Chess champion Nihshanka Debroy talks about his debut novel 'Checkmate'
Remember the 1977 Satyajit Ray classic "Satranj ke Khiladi" based on Munshi Premchand's short story about two noblemen obsessed with the game of chess, one of them even as he is losing his kingdom of Awadh to the East India Company?
It is this same passion that runs through author Nihshanka Debroy, the son of noted economist Bibek Debroy, a former under-12 Delhi chess champion who twice represented his state at the national level and competed with several opponents who are now grandmasters and international masters, and his debut novel, "Checkmate" that has just
been released by Westland as an e-book and will be available in print once the lockdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic is lifted.
The book is all the more relevant in the present "difficult" times when as in chess, the right moves need to complement strategy.
"Chess taught me never to give up, to hold my defence when under fierce attack. Sometimes, against better players, my pieces would be forced into terrible positions. But when my opponent's attack fizzled out, I would find a way to improve my position move by move. I won many of those games," the Burdwan-born Debroy, who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and is an analyst in the pharmaceutical industry, told in an interview.
"We are living in extraordinary times. Bad news is hitting us daily, from multiple angles. No matter how trying the circumstances, we cannot give up. This is when we need to hold our defence.
"As in chess, we need to complement strategy with the right moves," Debroy maintained.
It is these "right moves" that fit seamlessly between two eras in "Checkmate" to deliver an unputdownable thriller.
It begins in 455 AD in Central India.
The marauding Svetahunas manage to take prisoner Harshavardhan, among the bravest of Bharatvarsha's warriors.
In captivity, he fashions a game of combat strategy with black and white pebbles, preparing for the day when the Svetahunas and his people face-off in battle - a war that will determine the future of Bharatvarsha. His compatriot Kalidasa, a famed poet, shares Harshavardhan's captivity and the hope to save their country.
Switch to the present day New Delhi.
When her estranged father Rajinder Joshi dies suddenly, Vinita is called in from New York to take charge of his 40-year-old company, AveoGen, now floundering for lack of leadership.
As she sorts through his papers and effects, Vinita discovers tantalising clues to Rajinder's long-standing obsession - the origins of chess and the identity of its creator. Shuttling between boardrooms and unknown historical sites, Vinita must battle both her inner demons and her father's many enemies to arrive at the truth.
Much research went into the writing of the book.
"I investigated which battles occurred before the first mentions of Chaturanga, the ancestor of chess. Almost immediately, I pictured the face of a young warrior. A story began to brew," Debroy explained.
"I asked more questions. Questions such as – when did chess originate?
Do we know who created it? And why? Surely, a game whose sole purpose was to destroy the opposition had an origin drenched in conflict. I searched everywhere for the origin of chess, read the mammoth 'A History of Chess' by H. J. R. Murray. However, I still had no answer.
"That is when I began to imagine what might have been," Debroy said.
To this end, the historical narrative is a combination of research, such as by reading Murray's book, visiting old Indian forts and a geographical trek via Google Maps 3D that he extrapolated to the 5th century.
"For the sake of storytelling, I steered clear of certain granular historical details in 'Checkmate' (such as the specifics of clothing worn in the 5th century or the script used to write Sanskrit in those times).
"I found many interesting nuggets in course of my research. For example, there is a village named Ströbeck in Germany with a long association with chess. According to legend, in the early 11th century, a military commander was imprisoned there in a tower. Out of his boredom, he made a chess set and taught his guards how to play,"
Debroy said, adding that he hoped to make it to Ströbeck "someday when international travel finds a new normal".
Till that time, he is focused on bringing "Checkmate" to as wide an audience as possible.
"In parallel, I have been working on a second book (non-fiction) about a new way of thinking and navigating the world. I plan to finish that in the next 9-12 months. Meanwhile, a psychological fiction idea has been growing in my mind," Debroy concluded.