Long-winded childhood story again, kindly adjust :)
A walk around the house is customary every time I visit the ancestral home. As I pass the western side, I always look over at the small cottages across the road, in my uncle's property. They used to be tourist accommodation in our little beach town. The tourists never came in the numbers my uncle had hoped for, possibly because our land was a good three quarters of a kilometre from the beach. They have been rented out as one bedroom dwellings for not-so-well-off families. My uncle, like many others, left for the Middle East, and that was that. As I walk, a story from long ago pops up without fail, every time.
For purposes of this story, we'll call him Mark.
I don't remember his name anymore, except that it began with the letter m, and was short. Could have been Mike, but that's not important. Mark was the first white person I had ever met. Sure, tourism brought lots of white folk to our beaches, and I'd seen many of them before, but Mark was the first one I got to know. It was another of those afternoons when grandad, often for no seemingly apparent reason, would get in the car and head to our ancestral home far away from the city. During the vacations, I would pile on, perhaps my brother and a cousin or two as well. This was not a particularly satisfactory arrangement for my mom and aunt, who knew that their father required more supervision than us kids to stay out of trouble. But the peace and quiet of a day without us during summer vacation, when we were otherwise wreaking havoc on their nerves, won the battle in the end and we were all packed off in the car.
This particular time, though, I was alone. Instead of bringing something sensible along to while away time, like a book or some toy cars, I brought a chess set. Who exactly I was going to play with was a question that would cross my mind only after I reached my destination. Our driver didn't know how to play chess, and refused to learn giving the logic that I was going to win all the games today if i played with a beginner like him, and I couldn't refute that. Grandad had some work, so I didn't even bother asking. But all I had for the whole day was a chess set, and finding a partner to play with was my immediate concern. Our driver, Deepu (chettan -omitted hereafter due to laziness and not disrespect), and I set off to find someone to play with. And that took us to my uncle's tourist cottages.
They were newly built then, and had a weird smell to them. The faint smell of cement and paint, mixed with that generic antiseptic smell a lot of hotels have. We heard he had managed to rent out a coupla cottages to tourists, and we were hoping the tourists brought their kids along, and maybe one of the kids would want to play chess. Not having done advanced mathematics back then, I did not know what long, long odds I was shooting for. The cottages seemed deserted, ostensibly because the tourists had all gone to the beach. Looking around, we spotted Mark.
He had one of those faces with character, the sort you remember for a long time. I remember more of his face than his name today. I asked Deepu if he would go ask him if he wants to play chess. He went over and talked to Mark, while I watched from the distance. I was too shy a kid to approach someone as strange as he was. Deepu came back a while later, and I eagerly asked him if a game was on. He had forgotten to mention chess, and I was quite annoyed. Deepu egged me on and said I should go ask him, he seemed a very friendly guy. After much prodding, and a coupla false starts, I was on my way to ask a mystifying creature, a white man, if he wanted to play a game of chess.
I held out my pride and joy, a small magnetic chess set that would also let you play five other games of which i knew only Ludo and Snakes and Ladders, and asked him if he wanted to play chess in a voice that diminished quickly as i realized how much of a giant he was. "Sure," he responded, "but on one condition. We'll play it on my board." Out came an exquisitely carved wooden chess set, and I was smart enough a kid to realize that if he travelled with such a good chess set, he must be really into the game. As the game started, I worried about this misadventure. As kids, there are specific rules on not talking to strangers, rules the kids in my family flagrantly flouted. But this was different, he was a foreigner. Not everyone in a tourist town likes foreigners, and the average attitude of the populace is that they're a necessary evil. Most people not directly involved in the tourism industry would just mind their own business, and avoid interacting with the tourists. The tourists who came to beaches to party had a particularly bad rep, and we would be told about their drinking, drug usage and generally loose morals, and that we should stay clear of them. I wondered for a second what amma would think about me playing chess with a complete stranger from Australia, which I had managed to find out about him by then.
We played chess and traded stories all afternoon. It wasn't a fair trade, I suppose, I had really lame stories back then. But his story changed my life a little bit. It was his second visit to our town. When he came the first time, he had fallen off the beach facing cliffs our town is famous for, after having had too much to drink one night. As I was processing the moral implications of him drinking enough to fall off a cliff, he continued. He lay there dying, in pitch dark, until a local drug dealer found him and took him to the hospital, thereby saving his life. My mind was trying to wrap itself around the concept of a drug dealer, since I had no idea how drugs were dealt. He returned to Australia, and sent his saviour a large and undisclosed sum of money in gratitude. The dealer quit his trade, and started something decent though i forget what, and was getting along fine until the cops caught him. He was accused of getting the money through selling drugs, and was jailed. Getting him out was Mark's mission, and he had come back to stay and fight his case for as long as it took.
For a child's black and white concepts of right and wrong, this was a major revelation. I could not immediately process this new information, and indeed it took me years before I fully understood it. Over one afternoon of chess, where I was fascinated by his stories and elated over my game victories, I was introduced to the concept of grey. I knew the guy was good, only a good guy would fly all the way back to save someone from going to jail, even if that someone did happen to save his life. I knew from being told that drinking and taking drugs was bad, and even though he didnt mention taking drugs, I somehow assumed he did. Having only met people who were easily sorted into 'good' and 'bad' bins until then, I went home stumped, and years later, was grateful.
Almost a decade after he'd gone, and never having amounted to much at chess and thereby having given up the game long ago, I realized he was probably letting me win that day. I put him in the 'good' bin.