We must all have heard the old joke about Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. After two hours you look at your watch, praying that the finishing line is in sight, only to discover that a mere fifteen minutes have elapsed. In similar mega biblion vein, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 587,287 words long. Cervantes’ Don Quixote follows at 425,928, while Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain is 308,011. I have tackled all three literary behemoths and, in each case, I did in fact make it to the ribbon. The one major novel which I started, but found impossible to finish, was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (coming in at a paltry 208,773 words; a relative minnow compared with Tolstoy, Cervantes and Mann). A little known fact is that the great 18th century French chess champion, Andre Danican Philidor, once composed an opera based on Cervantes’s anti-hero Don Quixote and his truculent servant, Sancho Panza.
Summoned for Jury service in 1981, I took along the Rushdie tome, scorning the admonition of the 4th century BC Alexandrian librarian Callimachus (“mega biblion mega kakon”; “big book, big evil”) in order to while away the hours, while waiting to be called for inclusion in a jury. I was eventually enlisted for three trials and what struck me most forcibly, while in action, was the extraordinary dedication shown by the defending barristers in constructing a case for their clients, persons whom Shakespeare might well have identified as “caterpillars of the commonwealth.”
In one case, a suspiciously skinny teenage would-be burglar had broken into an off licence by shattering the glass pane of a shop front window, badly slashing his own hand in the process. The constabulary followed the obvious trail of dripping blood to the perpetrator’s home and arrested him. It was around this time that I began to develop my high calorie theory of penal reform, which I advocated in my column of July 11 2020. Let me have crims about me who are fat, as Julius Caesar almost said.
During jury service, I was also seriously impressed by the profound humanity and high gravity of the judges, a pleasure to watch in action, as they persevered in seeking a just outcome, rather than invoking the full fury of the law against such hapless defendants. It made me feel proud to be part of a legal system which put such eloquent oratory at the service of those who were patently guilty.
But back to Midnight’s Children. As I struggled through the impenetrable treacle of Rushdie’s prose, it became apparent that the crux of the novel was the abrupt independence and immediate partition, at midnight on August 15, 1947, of British India, which cost an estimated two million lives, as Muslims migrated north towards Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs travelled south, in equally vast and mutually hostile columns.
Although a masterpiece I am sure, I waded on no further than that with the book. However, the conclusion I did reach, from the fragment I read, was awareness of the huge controversy at the time, caused by the redeless Mountbatten’s insensitive and incompetent decision to rush through partition. The eponymously Unready Æthelred, England’s worst ever monarch by repute, had he been in charge, could hardly have done worse. The consequent abrupt transition to the dual entities of India and Pakistan, separated, indeed untimely ripped apart at birth, resulted in human carnage on an epic scale.
The tensions caused by partition persist to this day and have recently resurfaced in a chess context, namely a book by Grandmaster Daniel King: Sultan Khan: The Indian Servant who became chess champion of the British Empire.
In what is clearly a labour of love, King recounts the chessography of Sultan Khan, a member of the retinue of Sir Umar Hyat Khan, aide de camp to the king emperor George V and owner of a hundred racing greyhounds. Sir Umar was a chess loving, much decorated, fiercely pro-empire Indian aristocrat who visited London on official business in the late 1920s and who left in the early 1930s.
During that time the hitherto unknown Sultan Khan won the British Chess Championship three times (the British also doubled as the championship of the Empire), represented The Empire on top board in two chess Olympiads and defeated such titans of the game as Jose Capablanca, Salo Flohr, Akiba Rubinstein, Xavielly Tartakower and Frank Marshall. He also overcame, with almost ridiculous ease, the leading British Masters, such as Hugh Alexander, Sir Stuart Milner Barry and Harry Golombek, all of whom were later to serve with Alan Turing as codebreakers at Bletchley Park.
Sultan Khan’s story is amazing. That a previously invisible and unrecognised player from a village in the subcontinent should travel to Europe and, in short order, start to defeat most of the world’s elite, virtually defies belief. That he should then disappear back home, after gloriously defying the chess world, never again to compete at high level, simply beggars comprehension. It was as if Cinderella had made it to the ball, entranced the guests, dazzled Prince Charming, escaped at midnight… and then vanished without trace.
Two decades after this refulgent star had completed his chess odyssey, regained his Ithaca and thence dissolved into obscurity, the universe of chess was to become enthralled to the mightiest state-driven chess power we have ever seen, or are ever likely to see again. In 1951, when the Soviet Union had successfully launched its bid for world dominion in chess, Mikhail Botvinnik, the Red Czar of the USSR chess imperium, retained his World Title at Moscow in a 24 game match against his challenger, David Bronstein. As the games from the World Championship eventually filtered their way through to Sultan Khan’s village, in what was by then Pakistan, the former champion of the British Empire was heard to murmur: “these are two very weak players.”
King’s book strongly emphasises the twin concepts of “India” and “servant”, adding that Sultan Khan’s command of English was poor. The continuing spectre of that traumatic partition from 1947 has, though, reared its head in the form of vociferous complaints from Sultan Khan’s granddaughter, Dr. Atiyab Sultan. Dr. Atiyab avers that the chess genius was neither Indian nor, unlike Sancho Panza, a servant, and certainly not illiterate. The link to her scathing review of Grandmaster King’s book can be found here. It will be observed that she goes so far as to make a heartfelt demand that Daniel King’s biography be withdrawn from publication.
Readers are invited to make up their own minds, but, for what it’s worth, my view is that Sultan Khan, during the period of his greatest chess triumphs, was a citizen of British India, not the embryonic, as yet to be formed, Pakistan. Meanwhile, eye witnesses, quoted in King’s book, certainly gained the impression that Sultan Khan both acted as, and appeared to be, a servant in the household of the noble plutocrat and munificent chess Maecenas, Sir Umar.
In any case, the illustrious World Champion Viswanathan Anand, who is undoubtedly from India, being born in Madras, has willingly agreed to supply a foreword to King’s book. It is praiseworthy that the combined example and inspirational chess genius, both of Sultan Khan and of Anand, has combined to create a fruitful contemporary climate, where no fewer than sixty-four grandmasters have arisen in India. Many of these prodigious talents are astoundingly bright teenagers, or, amazingly, even pre-teenagers, thus belying the pronouncement of late 17th century Poet Laureate John Dryden in his poem “Absalom and Achitophel”:
“Great wit is sure to madness near allied
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”
In India, great wit, aka intelligence, continues to flourish and expand in chess, as it once did during the cerebral efflorescence of the classical period of Indian mathematics, from 400-1600 AD. Now, an extraordinary cohort of young talents, the modern chessboard equivalents of Brahmagupta, Aryabhata and Varahamihira, intellectually alert and endowed with mental advantage of every sort, is rapidly establishing India as a worthy successor to that former great chess power, the USSR. Even the most promising UK chess prodigy, Shreyas Royal, born in 2009, is of Indian extraction.
As a footnote to the exploits of Sultan Khan, a curious anomaly has arisen. For reasons unknown, FIDE (The Fédération Internationale des Échecs), the world governing body for chess, has inadvertently failed to confer the posthumous title of “Grandmaster” on Sultan Khan. A campaign is underway at this very moment to correct this horrendous oversight, and I wish the signatories well in their endeavour to reverse a manifest and blatant historic injustice.
This week’s games include a win by Tolstoy, against his biographer, Aylmer Maude; Sultan Khan’s great victory of manoeuvre against the near invincible Capablanca, and a win by a then 12 year old Indian prodigy against a well known contemporary Grandmaster, who, like Sultan Khan, had also notched up three British Championship titles.