The Great Game —Mahmud Sipra

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More and more, the American sensed a tendency to forget that the world was just a chessboard on which the fates of the little countries were dictated by the exigencies of the play and that the strategy of the play itself was to maintain a balance

We live in dangerous times. Even the
simple and innocent pastime of watching a cricket match is no longer possible, and now, in all probability, won’t be for a very long time. It is safer and perhaps less hazardous to just stay at home and play a game of chess. This short excerpt is from a novel I wrote a long time ago. The title and the book has less to do with chess and more to do with that other Great Game that has continued to be played out in our region for more than a century. Only the players keep changing, the terrain remains pretty much the same. Any similarities that you may pick up with the present times, I may point out, are purely incidental, but intentional nonetheless.

In Rome that night, there was a violent storm. The rain lashed the shoppers on the Via Veneto and the Via Condotti and the tourists near the Trevi Fountain, sending them scurrying for cover.
Among the people now running up the Spanish Steps was a hefty-looking man in a grey raincoat. Reaching the top of the famous landmark, he crossed the street with a slow deliberate gait and entered the main entrance of the Hasler Hotel. He walked into the bar and met the casually dressed American with a copy of the Herald Tribune in his hand. They greeted each other like old friends.
“It is good to see you again, Comrade,” he said, taking his raincoat off.
“Yeah, it’s been a long time.”
The American had come from Munich, the Russian via East Berlin.
“Why don’t we go up to my suite?” said the American. “It’s more private there.”
The Russian nodded
The meeting had been rather hastily arranged and the American had been unable to make those careful preparations in which he so delighted and was such an expert. Still, he was glad of the meeting. Meetings had been infrequent of late, and that worried him.
He believed passionately in the value of the dialogue he had maintained with the Russian on behalf of succeeding administrations for over thirty-five years. He knew that his Russian counterpart felt the same about his role as spokesman for Russia, but he felt that the climate was changing subtly. Both sides were beginning to believe their own public posturing and manoeuvres; the game was getting more brutal, less subtle.
More and more, the American sensed a tendency to forget that the world was just a chessboard on which the fates of the little countries were dictated by the exigencies of the play and that the strategy of the play itself was to maintain a balance, to ensure that every move and counter-move were agreed in advance, that neither side should ever approach checkmate. Checkmate would be the end of it all.
The American, as always, had brought the Russian a bottle of his favourite American malt whisky, the Russian a box of those very special Cuban cigars obtainable only in Communist countries.
“Do you remember the first time you and I met, Comrade?” asked the Russian.
“Yeah,” said the American, “On a DC-3 plane. More than thirty years ago. The world was younger then.”
“So were we, Comrade.”
“Right, what’s on the agenda?”
“I’m not interested and neither are you in what is on the agenda. It’s what’s on your mind, Comrade.”
“Right,” said the American. ’Okay. Pakistan.”
“You mean the current situation, Comrade?”
“Yup. What’s your prediction?”
“We don’t make predictions. We make promises that we keep, Comrade. You Americans make the predictions.”
“So what is your view?” asked the American.
The Russian shook his head. “Not good.”
“Yeah, it’s a shame. That’s our position too.”
The Russian grinned. “Of course,” he said. “Otherwise we would not be here.”
“We think that they would be impossible
to control…”
“Not that you seek control, Comrade. Yes?”
“Of course not. There are other reasons,”
said the American.
“Reasons, Comrade? We would have thought that by now, your list of reasons would be quite extensive.”
“Believe me, they are…we cannot afford to have Pakistan fall into the wrong hands…and neither can you, my friend.” The American took a long swig of his whisky and relit his cigar.
“Ah, you refer to those ‘God’s own warriors’, yes Comrade?”
“Can you imagine, a nuclear-armed state in their hands, even the thought gives me a nightmare.”
“Yes! I know…You have had such nightmares before…before we acquired our own bomb. Is that not so, Comrade?”
“Yes. But that was before the Pakistanis went and got their own. That wasn’t part of any plan, yours or ours.”
“True. So let us get to the point then.” The Russian raised his bushy eyebrows.
“We felt you could persuade the Indians to lend a helping hand…after all you do have an equation with them now for some time,” The American said with a wry smile through a haze of thick cigar smoke.
“Our equation does not include the ever watchful Chinese, Comrade.”
“I see your point.” The American nodded as he sipped his drink. “Very well then, is it agreed?”
“Da! It is agreed. Method, Comrade?”
“Oh, simple and direct,” the American stated matter-of-factly.
“Yes. I thought so too…” chuckled the Russian.
“I think may be it’s a case for a freelance, one of their own,’ the American said.
“Excellent idea! Fitting.”
“I must confess that, er, we did think of activating somebody from the old stable.”
“You didn’t just think, Comrade, you tried. You are talking of Kassim, no? We’d have no objection.”
“That’s agreed then. Now that we’ve talked method, whose turn is it, yours or ours?’ asked the American.
The Russian smiled. “I forget, Comrade. Why
don’t we play?”
The American pointed to the coffee table where a chessboard was already in place. “Your move, Comrade.”
The American opened, pawn to king four.
Outside, the rain drummed on the double-glazing.
The Russian took a sip of American malt whisky and replied, pawn to queen bishop four.
The American rolled the rich smoke of his cigar round his tongue and brought out his king knight, as he reminisced about the first time he and the Russian had ever played chess, on a propeller-driven plane, leaving New Delhi, on the eve of the Independence of Pakistan.
The Russian paused, his giant bear-like paw hovering over the chessboard, and then he made his next move.
Pawn to king three.

Mahmud Sipra is a best selling author and an independent columnist. He can be reached at

Reproduced by permission of the author and DT\03\05\story_5-3-2009_pg3_2

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