14 November 2011

On chess and our ‘analiterature’

Athula Russell, multiple winner of the National Chess Title (Sri Lanka)
I am in a room filled with chess players.  All they do is analyse this and that.  Their world is mostly made of games, theirs and those played by others. They pour over positions, analyzing options.  There’s a lot of back and forth among them.  Some banter.  It is hard work, but they see it as enjoyment, which is a good thing.

They are assisted by coach, fellow-player and a lot of software. With a click of a button they can pull up hundreds of games played by top Grandmasters, covering specific opening and even specific lines of play within an opening.  They move among windows with utmost ease, play through, absorb and synthesize information at speeds I still find hard to fathom. 

These kids know how to analyze; not just stuff that happens on those 64 squares made for magic and poetry, but things outside them as well.  Chess is not a glamour sport of course and some even question its right to be classified as a ‘sport’, arguing that it is a ‘game’.  I think such distinctions are arbitrary and suspect that they are prompted by a certain jealousy. 

The truth is that a large percentage of top players go on to excel in their studies.  Many complete doctorates in their chosen field and secure tenured teaching or research positions in universities, here and abroad.  Some move to the corporate sector and climb swiftly to the top.  Very few fall by the proverbial wayside.    

Some might say that our school curricula is disconcertedly lacking in imparting analytical skills to children.  That comes only post-O/L and even then mostly in the mathematics stream, outside of the IQ-raising exercises for the Grade 5 Scholarship Examination.  We have a system which allows ‘by-hearters’ to get by.  Every year we let out of our school system thousands upon thousands whose analytical abilities are for the most part picked informally and in varying degrees, depending on circumstances.  Only Geometry requires some analysis. The rest of it is little more than learning facts and figures or else learning theorems that are easily applied. 

We have one significant fallback though. We are a society that loves word-play. We have countless idioms, pirulu.  Even when we borrow words from other languages, we twist them, play with them, split and splice them.  From a very early age our children are introduced to the wonderful world of riddles, Theravili.  The sub-category thun-theravili or three-fold riddles make lyricism and pun part of our being and moreover teach us to see beyond word, connect disparate things, twist and re-twist and thereby hone our analytical abilities. 

Kaannu goyyak kanda laala panda laalui constitutes gibberish.  I first heard it in Jayantha Chandrasiri’s film ‘Agnidaahaya’.  It is an old perali kaviya, or a twist-poem.  You have to untwist it to understand: gonnu kayak landa kaala, kanda paalui (a herd of elk, having over-grazed makes the hillside desolate).

The Sinhala folk literature is rich in word play.  It was part and parcel of rural life and still is in some parts of the country.  Speak with a villager for an hour and I am willing to wager that you will be treated to several idioms, words and sentences with several meaning-layers, subtleties that pinch formality and permissibility and thereby restore balance in unequal relationships/exchanges as well as sense of dignity.

I suspect that the same could be said of the word and language use of Tamil people in Sri Lanka.  The Thirukkural, my Grade 8 Tamil teacher Mr. Elias used to say, is not just philosophy but a work filled with literary treats.

Dignity aside, these literary devices, in addition to inculcating in the minds and sensibilities of user and used-on the philosophical core that help make us a people and a civilization, but persuade us to observe, focus, reflect, analyze and extrapolate.  And have  loads of fun at the same time. 

We are not poor because our ancestors were rich and did the hard work from generation to generation, century to century to conjure innumerable devises to give us the requisite skills to meet any kind of challenge, to stand up to forces beyond our strength, to be humble enough to retreat when we had to and the wisdom not to panic. We laugh it off.  This is because we are able to analyse.  That’s a gift.  We should not laugh at it for we laugh because of it.  We would be humourless indeed and so much poorer if we let these things die.  Our educators are not ignorant, thankfully.

We should play to our strengths.  We have a literature that is a veritable treasure house of mechanism that helps develop life-skills.  Then there is chess. The cheapest of ‘games’. Easily learnt.  Utterly enjoyable.  In my view, the perfect complement to our ‘analiterature’, so to speak.