Existential Puzzles



by Olivia Rao

It had been so long since I last pulled out the Snakes & Ladders set that the cardboard box had warped. I’d put it away in that attic ages ago, and if the weather hadn’t been the way it was, and I hadn’t needed distraction, it never would’ve occurred to me to take it out. When I finally did, I was relieved to see the game was just as I remembered. Everything was the way it had been, a grid of crimson over manila, ladders all blue, snakes the colors of the rainbow. When I shook the big box, a smaller one fell from it, four pieces with felt stuck to them so they’d glide better. A wooden dice with carved numbers rattled when I tossed it, before I placed the pieces at 100, “Home” square. Straight to victory, a win for all.

If you accept the rules of the game, virtues take you one way, vices another. It’s comforting: behave in Way X and you’ll zip in one direction, behave in Way Y to zoom off at a different angle. A false veneer of sense, since in reality, unlike in ludo or parcheesi, the game comes down entirely to chance. The movement of the counters depends on the roll of the dice, and the snakes and ladders have no say in the matter. Who would choose to be a snake? Who would choose to be a ladder? It doesn’t matter, since the identities are chosen in advance, in what’s almost a caste system. Three philosophies compete in one game: the philosophy of randomness, the philosophy of virtue and vice, the philosophy of existential fixedness. No wonder the kids who play it get confused.

This situation must not be so nice for the snakes and ladders inside the game either. Imagine a snake who generally enjoys being a snake, one who’s grown up hearing that life as a ladder is dull. To have rungs is too rigid a lifestyle, Snake thinks; a squigglier style of living is preferable—more open, more free, more enjoyable in its bending of curves than the extended labor of the upward climb.

These are the ideas of Snake’s elders, and he believes them. But one day, by means of what curiosity or pamphlet who knows, Snake loses interest in representing vice. He wants to be a Born-Again Ladder, wants it more than anything. Yet change is impossible; stuck in his current form, never dying or growing older, he’s destined to remain what he is forever and ever. On the board Snake is so close to what he wants, yet can never be.

Now when Snake sends the counters of the hopeful faces bent over him to perdition, perhaps even down the dreaded Eleven Square Chute, he feels a stinging remorse. He shimmied a small boy down that chute just this morning, and the boy cried and cried, and Snake didn’t even meant to do it. This is simply the way he is made. Another thing he hates is all the grooming required; as an entity made for the “slide”, he has to keep his skin smooth and not jagged, so the counters don’t get snagged during the fall.

Can he at least “slide” down himself one day? To climb a ladder would be out of the question, since for that you need a good set of legs. Nor could a ladder ever slide down a snake, since it would crush it. Another doubt: the “slide” is of unspecified duration. Is the climb or fall meant to last days or minutes, seconds or years? Even this is something he doesn’t know. Snake suffers from excessive self-inquiry.

Next to him is his equivalent, the entity he wishes to become. Ladder represents Virtue, Honesty and Industry, and she regularly sends her counters up a few notches, toward the desired golden square of Nirvana, Happiness and Worldly Success. But occasionally, just occasionally, she wishes she could do the opposite — not out of malevolence, but simply because even she can see the contradiction in what she does.

What sense is there in sending Sameer Jr, so lazy, up the ladder of Felicity, simply because he rolled a 5? Where is the karma? It’s true, too, that at certain dark moments she feels herself drawn to the voluptuous downward curves of the snakes… but how can she access that way of being? Technically it’s true a ladder can go both ways, but hers only travels in one direction: up. Is it possible for a ladder to take itself? Is she a subject, or merely a means? These are the sorts of questions that Ladder agonizes over, confused.

Faced with these conditions, Snake and Ladder, as well as their brethren, are tempted to simply fold up the board and tuck themselves back in the cupboard. Both outwardly mock the others’ way of being, yet at the same time find in it a secret attraction. What to do? They tear up the bits of the paper covering the board and start to make cartoons. Snake prefers simple pen outlines, in the style of the elephant-digesting boa constrictor of Le petit prince. Ladder tends toward more elaborate, detailed sketches. The little bits of paper began to circulate amongst the other beings on the board, and on the sly both sides read the jokes of the other.

Despite themselves, they laugh. The situation is evident to all, and something must happen. A convention is called. There’s time for it; the ones who used to play the game have grown up almost without their noticing it, and the box has been stashed away in the attic. In the silence and darkness, the snakes and ladders don’t lose their desire to talk. This desire in fact increases as they have more time to think, and their thoughts blossom into speeches and drawings.

During the days up in the attic, the First Snakes & Ladders Conference is held. It has all the importance of a Yalta or Potsdam, but the tone is more ludic. While Othello occupies himself with his out-of-alignment spine and Backgammon busies herself with the removal of undesired discs, the Snakes and Ladders go about conversing.

Snake: Let’s begin by taking history into account. We are the natives of this land. Before you foreigners entered carrying your List of Rules, we were a perfectly happy country of Snakes. I admit our writhing about had little order, but with the arrival of you newcomers, a damper was placed on our national spirit. Straight lines, progress, do this and do that.

Ladder: How strange I should be playing Devil’s Advocate, as what we do is bring people toward the divine. In any case, let me defend the settlers who bring progress. What would our game have amounted to without it? Not a trace of rhyme or reason, counters where they please — chaos! The form of a Ladder is also the form of railway tracks, and where would we be without good reliable trains?

Snake: Developments made by a small group intended for the same — you make me hiss. Only the most absurd and aspirational among us consort with you Ladders. The rest simply laugh and circulate funny cartoons.

Ladder: Oh, we saw those. Some were quite amusing. Anyway, let’s keep in mind why we are here today. Some of you Snakes are attracted to our Ladder lifestyle — and vice versa. You must begin by opening your mind. It’s not just us that you Snakes don’t like; you turn a skeptical eye to any Battleship or chess piece that comes to visit. All you want is to preserve your backward snake world at all costs.

Snake: False! We just didn’t want to lose our own sense of identity before embracing other influences. Not to be rude, but please note we are more fully-formed beings than you are. We are more lithe, more colorful, more textured; we can bob our heads and our tongues can stick out straight or as pitchforks; our reptilian ancestors extend back thousands of years. We are a classical civilization… while you, it must be said, are a bit rigid and soulless. What if we had absorbed your influences before knowing ourselves? We would have grown ill.

Ladder: Prejudices, again! What doesn’t kill you, &c. It would have been a strong tonic, and you’d have been better off in the long run. Where is your moral fiber?

Snake: I must have misplaced it. We operate according to a different set of scales… and how beautiful ours are! Our shimmering self did not die when it began to incorporate your elements, but it’s not clear it improved either. It changed, lost its sense of trajectory, fractured into cubist form.

Ladder: Naturally things grew more complicated. Life is not a game of Snakes & Ladders, you know.

Snake: Clearly it’s Monopoly. But everything would lose its charm if we thought of ourselves as silver pieces, fighting over properties and paper money…

Ladder: Well, there we agree.

Standing with the board in hand, I notice a newspaper clipping on the back of the board, cut out with scissors and pasted on. It shows the face of a man, and there’s a caption—GAGANENDRANATH TAGORE, INDIAN ARTIST. Invisible to the snakes and ladders, he presides over the debate.

Gaganendranath came from an illustrious family. He was the nephew of Rabindranath and brother of Abanindranath Tagore, and led the Bengal School of Art. In the 1920s, as the British began to bring “modern” scientific developments into India, Gaganendranath began to work on his caricatures.

In watercolors painted on cardboard, which he sent as postcards to friends or published in the Modern Revue, he responded to the increasing foreign influence. When new scientific developments and modernist art entered the country, Gaganendranath’s instinctive turn was toward comedy as a useful medium to understand his confusions. He was a nationalist, and didn’t like the way Western technology and science seemed to impose themselves. Especially irritating was the hypocrisy of his countrymen who wanted to uncritically embrace these developments.

In his series “Realm of the Absurd”, there is a lithograph called Moral Levitation, in which a man “levitates” toward immoral pursuits such as drinking, smoking and entertainment, all portrayed as Western. There is also the “metamorphosis” of an Indian man trying to hike on Western trousers, and a Bengali gentleman in dhoti who gets flak for trying to enter a train compartment holding Henri Bergson’s book on laughter. In the darker “Reform Scream” series, there are additional images showing the ways Western science works against the interests of Indians.

Before the caricature period, Gaganendranath had painted simple landscapes, inspired by “Oriental” Japanese painting. Fields with silhouettes of palms, a faint slant of rain and scattering of birds. A man walking all alone through a landscape of blue under a moon, the colors pale and shimmering silvers and golds. The tip of a brush lowered into a glass of water and stirred it slightly, before moving across the page. Calm permeates the images, where there is almost no difference between river and shore, land and sky.

After his caricature period, when Gaganendranath began to paint again, a similar sense of calm was present, but no longer did he prefer watercolors. In a studio with his brother Abanindranath, the more “serious” of the two, he began to look to the aestheticism of Whistler and the pre-Raphaelites, and to experiment with Western painting techniques.

His transition from negativity about Western influences, poking fun at Indian “baboos”, to picking up Western techniques like cubism, seems striking. But despite the images mocking his countrymen, he was really interested in learning from the West. It wasn’t the ideas themselves that annoyed him — it was the pose, the either-or situation some of his countrymen seemed to insist upon. There was much silliness and hypocrisy in the Indian culture of the time, but Gaganendranath was gentle, not scathing; he saw clearly.

Trousers or Indian wear, French philosophy or Sri Aurobindo — the debate was a false one. Influenced by French and German developments, Gaganendranath tried his hand at a number of different styles. He painted interiors and figures alone in the landscape, city staircases and blocks of color, women in silhouette and theatrical panels designed for magic shows.

His paintings seemed newly spiritual, using fractured angles to show the varying ways the inner being interacted with the outside world. Many objects are surrounded by an almost transparent aura, a thin layer of paint that suggests everything can be shifted just slightly left or right, up or down, to fill a different square on some imaginary grid.

A few works were directly religious, but these don’t seem to be his best ones. In a cubist work called “Resurrection”, the clouds seem too fluffy, although he was not trying to make caricatures of clouds anymore. (At one time, he had satirized his poet uncle Rabindranath floating across the sky toward the European cities of Paris and London, and the European-inspired villa of Victoria Ocampo in Argentina, where unfortunately the spiritual poet took the coquettish socialite’s advances seriously.)

Gaganendranath came from an Indian Catholic background, but his Christs and candles and crosses seem too garishly obvious, props that have nothing to do with the spirit. What was the real spirit? Perhaps whatever it was that drew together the delicate wash of his watercolors, the heavy lines and full shapes of his cubist forays, the staircases and sliding panels of his city paintings, and the religious imagery of his later pictures into a complete body of work. The multiple parts form part of one game, and the spirit behind it laughs.

I can’t find any record of him actually playing, but I think Gaganendranath would have liked Snakes and Ladders, especially if played on the enormous mat of some beautiful Bengali garden. The “and” is what I like in the name of the game — snakes and ladders, myth and progress. Gaganendranath tried to defend a mythological image of his country and welcome new influences. Laughter as response becomes laughter as means for reconciliation and acceptance.

Let’s go back now to the discussions, in which Snake is getting a bit irritated at Ladder for not understanding his critiques of technological development. He can’t understand anything that prefers an A to Z route, leaving no space for luck, no room for detours. Remember that a snake with five heads is worshipped by Hindus, and people make versions of it out of clay. You must accept snakes like this exist in order to play, even if you don’t take them seriously. Chance and unexpected rolls of the dice have to be welcomed as well, even if you know your eventual goal is HOME.

Ladder: I suppose our way of seeing things can at times be gray. And living with you does make things more fun. You just have to be a bit more practical, and that’s where we come in. Can we agree to a truce? Any Snake or Ladder has the option to assume the other’s position. Let the Spirit of Laughter animate what we do.

—On the back of the board, Gaganendranath chuckles to himself, silently.—

Snake: That at least is compromise. We like it. Some of your developments do add something, we have to admit. Where’s Dice? He was supposed to arbitrate this.

Snake: Probably off visiting Uncle Wiggily again.

Ladder: He’d better not invite him here for dinner. Dice can be unpredictable like that, and there’s not a thing to eat…

A hearty boom, a light titter. Standing in the half-light of the attic, board game in hand, I felt a sudden sharp pain in my ankle, then saw a shape nearly the color of darkness slither away. Quickly I put the board down and examined the skin: two tiny circles of blood could be seen. I thought at first of screaming, then descended the stairs calmly to the bathroom, where I cleaned the wound. Antiseptic and heavy gauze. Perhaps the Snake was just seeking a bite to eat for Dice and Uncle Wiggily? I drew a quick picture of it so I wouldn’t forget, then slipped on my pyjamas and into bed. There Snakes & Ladders, Ladders & Snakes populated my mind. An immense temple of progress shot to the sky and tumbled to the ground over and over, in hundreds of ways—all the infinite variations of dream luck.

A brief theory of comedy

“Life, we know too well, is not a Comedy, but something strangely mixed,” writes George Meredith in an essay. Nor, however, is it a “vile mask.” Comedy can be an initial response to what is baffling, and not free of either opinion or darker sentiment.

True Comedy is different from either mean-spirited Satire or frivolous Humour, and is simultaneously a form of critique and tenderness. “You may estimate your capacity for Comic perception by being able to detect the ridicule of them you love, without loving them less: and more by being able to see yourself somewhat ridiculous in dear eyes, and accepting the correction their image of you proposes,” Meredith writes.

Spiritual art can emerge from the comic just as much as from the melancholy. Comedy is a way of drawing the hidden elements from a situation, and operates first by dissolving tensions. Absurdity prepares one for anything, and is a way to open expectations, peel away, disclose, reveal.

Most of the time we operate with a preconceived notion of the world; comedy clears the fog and lets us see with new eyes.