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By Adreyo Sen
There is a kingdom that is a black-and-white chessboard. You can only travel between alternate states of black and white. At the center of the kingdom is a narrow, but deep well. It is rumored that the architect of the well slumbers there and that, when he rises, the kingdom and the hills that surround it will shatter. The black squares are inhabited by a black race and the white squares by a white race.
Were this is a simplistic story (well, one kind of simplistic story at any rate), the whites would be forces of good and the blacks forces of evil. But, such an assumption would be false.
The blacks are simple and have a strong but primitive code of ethics. However, they are prone to violence, quick to take offence. The whites are shrewd and somewhat edgy in their business practices, but they have a legal system that promises justice. The blacks and whites do not get along, but conflict is generally instigated by the whites, who travel into the neighboring black squares and start rumors.
Most intra-ethnic black conflict is also caused by the whites, who open sores in the black psyche through editorials and shows they plant in black newspapers and television shows. They might zero in on the failure of black squares in charge of water to deliver it on time to other black squares, or a disparaging remark made by a black mayor of one square about another black mayor. Where hatred is concerned, the blacks have a long memory.
Each square is a town in its own right. Some are arranged around a central common with the school and the library occupying a prominent position. Others are a mishmash of tenement houses with government structures poked in somewhere in between. Some, built on finance, boast buildings with spires that shoot into the sky.
To get from one square to another, one has to cross a gulf. This gulf is not physical, but mental–are we willing to adopt to the ways of another world?
The blacks stay within their squares, maintaining only loose ties of give and take with other black squares. The whites, with their unhindered capital, move across black squares with facility, sometimes abducting members of the black squares.
What does a traveler do, passing through the chessboard, unwilling as he is to get involved in this game of chess–not a deadly game, mind you, but a game of attrition, one in which the blacks get poorer and the whites get richer? He must constantly prove he is not aligned to either group. And, he must constantly test his speech and that of others for invisible fault lines.
But, to get to the great cities that lie beyond, cities whose children play with diamonds and other gems, one must cross the chessboard. Those who do so, be they wealthy widows, financiers or spies eager to suss out ways of exploiting these great cities, must pretend to be of no account–itinerants, peddlers, religious fanatics and so on.
As peddlers of petty trinkets, they have been great favorites of the children of the squares. Their spurious religious fanaticism has found its adherents. Indeed, some of them have forgotten their intended destination and stayed on the chessboard.
These travelers tend to travel in groups, generally on foot. There are those who travel by car, but find the blacks have no petrol and that the whites charge extortionate prices. To cohere as a group, they tell each other stories. (These tenuous bonds do not last when they reach the great cities, then it’s strictly each person for himself.) These stories are about their made-up characters. One, a widow with five overworked servants, who’s had a lifetime of venality, might imagine for herself a past as a young woman dancing across the temples of India. Another, a dour virgin who blushes to hear the word “fondle,” might speak of nights she spent splayed across perfumed sheets entertaining five men at once.
Though the pilgrims may cease to speak to each other soon after finishing their journeys, save to quarrel bitterly, they engage in one final act of collaboration–putting their stories together as a book known as the Pilgrim’s Progress. Beautifully illustrated, this book comes out annually.
Once, several years ago, one of the pilgrims was a young adventurer. He scaled down the deep well at the center of the chessboard and found its bottom was illustrated with paintings, some of which must have dated back to a time (very long back) when the members of the black and white squares lived in harmony.
But, the young adventurer never got to speak of this wonderful evidence of past harmony. Soon after he emerged, not more than ten feet from the well as a matter of fact, he came across a veiled woman with the most beautiful eyes and skin like snow mixed with charcoal. He fell in love with her and married her and forgot all about his discovery.
He settled into a life as a writer of mediocre love stories, all of which involved some incarnation of his wife. These sold well in both the white and the black squares–love can be appallingly clichéd wherever you go.
He has long since died. No one has ventured to the well since.
We shall do our best to keep the paintings a secret.