The Unchanging Twoness of Things

“All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you hope to climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner, and for every snake a ladder will compensate. But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all conceivable oppositions, Alpha against Omega, father against mother.”

Salman Rushdie
Midnight’s Children

 
 

Game of Snakes and Ladders, gouache on cloth (India, 19th century)

 
 

Snakes and Ladders is an ancient Indian board game regarded today as a worldwide classic. It is played between two or more players on a game board having numbered, gridded squares. A number of “ladders” and “snakes” are pictured on the board, each connecting two specific board squares. The object of the game is to navigate one’s game piece, according to die rolls, from the start (bottom square) to the finish (top square), helped or hindered by ladders and snakes respectively. The historic version had root in morality lessons, where a player’s progression up the board represented a life journey complicated by virtues (ladders) and vices (snakes).

Snakes and Ladders originated in India as part of a family of dice board games, that included Gyan chauper and pachisi (present-day Ludo and Parcheesi). The game made its way to England and was sold as “Snakes and Ladders”, then the basic concept was introduced in the United States as Chutes and Ladders (an “improved new version of England’s famous indoor sport”) by game pioneer Milton Bradley in 1943.

Known as Moksha Patam, the game was popular in ancient India and emphasized the role of fate or karma. A Jain version, Gyanbazi or Gyan chauper, dates to the 16th century. The game was called Leela and reflected the Hinduism consciousness surrounding everyday life. The underlying ideals of the game inspired a version introduced in Victorian England in 1892.

Moksha Patam was associated with traditional Hindu and Jain philosophy contrasting karma and kama, or destiny and desire. It emphasized destiny, as opposed to games such as pachisi, which focused on life as a mixture of skill (free will) and luck.The game has also been interpreted and used as a tool for teaching the effects of good deeds versus bad. The board was covered with symbolic images, the top featuring gods, angels, and majestic beings, while the rest of the board was covered with pictures of animals, flowers and people. The ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, while the snakes represented vices such as lust, anger, murder, and theft. The morality lesson of the game was that a person can attain salvation (Moksha) through doing good, whereas by doing evil one will inherit rebirth to lower forms of life. The number of ladders was less than the number of snakes as a reminder that a path of good is much more difficult to tread than a path of sins. Presumably the number “100” represented Moksha (salvation).

The phrase “back to square one” originates in the game of snakes and ladders, or at least was influenced by it – the earliest attestation of the phrase refers to the game: “Withal he has the problem of maintaining the interest of the reader who is always being sent back to square one in a sort of intellectual game of snakes and ladders.”

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The Greatest Book of Our Time

Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001)

 
 

BRIDGET:L-ladies and…
L–
Oi!
Oi!
Sorry. The, uh…
mic’s not… work–working. Ahem.
Ladies andgentlemen…
welcome to the launch of “Kafka’s Motorbike”…
“The Greatest Book of OurTime.”
[Mild applause]
Obviously exceptfor your books, Mr. Rushdie…
which are also very good.
And Lord Archer…
yours aren’tbad, either.
[Clears throat] Anyway…
uh, what I mean is, uh…
welcome, ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for coming to the launch of…
one of the top thirty books of ourtime.
Anyway, at least.
And here to introduce it is the man we all call…Titspervert.
Titspervert….Fitzherbert, because that…is his name.

 
 

When Helen Fielding wrote the novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, she based the character of Mark Darcy on Colin Firth‘s depiction of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (Simon Langton, 1995). In addition to the inside-joke casting of Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, there are several other allusions to Jane Austen‘s story: Mark disparages Bridget to his mother within earshot of Bridget. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy disparages Elizabeth to his friend Mr. Bingley within earshot of Elizabeth. Daniel Cleaver lies to Bridget about a dispute between him and Mark, claiming Mark stole his fiancée; in fact, it was the other way around. In Pride and Prejudice, it’s a dispute between Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy, and Wickham lies about who’s at fault. The Darcy in both stories fails to disabuse the heroine’s misinformed notion until it’s almost too late. Bridget works at Pemberley Press; Mr. Darcy lives at Pemberley estate. Crispin Bonham-Carter was in both productions (his scenes were cut out of the film, although he can still be seen in the job-quitting scene and can also be seen at the Kafka book launch where Bridget asks Salman Rushdie where the toilets are – he is seen as the man on the left in the conversation). When Bridget stops at a mall to see her mother, she begins the scene by saying (in a voice over) that, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that as soon as one part of your life starts looking up, another part falls to pieces.” This is an update of the famous opening lines of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”