The green paint on the walls of Marottichal’s village teashop had started to flake, like coin scrapings on a scratch card, exposing a light blue tone of a bygone era. Perhaps this was once a rowdy bar or beer shop. But not anymore.
Mr Unnikrishnan, the teashop’s owner, sat opposite me at one of the wooden tables, his dark eyes fixated with an intimidating intensity on the chequered board that lay between us.
A callous hand rose and elegantly gripped the white bishop, sliding it gently into the black knight and toppling it over.
“He’s got you now,” said the spectating Baby John, slurping his chai to suppress a grin.
I surveyed the bleak scene unfolding before me. My few remaining pieces were backed into a corner, eager to surrender.
Around the teashop’s four other tables similar intense battles of wits were being fought, while a dust-coated Videocon television set languished on a shelf at the back of the room, unplugged and ignored.
Resorting to distraction, I poked a petrified pawn one square forward and asked Unnikrishnan why this game resonates so much with the people of Marottichal, a remote forest village in northern Kerala.
On a chess board you are fighting, as we are also fighting the hardships in our daily life
“Chess helps us overcome difficulties and sufferings,” said Unnikrishnan, taking my queen. “On a chess board you are fighting, as we are also fighting the hardships in our daily life.”
With a feigned bravado I took one of Unnikrishnan’s isolated pawns.
“And is it really that popular?” I asked.
Unnikrishnan shot me a wry smile. “Come, you can see for yourself,” he said, rising from the table.
I looked down to find my king cowering, surrounded by a murderous mob of white plastic pieces.
I guessed that was checkmate.
It was mid-morning and Marottichal’s tree-lined main street was busy, yet oddly quiet. The forest breeze didn’t carry the vexatious shrill of traffic horns – the deafening symphony of most Indian towns – but instead silently stirred the strips of bright bunting zigzagging overhead.
The bus stop opposite Unnikrishnan’s teashop was full of people, but no-one seemed to be going anywhere. Instead, the gathered crowd were squatted on their haunches, watching an intense chess match play out between two greying gentlemen. The men sat cross-legged and barefoot, their lungis (sarongs) taut across their thighs.
I soon spotted the bus a short distance away, though it carried no passengers; the engine was off, and the driver had turned from the wheel to contest a quick chess match with the conductor before the start of their next shift.
Friends on pavements, spouses on benches, colleagues over shop countertops; the black-and-white board perforated every scene. Around the corner from the teashop on the veranda of Unnikrishnan’s own home, reportedly one of the village’s most popular gaming spots, no fewer than three matches were taking place.
“In other Indian villages perhaps the maximum number of people that know chess is less than 50,” said Baby John, president of the Chess Association of Marottichal. “Here 4,000 of the 6,000 population are playing chess, almost daily.”
“And it is all thanks to this wonderful man,” he added, gesturing to Unnikrishnan.
Fifty years ago, Marottichal was a very different place. Like many villages in northern Kerala, alcoholism and illicit gambling were rife among its small population. Having developed a zeal for chess while living in the nearby town of Kallur, Unnikrishnan moved back to his afflicted hometown and opened his teashop, where he began teaching customers to play chess as a healthier way to pass the time.
Here 4,000 of the 6,000 population are playing chess, almost daily
Miraculously, the game’s popularity flourished while drinking and gambling declined. The village’s enthusiasm for the ancient pastime, which is believed to have originated in India in the 6th Century, has now become so great that Unnikrishnan estimates one person in every Marottichal household knows how to play.
“Luckily for us chess is more addictive than alcohol,” Baby John said.
Not only did the archaic game scupper alcoholism and supersede clandestine card games, but it has engrained itself into Marottichal’s identity, and, according to Baby John, it continues to protect the town’s residents from modern pitfalls.
“Chess improves concentration, builds character and creates community,” he said. “We don’t watch television here; we play chess and talk to each other.”
Chess improves concentration, builds character and creates community
“Even the kids?” I asked.
Unnikrishnan shot me another wry smile.
It was lunchtime when we arrived at Marottichal Primary School, a cluster of blue walls and orange-tiled roofs, to find the dusty courtyard awash with frenzied children, like a startled flock of pigeons in a public square.
But through the fray of bodies, I could see a row of children seated serenely at a line of tables.
We approached the nearest pair, who were perched at a discoloured bench with a chess board between them. Vithun and Eldho, both 12 years old, sported matching tufts of black hair and shared a tangible enthusiasm for chess – with a fervid admiration for one piece in particular.
“The knight is the best,” Vithun said.
“Definitely,” Eldho replied.
“It’s the most powerful.”
“You can move it in any direction!”
In a country undergoing rapid digitalisation, fanning wide-spread fears about Indian youth becoming disconnected from their country and culture, it was strange to hear two children talk so enthusiastically about a 1,000-year-old board game that’s interwoven into India’s history. Surely they would prefer to be watching television, I wondered out loud.
“Chess is best!” shouted Eldho as he sprung from his seat, almost toppling the board. Vithum scowled at him.
“Last year we came to the school with 15 chess boards and invited the children to learn chess,” Baby John explained as we fought our way back through the courtyard. “The following week we went back and all the children in the classroom had bought chess boards of their own.”
The positive response from the students, paired with their belief in the sanative qualities of the game, has led the Chess Association of Marottichal to request that the authorities include chess as part of the official school syllabus. This, they believe, will aid their vision of living in a village where everyone plays chess.
“Only then can we truly call ourselves a chess village,” Baby John concluded, explaining that he believes the title will cement Marottichal’s association to the much-loved sport and its edifying principles.
The wholesome lifestyle promoted by the village is seemingly attractive to Keralites, indicated by the remote area’s growing population despite relatively high land prices. The village has also lured visitors from as far away as Germany and the US keen to learn the game or hone their skills.
But despite this, as we trudged back to the teashop a lingering doubt gnawed at me: would a community centred on an ancient board game be able to withstand the rapid wave of modernisation sweeping across the Indian subcontinent?
My fears were heightened when we neared a group of teenagers tapping away on their smartphones, a sight that prompted me to voice these concerns to Unnikrishnan and Baby John.
But as we drew closer, the three of us could see what was commanding the group’s undivided attention: they were all playing chess online.
Unnikrishnan gave me one last smile.
I guessed that was checkmate.
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