I spent one of these cold Sundays glued to my heater, reading Stefan Zweig. He was an Austrian Jewish writer celebrated in the literary salons of early 20th-century Europe. He wrote novellas, which he described as his “beloved but unfortunate format, too long for a newspaper... too short for a book” — worthwhile for their own ineffable sake. Zweig left Austria at Adolf Hitler’s ascent, and ended his life in exile, with suicide. The day before he killed himself, he sent a manuscript to his publisher: It would become one of his best known works — Chess Story .
Chess Story is remarkable for its craft — how it infuses a board-game with knuckle-biting suspense — and for its story, an arrogant Grandmaster who finds an unexpected challenger in the diminutive Dr B who, it turns out, honed his chess skills not in tournaments but while incarcerated by the Nazis. For months, Dr B was kept in solitary confinement — “it corrodes and consumes you, this nothing and nothing and nothing around you” — until he found a reprieve for his sanity through chess games in his head. It is an odd thing that, the day after reading about Dr B’s imprisonment, I was detained myself. I don’t mean to compare four hours in the courtyard of Mandir Marg police station with imprisonment by the Nazis — nor, in fact, with four hours in a police station if I were Muslim and male in Uttar Pradesh. It was against news of police brutality in that state, in fact — of old men and children detained and tortured to stifle demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act — that I had gone to protest. When I reached UP Bhavan, where the protest was scheduled, a policeman asked for my ID; when I asked him why, two women officers emerged by my side and took me off to a waiting bus.
The detention was as convivial as it was nerve-wracking. I met old friends and made new ones. Students kept up a near-constant score of slogans: Inquilab-o-inquilab , azaadi , UP police hai-hai . At lunchtime, Dilli police, chai-chai . Still, no more than an hour had passed when I began to feel the twin pressures of fear and boredom. We were in a courtyard and chanting, we had each other and our phones, we had lawyers who even organised tea — but we could not leave. It takes a while for a brain to grasp the full meaning of being unfree; we are used, after all, to spending our days detained in schools and offices, by obligations. But to be locked away from the world? The slight dread of the toilet (do not go, said a newly-made friend. It is a metaphor for the depredations of the State). The growing chill. The increasing awareness of being kept away from your own life, by force, without explanation. I found myself walking in circles around the courtyard, partly for warmth, partly to pass the time, and every prison movie I’ve ever seen flashed before my eyes. Four hours into our stint, my newly-made friend said, wryly, “They’ve broken my spirit”. We laughed, but we had both had enough.
I came home and looked up Stefan Zweig. The story of his suicide in 1942 has such emotional force: He fled all the way to Brazil and still the thud of Nazi boots stomping on Europe haunted him. One day, in despair, Zweig and his wife took an overdose of pills and lay down in bed, formally dressed, to die. A man who killed himself in protest must surely have lived in protest too? In fact, he did not. As political philosopher Hannah Arendt puts it in a biting essay, politics had overturned his life and yet Zweig “continued to boast of his unpolitical point of view: It never occurred to him that, politically speaking, it might be an honour for him to stand outside the law when all men were no longer equal before it”. Arendt was not alone in her contempt. Zweig had dominated literary headlines before the war; he was almost entirely ignored after it. Arendt is, of course, the author, famously, of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which contains a brief allusion to the chess that Zweig might have enjoyed. Nikolai Krylenko was a senior functionary of the Soviet State — by which he was eventually killed. Before his purge, Krylenko helmed the Soviet chess association, in which capacity he wrote of how the State must “condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess’, like the formula ‘art for art’s sake’”. It was not that Krylenko didn’t want Russians to play chess; he wanted them to play it in shock-brigades, he wanted the game to get its own five-year plan. He just didn’t want Russians to enjoy it.
Enjoyment would strip the game of its ideological value; a man who played chess for its own sake wouldn’t be playing it for the fascist endgame: Victory above and over everything. Aptly, notes Arendt, Heinrich Himmler, one of Hitler’s most powerful deputies, “defined the SS member as the new type of man who... [would never] do ‘a thing for its own sake’”. Zweig was not this type of man. He was a type who chose to write novellas. A type so lacking in political spirit that he wouldn’t even speak against the Nazis when they burned his own books. But was he also, perhaps, an embodiment of what threatens the idea of a totalitarian state the most, the nothing and nothing and nothing that is its goal? Was the extinguishing of his own life the ultimate political act, an instinctive demand for freedom?
Parvati Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and the author, most recently, of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal