The Queen’s Play is a book for people who love chess. I learned to play with my father, who always beat me in strategic ways so that I became a better player. I used to win a fair bit when I played with other people, but I never enjoyed it as much as when I played with him, and I haven’t played now for years.
There’s not much argument about who invented chess: most people think it originated in India. India’s great epic, the Ramayana, after all, mentions the game, and the Ramayana is so ancient that it’s thought to have been created in the 5th century BCE, maybe earlier. But what Aashish Kaul has done is to tuck a new myth into the fabric of the Ramayana, with the story of how chess came to be in its present form, and he has given that honour to Mandodari, queen of the demon king Ravana.
Today when we play chess, we have two sides opposing one another, and the queen is the most powerful piece. But in Kaul’s story in mythic prehistory, the game was played by four players, movements were much more restricted, and crucially, moves were determined by a roll of the dice. Not much more than a fancified game of Ludo, that seems to me, and Mandodari found it frustrating too. Together with her companion Misa, she experimented with changes to the game, discovering to her delight that something else changed once the game was determined by skill and strategy rather than by fate as expressed by the roll of the dice. Denied any role in an epic battle taking place outside the palace because of her gender, on the chess board Mandodari discovers power…
Misa is overwhelmed by it:
She became painfully aware of how pathetically one-sided and stillborn any strategy was bound to be, unless, of course, the other’s progress into the game was matched step for step with a swift response, relentlessly rethinking, redeveloping, improvising one’s plans to remain a step ahead of the opposition. Your thought soared briskly above the board where it engaged the adversary in a slow, imperceptible duel, each threading through the other’s advances, striking and defending by turn, hot pursuits that could abruptly end up in blind alleys, weak spots that disappeared like mirages or lay carelessly open to attack like so many traps, thrusts repelled, forces redeployed. Movements, which had earlier appeared blunt and accidental were suddenly sharp and vicious, gleaming with devilish intent, bent solely on slaying swiftly, without thought or mercy. Previously the dice had dictated everything, and there was little need to think in advance. Tactics were more or less useless then. You moved in the manner chance decreed. But now the entire task fell on you, and how pitifully ill-prepared you were for it. (p.37)
Exactly how I used to feel when I blundered into my father’s skilful traps! I would start out with what I thought was an unassailable strategy and be floundering within six or eight moves. This is that moment when it dawns that the game is not played on the board, it is played in the head, with movements far in advance of the pieces’ positions and always subject to the mischief that your opponent is likewise plotting…
The parallel story has a more dreamy, mystic feel. There are exquisite renderings of a timeless landscape; there are gods, symbols and totems. I barely know the Ramayana, just bits and pieces of it from watching wayang in Bali and reading children’s stories to my classes, but the author explains in a brief introduction that people who know it well will identify resonances from the epic. But even the uninitiated will soon see the chess correspondences: Ravana’s palace is besieged by Rama who wants his abducted wife Sita back, and the narrative momentum of the forces arraigned against him is like the movement of the pieces on a chessboard, frustrated by unexpected events.
But like the Ramayana, this narrative serves also to interrogate philosophical issues and to explore human values. The seers look down on the carnage below and ask themselves, what for? And the answer was depressingly familiar:
For honour. For avenging your honour. The demon king had contrived and abducted the exiled king’s wife, who had been ever since held captive in his palace, and whom the wicked king had refused to release with due honour, even after entreaties and warnings to this end. The word again, honour. A man’s dignity, a warrior’s code of honour, had been ridiculed. What was there to be done? Lust and vanity had clouded the king’s head, we said. The vile man must be taught a lesson, we declaimed. Too much evil brings only ruin, to war! to war! we cried in rage.
That for the sake of this very honour, many ignoble deeds were committed, nobody saw or thought fit to recount. We didn’t ask if it formed part of a warrior’s code to inflict injury on a woman, unarmed and blindly enamoured of the prince. (p.41)
In a novella of only 142 pages, The Queen’s Play is rich in ideas, and is seductive reading. Aashish Kaul was born in India but is now an academic in Australia. I had been following him @ on Twitter for a while (because he tweets such fascinating snippets) before I realised he was an author, and I was unable to resist buying the book for my Kindle when I saw that I could have it for a little over $5.00. (Yes, I have been weakening a little with my purchases from the behemoth Amazon, I know). Anyway, I like the way he sums up the chess analogy in his introduction:
Chess, by its very nature, employs and develops continual forkings in time and space, thereby helping to sustain a great variety of elements, shapes, and tones, intense thinking followed by swift manoeuvres where the player and the pieces quite literally become one, quest, hope, lament, but, most importantly, stasis and motion, the supreme drivers of life and, therefore, of literature.
PS (the next day) Astute observers will notice that when I set up my chess sets for the photos (which I did, sleepless under a new medication regime for my shoulder cuff injury, at 1:00AM) I placed the board incorrectly for one of them. The square on the RHS should be light, so that the queen stands on her own colour. I just took the pieces out of their box and placed them for the photo without thinking much, sorry.
And in the other photo, oops! the kings are on the wrong side as you will see if you look closely at their hats. I like this nautical set very much, it has a nicely democratic flavour for a republican household. (Americans, please note that republican here means supporters of an Australian republic, not a political party. But I guess if you read this blog regularly, you would know that if we had a vote for the presidential election, it would not ever have gone to the Republican Party).
Author: Aashish Kaul
Title: The Queen’s Play
Publisher: Roundfire Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781782798613 ASIN B00SI6J9QO
Source: Personal library, on the Kindle