Toxic fumes came out of Akshay’s nostrils, contaminating the atmosphere. His cell phone beeped.
SMS from Dada. ‘Take 1 hr. Rod Blk.’
‘K.I’ll wait..Mke it fast’. He replied.
He took out Mohit’s photograph from his pocket and forcefully exhaled at it.
‘I’ll finish you bastard. You might be intelligent, hardworking an all. But I’m wicked. I’m smart. I can’t let you have Sunita.I’ve invested a lot of effort for her. And I want my dividends. Once you’re gone, I’ll be having her. And naturally the firm too. Then I’ll bump off the old boss one day. With that I’ll be the king of the firm.’ His nicotine clouded brain thought. The last puff, he inhaled it deeply, threw the butt down and stamped on it with the sinister vision of Mohit struggling under his feet.
Marine drive was getting busy. Many Mumbaiites had come there to unwind themselves. Akshay walked towards a nearby paan shop to have another Navy Cut. Old habits die hard. He’d started with a navy cut, and had not switched his loyalties although he could afford Marlboros and Davidoffs now. He was walking with great difficulty, for the prolonged sitting had frozen his legs. Though he was only in his late twenty’s, his body had the wear and tear of the middle age. The receding hairline-apparently caused by excessive utilization of brain cells; the darkened lips-really caused by heavy chain smoking; uneven stubble-possibly because of irregular shaving; undulating eyes-caused by the periodic shrinking whenever the thought waves attained a zenith; pointed nose and a solid square face gave him the look of a vigilant warrior, who was impatient for the next move. However, the look of a warrior would be negated by a protruding belly, of which the cause is untraceable. He was always on his toes. Whether it was his high ambitions and effervescent confidence or his lack of direction and restlessness, the reason for that, was yet again indeterminable.
He reached the shop and lit a Navy Cut.
He looked to the direction of noise. A child of about twelve years was playing chess with a middle aged man. They were sitting on a bench next to the shop. The child had given a white diagonal check to the black king with his queen. There was an air of self-admiration around the child. Probably his first check in life. But the opponent easily covered the check with a black bishop.
“Now you’ll have to take back your queen. What was the point in giving this check? Can’t you see, it was a waste move. You can’t afford to make such moves which don’t have any strategic importance in the game.” The opponent stated in a pontificating tone.
“But Papa, I gave you a check” The child replied proudly.
“It’s not about giving the maximum number of checks, you idiot. You have to put the king in a check mate. Now come on, make the next move.”
The queen was moved horizontally and another white diagonal check was given from the other side, followed by a loud “Check!”. The child was chuckling. The father was, obviously, irritated by consecutive futile checks.
“Stupid ass! Can’t you see my pawn standing right there? Wouldn’t your queen get killed by it? What are you thinking while making the moves?”
“Sorry Papa. I’ll make another move. I didn’t see it.”He implored
“Nothing doing. It’s not the first time you are doing this. No leniency anymore. Learn to play without the queen.” The pawn ruthlessly killed the mighty queen.
The child stood up, with his arms placed on his waist and with a long frowning which evinced all signs of childish tantrums. “I don’t want to play chess. Such a stupid game. I’m going to play cricket.” He announced rudely.
“Appu, Stop there..Listen” But he’d disappeared to the ground.
“This boy wouldn’t learn the game of chess. Always wanting to play cricket. Senseless game played by idiots! This will at least help improve his concentration. This ass wouldn’t understand. He and his cricket.” He pronounced cricket with a mocking accent.
Akshay was watching the proceedings with keen interest. That brought back to him the memories of his father. He was also a great chess aficionado and tried to inculcate the interest in young Akshay too. As he was a school teacher, briefing to Akshay the rules and regulations of the game didactically came spontaneously to him. Chess playing sessions would be held often, as an academic exercise with the fun quotient being nil. Contrastingly, Akshay couldn’t accept the rigidities of the game. The concept of each piece to be used in a structured manner was indigestible for him. The craving for shortcuts was in his blood. Accordingly he would attempt to move the knight horizontally, or make reverse movements for pawns, or vest in king the powers of the queen. His father would fume at such deviations and would reprimand him for desecrating the sacred traditions of the game. Thus the unfinished game would end up in Akshay getting chastised. His father’s rigidity reflected in his ideals too. He was an idealistic socialist with a nationalistic-democratic spirit. And his son-the perfect antitheses. He’d high ambitions for himself. The modest life of a school teacher didn’t entice him. Ideals were scoffed at. The course of life taught him another ideal-‘hook or crook’. Euphemistically, he could be termed as a pragmatist. But what he deserved actually was a nasty sobriquet. A second hander who had made his way through by mooching, looting, gratifying, coercing , backstabbing…one who’d attained ‘success’ not with his competence but with his ‘soft’ skills.
He went near the bench. “It seems you’ve won the game.” He said with a sardonic smile.
“Ha, Ha! I’m not playing to win. Just trying to teach my son the game.” His paan stained lips did the exercise. The reddish garnish stood in contrast with his dark face, which sent out an air of affability. The tall lanky body might have borne sun and wind for at least fifty years.
“Prashant Gawre. That’s my name.” He extended his hand.
“Hi. I’m Akshay Mahant” Generally Akshay was reticent to strangers. But he felt closeness to this man.
“I’m a clerk in Bombay Muncipal Corporation.” The other man said. “Often on Sundays I come here with my son. I love this cold see breeze, this crowd and the steamy wada-pavs made by this Kale.”He pointed towards a tea-stall on the foot path.
“By the way, will you have tea?” He asked.
“Ok. I don’t mind” Akshay said.
“Hey Kale ,don chai ani don wada pav.”
Chai and wada pav arrived.
“So, you are an engineer” Gawre asked.
“No kaka, I work in a law firm. You might have heard-Desai &Co.”
“Oh, means you are a vakil”.
“Technically speaking, I’m not. But a lay man like you could say so.”The lawyers’ arrogance, which treats those ignorant of the letter of law with sheer contempt, woke up from its slumber. “You know, I’m the smartest of the employees. Within a few weeks I’d be one of its partners.”
“Oh..You’re really great..Hmm…Do you play chess?” What prompted the query?-his awe with the revelation or his want to change the topic. Again unsure.
“I play chess with my life” Akshay replied.
“Ha,Ha! I play chess in my life”
“See, for me life is a chess board with my fellow beings being its pieces. I don’t know whether a lower division clerk like you would be able to understand such abstract philosophies of life. Anyways, I’ll give it a shot. Arrange the board. I’ll take a puff and come.”
Gawre arranged the board. Akshay came back.
“You know Gawre, I graduated from the prestigious Vidya International Law School(VILS). I missed the National Law School test just by a whisker. Anyways, I was the most brilliant student of VILS. I represented college in many moot court competitions. Many of my articles got published in college law journal. It goes without saying that, in academics I was unbeatable, though I used to spend very little time for studying and hardly attended lectures. Everyone was just envious of my success. Finally, I got the highest pay package offer from the present firm”.
He was a master in blowing his own trumpet. He just thought about the way he buttered the feet of the faculty-in-charge to get an opportunity to go for moot court competitions; the way he lured the student editor with liquor and the offer to help him get a girl, to get his articles published; the way he plagiarized his friend’s dissertation and appropriated to himself, which in turned helped him to get the placement. His friends turned foes. Foes turned friends. He couldn’t care less. For him they were the opportunity cost of success. Driven by lack of scruples and a flexible ego which could be vertebrate or invertebrate accordingly, he scaled many peaks.
The pieces were arranged. Akshay opted for white. The white pawn on the immediate right of the king was moved one step ahead (f2-f3). Black pawn in front of king moved two step ahead (e7-e5). White pawn on the second right of king two steps ahead (g2-g4). Black queen moved from d8 to h4 to give a diagonal check. Actually it’s a check mate. Game over!!
Akshay was taken aback. He couldn’t believe. Game over in four moves. The pride in his face fled to give way to shame.
“It’s ok baba, You’re a bit careless. Might be because of not playing for a long time.”Gawre tried to console.
“I’ll decide whether I’m careless or not. It was just a fluke. Come on. Rearrange. We’ll play another one. A real game” Akshay challenged.
Next game started. He played with rage. He massacred Gawre’s pieces indiscriminately. He didn’t care if he lost his own pieces too in return. Pawns, knights, bishops-all lost in the bloodshed. Akshay did castling and his king was now protected in a fortress of pawns and a rook. His king was in g1 and queen in g3. Gawre’s black knight moved down from c3 to e2 giving a check to king and an attack to queen simultaneously. That was power of the knight ,which hops around the board weirdly. Its check cannot be eclipsed. Either the king should be moved or knight should be killed. There was no way to kill it. He was in a helpless situation. Queen can’t be saved. He moved his king.
“You’ve lost your queen” Gawre said with a victorious smile.
That struck Akshay hard.
‘I’ve lost my queen…In fact, I’d lost her long time back’. Her faint image appeared in his misty thoughts. The only human being to whom he felt a genuine affection. The only person with whom he felt real happiness. The only female who had a place in his dreams. He used to call her affectionately ‘my queen’. But, when materialism infected his thoughts; when avarice blindfolded his vision, he forsook her. When, after the death of her father she had to take the responsibilities of the family which was sinking in debts, she became a dead investment in his terms. The grip on economics enabled him to quantify love. Besides, the advent of Sunita, his boss’s daughter, with a lot of fortunes hinging on her, precipitated his aloofness from her. When she needed him the most, he was after his own needs. To Sunita, he felt nothing. Not even a lustful desire. However, she was a promising investment. He often imagined her in place of Sunita, so that it would enable him to pursue her more efficiently.
He lost interest in the game. He was playing blindly.
“Why so dejected Akshay? Losing your queen doesn’t mean everything. You can still stage a comeback” Gawre encouraged.
“Losing my queen means everything to me.”
He’d no clue about her whereabouts. He took his mobile. He’d her number. Probably the old number. He tried it. Number not in operation. He’d lost his queen.
The game progressed mundanely for Akshay. It’s just a matter of time. Then the black queen moved diagonally from e7 to h4 to give a check. But the ‘h’ column was open for the white rook. It was too conspicuous to miss. Gawre lost his queen. Then black rook was placed right under the attack of a white pawn. Gawre lost his rook too.
Now both the players were facing material deficit. The remaining pieces also got consumed in due course of time leaving the entire board for both the kings. Game ended in a draw!
“Weren’t you willfully getting rid of your queen and rook?”Akshay knew that a good player like Gawre couldn’t make consecutive blunders.
“You could say so” he said smiling. “I was trying to bring back your interest to the game. There is no enjoyment in playing with a handicapped opponent”
“Isn’t winning important for you?”
“I’m not bothered about that. I enjoy playing, regardless of the outcome. I should have good thrilling game”
“You’re that fond of chess?”
“Fond of chess! At one point of time, I was an addict to this game. Even my wife was a chess enthusiast. We used to play a lot. Sometime we’d be so engrossed in the game that we’d forget all our work. It would be late in night, when both of us are hungry that we would realize that I hadn’t bought the groceries and she hadn’t cooked. Then what we’d do? To overcome hunger, we’d again play. She was a very clever player. But she left me ten years back..leaving behind a two year old child..and a chess board..”His voice stammered. He wiped his eyes and continued “Often during sleepless nights, I play alone. We knew each other so well that we could predict each other’s moves with precision. I’d be playing my part and her part as she would have played. Once my son masters the game, I’d be getting a companion. Anyways, leave that all. One more game.”
“Ok. One more. And only one more.”
Akshay looked at his watch. It’s been one hour. No sign of Dada. He gave a missed call.
Dada’s SMS came. ‘Hlf hr..’
Dada would eliminate the hurdle of Mohit, his colleague. Mohit was everything which Akshay wasn’t. Intelligent, sincere, hardworking and handsome. But he was naïve. However he stood in between him and Sunita. She was completely smitten by him. Besides, he was in her father’s, good books. If he marries Sunita, then he’d get the firm. When Akshay felt that his plans were getting jeopardized by Mohit, he decided to get rid of him. Now Dada would take care of that.
Next game started. This time Akshay was circumspect. Gradually, his hitherto subdued aggression came to forefront. He ingeniously contained the attack of Gawre. For him winning was all that mattered. That too at any cost.
His pieces were strategically placed. His white bishop (h5) was attacking the black rook (e8 ) which was adjacent to a bishop (f8), which was sitting next to the king (g8). The same rook was again in the line of attack of his rook (e1). His queen was on b7. The black pawn (c7) with the support of knight on d5 was preventing him from further attack. But that could be sorted out in a few moves. His king was safely placed on b1 behind a line of two pawns.
It was Akshay’s move. He could kill the black rook with the bishop or the rook. He was confused. After a lot of thinking he decided to use the rook to finish the rook. He was sure he’d win the game in a few moves. And he thought the presence of rook in the forefront would expedite his victory.
That made row 1 empty but for the king. Next was Gawre’s move. The queen who was sitting silently on a4 moved to d1. It was a ‘Check’. Akshay thought it was a time wasting technique employed by Gawre to delay the happening of inevitable. He looked for means to escape from it. The king couldn’t move to row 2 as his forward advancement was blocked by two of his own pawns. There was no way to eclipse the check. Nor to kill the queen. It was a checkmate. Had he not moved the rook, the check would’ve been prevented. Moving the rook cost him the game.
Akshay couldn’t stomach it. He was just one step away from the peak and then he slipped and fell into abyss. He whacked the chess board in anger ,flinging the pieces in all directions.
Gawre sprang up. “What the hell have you done?”
“You fucking idiot! You think you’re smart enough to defeat me with your jackass game. Bloody moron, No one can defeat me. You get me.”
“What’s wrong with you? It’s just a game .Don’t get emotional.”
“Don’t try to teach me you minion. I know how to live. Screw off, you rascal.” He shoved Gawre with full thrust. He fell down on ground. People gathered around him.
Akshay left the scene immediately. He walked to the other side of the road where Dada would be coming in a few minutes. He thought about Gawre ruefully.
‘Poor man! I shouldn’t have overreacted. It’s a fact that I don’t know to play chess and to feed my inflated ego, I hurt him. To conceal my inability ,I made him to suffer for his ability. I’ve been always like that, throughout my life. To compensate my ineptitude, I punish others’ competence. Such an unworthy life! I’m always insecure. I don’t know what true happiness is. I’m not satisfied. I’m not proud about my self. And my ego is a veil to hide my incompetence. How ruthlessly have I treated my parents, my friends, my well wishers and..my girl…Oh God!!..Mohit too…I have planned to kill him…who regards me as his trustworthy friend…who has selflessly helped me on many occasions…and I’m repaying him by killing..Oh,NO!Why should he pay the price for my ambitions, which I cannot materialize with my own effort…I’m the gravest sinner..Fires of inferno wouldn’t spare me…God..Forgive me!’
Pangs of remorse clutched his mind. Again his phone beeped. Dada had arrived. He spotted his Black Scorpio parked on the other side of the road. He walked towards it. Dada came out of the car. A tall stout man with a callous face.
“Helloji.Sorry for being late. This Mumbai traffic is very irritating.”
Akshay didn’t respond to it. He was caught up in a moral dilemma.
“We won’t waste anymore time. Give us his photograph and address. And the advance too, the most important thing. DD, Ok” Dada continued.
“Well, you need not do anything” Akshay said hesitatingly.
“What do you mean?”
“You need not kill him” This time he said it boldly
“Then we will maim him. That would be cheaper too”
“No. You should not cause any harm to him. I don’t need your services.”
“What?Are you trying to fool us? Now what happened? He’s agreed to share the girl or what?
Anyways that’s fine. We are also glad to see a happy ending. So give us the full contract amount and we will also join the party”
“Why should I pay you if I haven’t received your services?”
“Oh poor child! Don’t you know our rule? Once a supari is given, its irrevocable. Give the advance now and we should get the rest of amount tomorrow. Everything will go according to our plan. Without the murder”
“No, that is not happening. Don’t try to coerce me. You don’t know my real power”.
“Who are you to raise voice against Dada”One of his companions jumped foreword punched him on his face with some kind of steel knuckles.
Akshay spun around and fell flat on the ground. He could hear a buzzing sound inside his head. He tried to get up.
“You rascals… I’ll call the police..” He murmured in his prostrated position.
Then Dada stamped forcefully on his chest. He could feel his rib cages breaking and puncturing his lungs. His heart was pumping hard and the brain got swollen.
“Tomorrow we should get our cash. Otherwise, we will be finishing you. Understand. Good bye”
They left the place
He didn’t make any effort to get up. He lied down there, gazing the setting sun. There was numbness in his body and gradually it waned away and pain gripped his body. His consciousness was withering away. People had gathered around. But no one bothered to extend any help. He had been touched by the underworld and that rendered him untouchable. Akshay lied down, languishing in pain, hoping that this trauma would exorcise the demons of his misdemeanours.