi.
Muni was sad. He didn’t want to hurt his Lord. After thinking hard for about ten minutes Muni entered the hall. Three more moves later, Muni gave away another piece. Ravi was stunned. It looked like a good move, for it allowed white to make a lot of noise. But, after thinking through, Ravi knew that his opponent, who was playing like God until then, had miscalculated. This was surely a blunder! A few more moves later, Muni resigned. However, he was the number two now. At least in the district! Ravi slapped Muni’s back and said ‘You almost got me there!’ Ravi never told anyone that he almost resigned after Muni’s first Bishop sacrifice. After the prize distribution was over, Muni headed to the nearest wine store and got drunk. Not because he was sad but because he was ecstatic.
As he was drinking his third one, Rao and Ravi entered the store and Muni ducked for cover. Ravi told him that it was all right.
‘Saar why are you spoiling your health? Don’t drink saar please!’ Muni said to Ravi.
‘I am drinking because I am celebrating Muni. For coming back to the right path after getting lost.’
Muni nodded as if he understood. ‘You want pickle saar? Tastes nice with the rum.’
‘He almost beat me!’ Ravi said.
Rao nodded watching Muni, who was talking to the wine store clerk.
‘Almost. Yes. But he knew what was more important.’ Rao said.
‘What?’ Ravi was amused.
‘He played the second sacrifice to lose the match. And he didn’t want to offend you by making an obvious blunder. So he thought of a combination that looked lethal but lacked the venom. He is a genius! Now, don’t ask him and kill his happiness. Look at him! He is so happy!’