Ask anyone in Marottichal for C Unnikrishnan, and you will see them scrunch up their forehead, wondering if such a person even lives in this remote village in Kerala’s Thrissur district.
Tell them “Chess Unnikrishnan”, however, and they will cheerfully point to a small hotel run by the man himself, who is a pioneer in giving Marottichal its identity- the chess literate village in Kerala.
For the people of the village, 59-year-old Unnikrishnan is “maaman” (Uncle in Malayalam), whom they can approach any time to fulfill their hunger for food and for chess.
For as long as the villagers can remember, Maaman was the first person in the village to have learnt chess. However, over the years, the game became a means for the villagers to get over a crisis that plagued them - alcohol addiction.
A survey conducted by the chess enthusiasts in the village a few months ago revealed that there was one chess player in every house in the 5km radius of Marottichal village. In January this year, the Chess Association of Marottichal was set up and the villagers made an Asian record for the highest number of people playing chess, with more than a thousand playing chess simultaneously.
Unnikrishnan was only 16 years old when he heard of Bobby Fischer, the American chess grandmaster, and was fascinated by the player. He then got hooked to the game. He traveled to a nearby village to learn chaturanga and later chess.
Why chess? Maaman has a practical answer to this query.
“I have always been interested in sports during my school days. At the time, Marottichal was a remote village with very few people living here. There was hardly any space for the kids to play, as there were rubber plantations all around. To play chess, one does not need a playground or for that matter, a huge team. Wherever you place the chess board, that becomes your play ground,” Unnikrishnan says.
In the 1970s and 80s, illicit liquor brewing was a common practice in Marottichal, with most men in the village indulging in the work. It was then that Unnikrishnan, along with a few others, decided that they should step in to save their village.
“We then started a Madhya Nirodhana Samiti to eradicate illicit liquor brewing, that was crushing many families.The agitation was a success only because the women of the village were active participants. The women would secretly tell us about their men indulging in the trade and we would call the excise officials on them,” Unnikrishnan says.
It was during the long hours that they spent waiting for the excise department officials to arrive that Unnikrishnan introduced chess to the others in his group. Once the “addicts” were taught the game, they found a new high.
“Chess is nothing short of an addiction, but definitely a healthy one. Once you start playing the game, you can never get over it. The kind of concentration the game demands made sure that chess was the only thing on their (addicts') minds,” 53-year-old Saseendran, a villager says.
Unnikrishnan is a man of few words. Even as his wife Savithri narrates her husband’s addiction for chess, Unnikrishnan pulls out his chess board from his drawer. For the 15 minutes that followed, Unnikrishnan and Saseendran played the game, without looking up from the board even once.
“The time of the day or night does not stop them if they feel like playing a game. On Sundays, our house is crowded with people who sit in every possible corner to play the game. On other days, some would come home after work and sit through late in the night to play, totally oblivious to their surroundings,” 53-year-old Savithri says.
Though the villagers are not against alcohol consumption, they say that their drinking habit is strictly under control.
"After all, just like there's only one king in the forest, a person can only be addicted to one thing. For us, it is chess," Saseendran declares.
What does Unnikrishnan think about the state's liquor policy? He laughs and says, "This is our example for the world to see."