The Poker Game by Dr N.C. Nair has just gone live on Amazon. I am delighted and proud of my Mum Lakshmi Muralidharan for whom it was an enjoyable labour of love to translate her Dad’s book. While reading the translation, more than once I found myself thinking of Dr NC — the grandfather I never knew as he passed in 1959 when Mum was barely seven years old.
A medical doctor celebrated for his service of free treatment for underprivileged patients, Dr NC was also a prolific writer who published seventeen books during his short life including eleven volumes of narrative poetry, five plays and a scientific treatise. The Poker Game (Kilukkikkuthu, 1957) was one of his last published works.
It was an immense privilege to write a foreword to the play.
“A democracy is like the tapioca tuber: thick-skinned, poisonous in parts, popular, and low-cost.”
Dr N.C. Nair, Kilukkikkuthu (The Poker Game).
A light-hearted satire on the premise of how corrupt politicians can wreck a democracy, The Poker Game by Dr N.C. Nair is also a psychological analysis of the nature of ambition and the aftereffects of absolute power with a dash of social commentary on the ethics of press reporting and law enforcement, a questioning of the meaning of gender equality, and a tongue-in-cheek criticism of experimental poetry.
The Poker Game commences when Komu Kurup’s investment of one hundred thousand rupees to win the state elections pays off and he finds himself appointed as the chief minister. To Kurup, the post implies power and a means to enrich himself and his kinsmen. He willingly plays puppet in the hands of the journalist Shanku Pillai who is the main driving force behind his elevation from MLA to minister. A mercenary politician with a shady background who has ‘a place in every political leader’s court’, Pillai’s actions and decisions taken on the fly to run the government form the focal points of the play as he calculates every move to profit from the situation, revelling at the same time in the exhilaration of playing the poker game that is politics. Commencing their regime with fraud, embezzlement and nepotism, the duo who refer to themselves as ‘King and Minister’ descend rapidly into passing a series of foolhardy acts and amendments in a bid to appease their supporters and hold on to power, while suppressing the rebelling public using the police.
The characters come across as complex caricatures. Ineffectual and corrupt as he is, Kurup is shown as retaining a semblance of humanity and sensibility which are absent in the unscrupulous Pillai. Though he allows himself to be bullied by his wife Paaru Amma, Kurup is nevertheless a male chauvinist in his treatment of her. He takes her for granted, intimidates her subtly when he gets a chance, and makes it clear that she restrict her role to serving coffee. Shanku Pillai’s earnest friendship with Paachu Pillai adds a layer of complexity to his criminal persona. Thanki is anything but a docile Indian woman in the nineteen fifties. She supports her father’s political ambitions and helps him with accounts, enjoys Maathandan’s avant-garde poetry and has no qualms about reminding Maathu that she holds the power in their relationship. Paaru Amma’s strict views of conventional morality which contrast with her polyandrous background is a nod to the peculiar social conventions of the period as well as the hypocrisy of the time and the place.
Despite the political nature of its premise and the many symbolic references to the sickle, the play is not biased towards any particular political ideology, focusing instead on the vagaries of human nature. It takes a cynical view of morality suggesting that given a chance, the oppressed can easily turn into the oppressor as seen in the transformation of Paachu Pillai from a party worker who was tortured in detention into a ruthless police officer whose suspects in custody die of ‘road accidents and stomach upsets’. Even the timid and simple Maathu grows indifferent to the suffering around him once his personal situation improves.
Some scenes are unabashedly slapstick: Kurup’s speech to inaugurate a ‘hart gallery’ and his romps with Dolly, while others border on the surreal such as when Kurup and Shanku Pillai discuss the possibility of using magic to control the mobs, suggesting how power can intoxicate to a point of no return.
Set in nineteen fifty-five as can be inferred from the allusion to Nikolai Bulganin’s Indian tour, The Poker Game is dated in aspects such as the references to the now defunct pice and anna coins and the mention of small local eateries called ‘club shops’ among others. The sums of money mentioned in the play are to be read in the context of the nineteen-fifties when an Indian rupee was worth nearly seventy times its present rate.
The play demands suspension of disbelief regarding a few key plot elements. There is no mention of Kurup’s political background, his earlier profession or what made him contest elections in his sixties. Neither is it explained why Kurup and Paaru Amma did not try to find a match for Thanki earlier as she is past marriageable age for the time. Above all, it is highly improbable that a press reporter could arm-twist a major political party into giving the chief minister’s post to a man with practically no political connections or experience. However, if one overlooks these loose ends considering that this is a satire which never takes itself seriously, what remains is a narrative that induces laughter and gently provokes enduring reflections on society and human nature as was envisioned by the author in his introduction to the original Malayalam version which was first published in nineteen fifty-seven.