Chess, boardroom challenges, war, poetry… all come together in Nihshanka Debroy’s début novel Checkmate. On the one hand is Harshavardhan — the author clarifies right at the beginning that this character “has no connection with the ancient Indian king Harshavardhana” — and his companion, the poet Kalidasa (yes, the author of Abhignana Sakuntalam and Meghaduta ) fighting off the Svetahunas sometime in the fifth century. On the other hand, in today’s world, is Vinita Joshi who suddenly finds herself responsible for her father’s business. Not only she does to have to rescue the foundering company but also resolve a historical puzzle relating to the origins of chess from the leads her father leaves behind. In this email interview, Nihshanka Debroy talks about the making of the book and his yen for historical fiction:
How did this plot evolve?
It began in my childhood. I represented Delhi twice in national chess tournaments: the Under-12 Boys and the Under-14 Boys. After that, I took a break from chess. More than a decade later, I landed up in the chilly city of Colorado Springs. In a new place and with not many acquaintances, I found my way back to chess. But this time, I asked more questions. When did chess originate? Do we know who created it? Why? Surely, a game whose sole purpose was to destroy the opposition had an origin drenched in conflict. I searched everywhere for its origins, read HJR Murray’s mammoth A History of Chess . However, I still had no answer.
That is when I began to imagine what might have been. I wanted to take the reader on a whirlwind journey of battles, codes, and intrigue — and the idea of Checkmate was born.
But the book expanded far beyond my initial vision. Apart from being a work of historical fiction, my début book connects with the reader on certain universal themes — the bonds of familial love, a woman straining out of the large shadow of her father’s success, a son’s boundless devotion to his mother. Grief and loss, heroism and unwavering will, and the extent to which we go to save our loved ones and their memories…
What was your process of research?
I investigated which battles occurred before the first mentions of Chaturanga, the ancestor of chess. Almost immediately, I pictured the face of a young warrior. A story began to brew.
- Authors: Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Arundhati Roy, Amish Tripathi
- Books: The Old Man and the Sea, A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte Cristo, The God of Small Things, The Immortals of Meluha
- Historical Fiction: Sarah’s Key, Doctor Zhivago
- Movies based on books: Sarah’s Key, Doctor Zhivago, To Kill a Mockingbird
The historical narrative is a combination of research, such as by reading HJR Murray’s book, visiting old Indian forts and a geographical trek via Google Maps 3D that I extrapolated to the 5th century. For the sake of storytelling, I steered clear of certain granular historical details in Checkmate (such as the specifics of clothing worn in the 5th century or the script used to write Sanskrit in those times).
I found many interesting nuggets in course of my research. For example, more than one reference suggests that Ivan the Terrible died while playing chess...
What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?
Weaving together the ancient and modern-day storylines. I had to pick the right moments to switch from Harshavardhan to Vinita and vice-versa. I also wanted to give both character arcs the space to develop organically and head to their conclusions.
Your first book is historical fiction. What is it about this genre that attracted you?
I have always been interested in history because it provides a reference point and an opportunity to learn from key moments in time. When I overlay fiction with that, I find that I can explore concepts and ideas with freedom. In my book, I wanted to link the past with the present. That is why Checkmate has a modern-day character, Vinita, with her own conflict and mission.
What do you think of the historical fiction genre in Indian writing in English?
I am glad to see several books in historical fiction and related genres by Indian authors. The number and breadth of books has been growing steadily — a reader of historical and mythological fiction could easily spend a year reading all such books by Indian authors.
Now that the first book is out, what’s next?
For the moment, I am focused on bringing Checkmate to as wide an audience as possible. In parallel, I have been working on a second book (non-fiction) about a new way of thinking and navigating the world. I plan to finish that in the next 9-12 months. Meanwhile, a psychological fiction idea has been growing in my mind.
Checkmate is available online as an e-book