The Chess Player
By Syed Arif Hussani

Yusuf - Syed Yusuf Ali- was a class fellow during school days. Yusuf ’s father, Syed Nader Ali, was an intriguing character. That is why I often remember him and write this piece to pay tribute to his bitter-sweet memory. Yaumiadar chess addict".

Yusuf and I were in the 9th class at that time and often shared the same desk. He would some times whisper to me his predicament at home.

His parents quarreled quite often over the contin ued absences from the house of Nadir Ali Sahib.

He would tender apologies, make promises never again to go near the chessboard, but the very next day after breakfast he would sneak out to disappear again for 2-3 days. He would, as Yusuf told me, make a beeline to "the group of loonies addicted to the game like himself ".

Yusuf knew their hideout and would sometimes visit the place to beg his father to go home. But, Nader Saheb, a highly polite and cultured person, would make all sorts of promises and send Yusuf back home instead.

The fall of Nizam's Hyderabad to the Indian army's invasion was still some eight years away. The government of the State was at that time totally committed to the retention of the status quo including the feudalistic structure of the society. It would do every thing to help the spoiled feudals to hang on to their lands.

Nader Saheb was too absorbed in chess to have any time left for either his family or estate. While his wife and children were having nervous breakdowns, the administration of his lands had a breakdown of its own. The government stepped in and the Court of Wards (a department set up to handle just such cases) took over the management of his estate. From its income, an annual stipend was given to him. His wife claimed that the entire stipend be given to her so that she could manage the expenses of the family. That would have been possible only if Nader Ali had become physically or mentally handicapped.

He enjoyed lavishly entertaining his friends and other chess players. The annual stipend would end within a few months. He would then resort to pawning with a Marwari any valuable thing in the house that he could lay his hands on.

Complaints from his wife and family resulted in a reduction of the periodicity of the stipend from once a year to once a month.
But the man's love of chess increased with each passing day. The problem of the family increased in the same proportion. The Court of Wards then decided to make him a "Yaumiadar" -that is he would get a certain maintenance allowance every day. Each morning he would collect this and make his way to the chess den.
A certain amount was allocated by the Court for the maintenance of the family. Yusuf 's share came to Rs. 20 per month.

Yusuf decided to move out of the family house to be able to concentrate on his studies for the forthcoming Matriculation exams. The amount he had started getting was enough to pay the rent of a small room and meals at a ramshackle eatery. He passed the exam in Second Division but the greasy bad food infested with all sorts of germs gave him jaundice. He was admitted to a public hospital where he remained for a couple of months. The time for admission to college had passed by the time Yusuf was fit enough to move about. The family’s financial situation had worsened. Yusuf was 16 now: too old to cry, too young to laugh.

He learned shorthand typing and became a stenographer in some government office.

I lost touch with him for several years then: I was busy pursuing my studies and he with his office.

We ran into each other in Karachi back in 1949. He had married and had a couple of children. Some time later, he and I hired a house and shared accommodation for a few months.

He had managed to do his B.Com and was working in accounts office of PIA. His mother had passed away, but his father, Nader Ali Saheb, was alive but in a deplorable financial condition. His lands had all been confiscated by the new administration, leaving him high and dry to fend for himself. One of his chess partners who was a junk dealer (Kabaria) advised him to set up a junk stall next to his own on the broad footpath in the shadow of Chawk Masjid. The two of them bought and sold junk items and played chess happily in between. The in-between periods covered bulk of their waking hours.

Yusuf often talked to me about the fall of his father. He loved his father despite the frailty of the man. On return from the office one day, he announced that he had made arrangements to pull his father out of the degrading junk shop business.

"He need hardly work", he asserted, "I am making good money here and my father is wallowing in filth and poverty there!" Several weeks later, he informed me that his father was arriving by boat next morning and asked whether I would like to accompany him to the docks. I said yes, as I was really interested in meeting the man bearing such contradictory characteristics.

As he came down from the gangway and Yusuf embraced him, the immediate impression I gained was: this man can't be all that that bad. He was a small man in Sherwani, Fez cap and pump shoes and was sporting a small beard. From his looks, he struck me as a typical "shareef admi" of Hyderabad.

He talked of the voyage, seasickness and the sultry weather of Bombay. Then came the most unexpected query from him: "Who are the top chess players here?" Yusuf and I had nothing but distaste for the game. We pleaded ignorance; he didn't probe further.

Two weeks later, he announced that he had decided to go back to Chawk Masjid as only his friend there was a match for him. He had sought out and played with all leading players of Karachi and no one could stand up to him.

"They are all nice people, but their knowledge of chess is amateurish. I can't enjoy playing with someone who is miles behind me in the knowledge and experience of the game".

Yusuf knew there was no sense arguing with his father. He bought a ticket for his return. I decided to go to the docks (Kemari) to see him off. The man's noble descent, cultured manners, but his ignoble immersion into a game that informed and spoiled his and his family's life, had peeked my curiosity.

It wasn't difficult to read the mixed feelings on his face as he readied to board the boat. The pangs of parting perhaps permanently with his son and grandchildren could be seen in his tearful eyes which also bore a far away look to the prospect of rejoining his first and only love of his life -chess. The old man was evidently torn emotionally between the opposite pulls. The pull of his love for chess had completely overwhelmed him.

As the boat moved out to the high sea, the tiny old man could be seen sobbing and his entire body shaking like the tail of a lizard that had just come off its body.

Parting was all pain for Yusuf too. He stood there looking wistfully in the direction of his father who was shrinking in size as the boat moved away from the pier. It turned to the right and the tiny Nader Ali was out of sight forever.

"He hasn't changed a bit," said Yusuf. "I had hoped that the traumatic changes wrought by the fall of Hyderabad, and the much more deplorable fall in his own status and station in life, would make him avail himself of the comfort that I was offering towards the tail-end of his life. I suppose he would remain wedded to his chess board and his friend of the junk shop".





Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.