The BlindMaster-Suraj Sriwatav
The BlindMaster-Suraj Sriwatav9 mins 201 9 mins 201
In the beginning, there was no signboard for the free coaching center at the Navrang Haveli but how come evening time it was packed with children eager to learn. The two spacious rooms opening into the large courtyard were filled with both regular school students and dropouts trying to return to mainstream education. The science and mathematics classes were taken by Neha Shekawat, the daughter of the house and languages and social sciences lessons were taken by Arun Kumar a young man who had recently moved into the guest room. Both teachers took the beginner level classes imparting basic literacy skills to the underprivileged children of the locality.
Even a few months ago, the ancient mansion was lying desolated with only Neha and her old purblind grandfather who was mostly confined to his charpoy in the courtyard itself. The old man spent the entire day on his string bed in the center of the house from where he could keep an eye on all the surrounding rooms and the main door looking out into the street. The coaching center had started with only a handful of children and now it was bursting at its seams as word of mouth had rapidly spread about the sincere efforts of the two teachers. Arun Kumar was the catalyst for this change.
How did he make his way into the Navrang Haveli and into Neha’s heart is a tale worth telling.
Love, at first sight, is a common occurrence but what about love at first sound. Is it possible? Neha had first heard his rich baritone voice even before she saw him on a park bench under the giant peepal tree in the Lodhi Gardens. Street urchins surrounded Arun and she saw that he was reading aloud in English to the slum kids and explaining the same in vernacular language. He also made them repeat the English words after which he had written down in big bold letters on his notebook. The informal lessons ended daily with failing light and the gardens closing up after sundown.
As she finished her last lap of evening walk going around the tombs of Mohammed Shah's Tomb the Sheesh Gumbad and Sikander Lodi's Tomb the Bara Gumbad she paused. She had decided to speak to him today. He was young, tall and looked like a firebrand ideologue in his khadi kurta and a day’s stubble on his fair cheeks.
“Hi, I’ve noticed you for a few days now. Are you a social worker or teacher?” Neha asked.
“No, no, I’m just a student myself, just helping these kids pick up basic functional English,” the boy said pleased at the attention he was getting.
“My name is Neha Shekawat, I live here nearby in the Khan Market area,” Neha said.
“I’m Arun Kumar, I’m a research scholar at Delhi University,” Arun introduced himself.
“Why don’t you teach these children at your home?” Neha was curious.
“Ha-ha actually I’m homeless myself in Delhi, I’m from Lucknow and am putting up with a friend at a boys hostel which is a more dangerous place for these kids than the streets of Delhi,” Arun was cynical.
“What do you mean putting up? Don’t you have your own hostel room?” Neha was curious.
“There is a space crunch as maximum rooms are occupied by ‘outsiders’ and we have to share to survive here in this capital city,” Arun was a matter of fact.
“You know I too always wanted to do something for these poor kids,” Neha mused.
“Well you could always teach them free like me,” Arun Kumar said.
The rest, as they say, was fated. They met every evening at the Lodhi gardens where their friendship blossomed while imparting lessons to street kids. Soon Neha pestered her grandfather to let in the young student to live and teach the street children in their spacious mansion. This is how Arun Kumar moved into the Navrang Haveli.
The once palatial mansion had sixteen rooms on two floors, eight on the first floor all opening into the narrow trellised balcony looking down into octagonal patio below and eight on the ground floor level opening into the central hexagonal courtyard inlaid with colorful tiles. The entire balcony was hung with Rajasthani frescoes depicting images of gods, goddesses, animals, and scenes from the epics and mythologies. After the sudden death of Neha’s parents in a car accident most of these rooms remained locked up. Only Neha and her grandfather used a couple of these rooms until the coaching classes required more rooms to accommodate the students and resident teacher.
The very first day Arun moved in he noticed Neha’s grandfather, an old man wearing dark glasses lounging on his charpoy hunched over a chessboard. His daily opponent was Hakimji another veteran warrior of chess. Most of the time both the old men were deeply engrossed in the game and occasionally pulled at a hukka pipe which they shared.
Soon he began to make time to play chess with the old man who spoke little but played very well. Though his dark glasses were a permanent feature on his wrinkled face his senses were sharp and he knew exactly where the chessmen were on the board like the back of his hand. Neha was happy to see him bonding so well with her grandpa.
“Spread your pieces as much as possible all over the board. The more space you occupy the more advantage you will have. Plan your moves at least four moves in advance. Start with a well-planned strong opening,” the old man advised spitting bright red paan juice into a brass spittoon that he kept under the charpoy.
“Yes Chacha, show me how to play my pawns to maximum advantage? Arun was eager to learn.
“Pawns are strong only when they are in a chain. Pawn chain shapes that look like an inverted V from your side tend to be stronger than other chains. Avoid splitting pawns into isolated groups as the will become a liability,” the old man demonstrated the theory on the board.
“Shall I capture isolated pawns of the opponent to capture space on the board,” Arun asked.
“Don’t be greedy! Sometimes you may find an easy pawn to pick up but it may be a trap a - poisoned pawn. Accepting it will let your opponent launch a powerful attack,” Shekhawat Chachaji gave his sagacious suggestion.
As days passed, Arun’s chess improved and so did his paraphernalia. Soon he required more rooms for himself. He made Neha unlock more rooms on the pretext of airing them and then promptly moved some of his things into them.
In the meanwhile, Neha had introduced attendance taking and other official formalities in their joint coaching classes. She had started keeping a dossier containing all the street children’s details. Arun was confused but Neha assured him that she had her reasons.
“Who’s there?” The old man demanded instinctively sensing entry of intruders inside the haveli.
“Relax Chachaji, they’re just my friends from the University, Arun countered as he climbed up the stairs with three men and showed them the mansion inside out. The visitors were very interested and took several photographs of beautiful interiors.
“Have you ever thought of converting the Haveli into a heritage hotel? You could mint money you know,” Arun broached the topic off-hand to Neha.
“No, rather I would like to set up a school in it,” Neha had her own plans.
“I thought that since you’re a Marwari business is in your blood and you might be interested but now I see that you’re only a teacher,” Arun failed to convince her.
“You don’t understand this Haveli is not only our home which provides security and comfort in seclusion from the outside world but also a status symbol for our family,” Neha was being obstinate.
Now that the die had been cast, their friendship took a beating but none had the heart to call it off as they continued teaching together in the coaching classes but worked separately towards their own private agenda too. Arun Kumar kept on occupying more rooms. He also changed the locks of the rooms and was slowly but silently spreading himself all over the mansion. In the meanwhile, the chess lessons with grandfather continued.
“When in trouble, remember that attack is often the best form of defense. Look for such possibility in the game,” the old man rolled a betel leaf and handed it to his shagrid along with the practical advice. Apart from smoking the hukka, chewing paan was another vice of the old man.
“When is the best time to attack, how to check and mate in fewest possible moves?” Arun was trying to learn something new every day.
“Don’t launch a premature attack, first develop your pieces so that they coordinate well with one another and then plan your attack. Unless you do this, you will find that your attack will lose steam,” the old man demonstrated several positions on the board.
Arun was amazed at the old man’s memory of past games and visual-spatial perception.
“Please sign this vakalatnama - power of attorney Chachaji, I’ll get you the best deal to convert this old Haveli into the best heritage hotel in Delhi,” Arun presented a legal-looking document to the old man.
“Wait beta, let’s finish the game. We’ll discuss it over dinner with Neha,” the old man wanted to play fair.
“Arun, my school has nearly completed the process of Govt. Aid recognition, please help me fulfill my dream,” Neha said over dinner.
“Why slog forever. Just lease the mansion to the Raj Group and you can live the rest of the life in pleasure and prosperity,” Arun countered.
As they thrust and parried the old man opened his silver box and made post-dinner paans for all of them. It saddened him to watch the two friends bitterly quarrel. Too much familiarity breeds contempt, Arun Kumar had become increasingly abusive and insulting to Neha over the future plans that he harbored for the Haveli. Though Neha had threatened to evict him out of the Haveli he had refused to leave.
“Here beta have a paan, we’ll discuss this tomorrow,” the old man offered a zarda paan to Arun and a meetha paan to his granddaughter before popping one in his own mouth.
Miffed that his practical suggestions were not cutting any ice with these old-fashioned people. Arun walked away angry and upset.
“Goodnight, Chachaji,” Arun left the courtyard for his bedroom.
Next day in the morning the servant girl’s screams woke up the entire household. Something was seriously wrong with the resident teacher. He was not waking up. A local doctor was called in who declared Arun dead. A massive heart attack in his sleep had done him in. It had been sudden and did not even give him time to call for help.
Neha was inconsolable and the old man was withdrawn in grief. He remained impassive like the silent watchful spider that sits in the center of its web and hears even a slight vibration across the silken web.
When the plant alkaloid poison mixed in the zarda paan triggered the fatal heart attack in him, Arun’s body was first immobilized. In the remaining few minutes as he gasped for his last breath he realized that the old master had taught him the strategy of capturing space but omitted to teach him the value of controlling the center which is the strongest place in the battlefield. He had been reduced to just being a pawn in the hands of the expert players and had to pay the ultimate price.
A month after his death a tearful Neha hoisted a signboard above the Navrang Haveli’s intricately wood carved portico with the bold letters ARUN KUMAR MEMORIAL SCHOOL, painted below the school name was the Govt. Registration number. Apart from the students, the other guests present on the august occasion included Hakim Chacha the old man’s ancient chess companion who had supplied the main ingredient for the poisoned paan.