Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Queen of Spades


Only heroic people can absorb constant failures with nonchalance.  Sanjay was no hero and grew increasingly desperate with each failure.  He had tried out a number of ventures in business and failed in each one of them without exception.  It’s not true to say that he was an utter failure;  he always managed to break even.  Recently he developed the habit of visiting the casino in the city with the hope of learning the secret of winning at gambling.  There seemed to be no secret in it, he concluded after many weeks of keen observation.  You win or lose without any pattern.  Winning and losing are haphazard whether in business or gambling, Sanjay muttered to himself morosely. 

It is then he overheard a conversation in the casino.  Somebody was telling a group of listeners a story about Lakshmi Lalwani, the aged widow of the renowned industrialist of the last century.  In their younger days, when Lakshmi and her husband were in Paris, the lady had indulged herself with gambling in one of the casinos and lost a fabulous sum.  Her husband bluntly refused to pay such a sum of money in spite of all the strategies employed by the lady whose charm was a match for her cunning.  When neither the charm nor the cunning succeeded in persuading her husband to part with the money required to salvage her honour, Lakshmi sent for a family friend who had business in Paris.

“If I give you such an amount of money, you will never know peace in the future,” said Albert Ezekiel the family friend knowingly.  “So I suggest that you gamble again and win back your money.”

Albert gave her a secret.  She had to talk the casino owner into letting her begin the game on a loan.  Then she had to put her stake on three particular cards, one by one.  He specified the cards.  “But you should never again gamble in your life after this,” warned Albert.  Lakshmi followed the counsel and the miracle happened.  Her cards won.

The lady never gambled after that, said the story teller in the casino.  Nor did she reveal the secret to anyone.  Except once.  Some thirty years ago one of her grandsons whom she loved unlike her other relatives got into a huge debt by gambling.  Finally, when he had no other way, he stood before his royal grandmother like Shakuntala who had lost the ring given by her royal lover.  The lady relented for the only time in her life.  The man went away with the secret and won back all that he had lost.  He never gambled again.

Sanjay knew where Lakshmi lived.  He also knew that she was a morose nonagenarian who never met anyone except in some parties which she presided over all bedecked with jewels and anti-wrinkle creams.  There was no honest way of getting to meet her.

But honesty is not a business person’s cup of tea.  Sanjay found a way of entering Lakshmi Lalwani’s palatial home after he took a few strolls on the Lalwani Avenue that encircled it.  Some trees and the darkness of the night were his accomplices. 

Lakshmi Lalwani lived alone in the palace after the death of her husband many years ago.  People said that her husband had died because of her constant nagging.  Neither her son nor her daughter wanted to live with her.  Rather Lakshmi did not want any of them, not even the grandchildren.  She lived with a retinue of maids who flattered her whims and fancies untiringly and competitively in the hope of getting as much money as possible when the witch would die. 

Stealthily Sanjay climbed down the staircase from the Lalwani terrace and walked through some halls and corridors until he discovered the room of his sorceress.  There she was sitting up in her bed against a huddle of pillows watching an ancient Hindi movie on the TV.  She flinched on seeing the stranger but recovered quickly. 

“Who are you?  Why are you here?” She asked.

“Pardon my audacity, rajmata,” said Sanjay with folded hands.  “I had no choice but do this.  Only you can save me.”  He narrated to her the tragic tale of his life exaggerating it to make it as poignant as he could. 

“Tell me the secret, rajmata, devi, so that I can recover my losses.  Otherwise I’ll be a doomed man.”

“There’s no secret.  It’s only a joke,” said Lakshmi both annoyed and amused.

When all his pleading and cajoling failed to move the lady, Sanjay pulled out a pistol from the pocket of his trousers and held it straight between her eyes and said, “Your life or your secret.”

The lady did not utter a word.  Amitabh Bachchan continued to rage on the TV screen.  The eyes of the sorceress continued to stare without batting an eyelid.  It took a few moments for Sanjay to realise that she was dead.

Lakshmi’s ghost haunted Sanjay throughout the night as well as the next day.  But the night after that brought the real surprise.  Lakshmi Lalwani appeared in Sanjay’s bedroom in the middle of the night wearing a white sari and white blouse. 

“Your secret cards are 3, 7 and an ace,” she said in a guttural voice.  “But never gamble after this once.”

Lakshmi Lalwani disappeared as easily as she appeared.  “You are the queen of hearts, Lakshmi,” said Sanjay to himself exultantly.

Filled with joy and expectation, Sanjay went to the casino the next afternoon with all the money that he could gather.  He had mortgaged his house in a bank in order to get the money.  He placed his stake on 3 for the entire sum of fifty lakh rupees he had.  The miracle happened as he knew it would.  He then staked the one crore on 7.  Lakshmi’s secret was sterling.  Finally the stake of two crore rupees on ace. 

“You’ve lost it all,” said the gambler to Sanjay.  “It’s not an ace; it’s the queen of spades.” 

Sanjay collapsed as he saw the gambler sweep away his dreams into a leather bag.  Before collapsing, however, Sanjay had noticed one thing.  The Queen of spades on the card had winked at him.  And the wink had reminded him of Lakshmi Lalwani. 

PS. Adapted from the novella, The Queen of Spades, by the great 19th century Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. 

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  1. Haven t read the original but this is quite a story!

    1. The original is far, far better, Nima. Obviously :)

  2. Replies
    1. Indeed, Namrata, and the credit should go to Pushkin.

  3. Replies
    1. Glad you liked it. When I read the original it captured my fancy so much that I brought it here in this simple form.

  4. Oh good one I say! Really liked this one

    1. Happy that the story found its way to many hearts. Pushkin can be glad in his grave.

  5. Wow sir.... liked it very much... and the ending was amazing... hats off

    1. Pushkin has given a short post script to his version. According to that, the protagonist went mad and the girl whom he was courting with vested interests married a better person... I have made the story much simpler.

  6. Nice ! Russian short stories are truly amazing.

    1. One of my beloved writers is a Russian, Dostoevsky. I read Pushkin by chance when a neighbour who was shifting his residence left the copy with me since he thought I was the only one around who would appreciate Pushkin :)

  7. Wonderfully gives a hint of the original too!

  8. Wonderful story! I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  9. Replies
    1. The fact that Pushkin so interesting was unknown to me, honestly. Thank you.


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