The Bet, 2020

The experts are telling us how the world will be different after our lockdown ends, but perhaps it is even more important to understand how we will be different. Prof. Wadhwa's adaptation of the story “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov draws out its timeless lesson for our age.

Author's Note: Our Age of Coronavirus inspired me to write this adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet”. I am indebted to Swami Krishnananda for pointing me to this story.

Life imprisonment still brings possibilities with it. Death is final. I would prefer life imprisonment, any day.

Michael, a banker, was hosting a number of friends for dinner at his New York penthouse, when Antonio, a lawyer, began a heated debate with him. Antonio had asserted that capital punishment was cruel, but Michael countered, “Yes but isn’t life imprisonment even more inhumane? You are put in a prison cell for life. The whole world is out there, but you cannot step out and enjoy it. I would prefer immediate death to being caged in this way for the rest of my life. It would be torture!”

“Wrong,” said Antonio, “Life imprisonment still brings possibilities with it. Death is final. I would prefer life imprisonment, any day.”

“I’m willing to bet five million dollars you would not!”, retorted Michael, who was known to have a brash temperament and had drunk quite a lot by then.

Antonio agreed with great alacrity to take on the bet. The next hour was spent laying out the terms of the agreement. For five years, Antonio would voluntarily go into solitary confinement in the small cottage at the back of Michael’s country home. He would have the right to leave at any time, but if he did, Michael would win the bet. Michael’s staff would bring Antonio a daily supply of food, basic living resources, and any books he may request, and a security guard would be placed on duty outside the cottage to ensure Antonio did not slip out unnoticed. Antonio would not have access to any digital gadget that could connect him with the outside world.

If Antonio was able to keep himself in the cottage for five years, he would win the bet – and Michael would give him five million dollars. The bet was struck in the presence of their friends, and gained wide attention and likes on their social media feeds. The appointed hour came, and Antonio was ushered into the cottage.

In his first few days, Antonio enjoyed his sudden freedom from work. The comfortable cottage was a welcome change from his small Manhattan apartment. But very soon, he started to feel miserable. The parties, strolls, dinners, friends, vacations, museums, gym, law courts – he had taken these experiences so much for granted in the past, and now he missed them ever so much. He questioned his own sanity in agreeing to the bet. He ordered a variety of lavish meals to entertain his palate, but soon tired of them all. He counted and recounted every object in the cottage to keep his mind sane. He socialized with the serving staff he had barely greeted in past visits to Michael’s home, ever curious about world events and ever hungry for human connection. On some mornings, Antonio stayed in bed for as long as he could to while away the hours, and on these days the staff found him to become even more depressed. On other days, he would stare out of the windows, wistfully. The cottage was a mess, since Antonio was simply not bothered with making his bed or cleaning his dishes. When Michael heard about Antonio’s state of mind, he smirked. “It will not be long before Antonio dashes out of the cottage in desperation and breaks his commitment. He is even more tortured than a convict in prison because he has the freedom to leave the cottage whenever he wishes, and so he must every minute make a conscious choice to stay in that torture chamber of social isolation.”

A year passed by, and Michael started to get reports that Antonio was settling into a routine. No longer were his sleep-and-awake hours erratic. His meals would be finished around the same time every day and he started to keep the cottage clean and organized. It was as though the small daily rituals of making his bed and cleaning his dishes were starting to give him a lot of pleasure. He read voraciously. His mind seemed to be on fire as he consumed book upon book on science, nature, art, philosophy, mysticism, and literature. But close to the end of this second year, he seemed to be pacing the corridor in the cottage restlessly, having lost his appetite for reading. “It is only a matter of time,” Michael concluded.

It was Antonio’s third year now in confinement, and Michael’s staff reported that he was spending hours sitting at the desk, absorbed in writing. He had asked for a series of different styles of pen and diaries until he found a combination that worked for him. He did not give much time to eat. His face seemed to reveal an increasing sense of serenity even with his continued seclusion. He stayed busy analyzing, imagining, reflecting, and writing. It was as though he was slowly regaining his freedom, from within. Michael started to get a bit concerned about where this was going.

In his fourth year, the reports from the cottage became even more mystifying for Michael. Antonio was now spending regular times in stillness, eyes closed, an expression of tranquility on his countenance. He no longer seemed to feel any need to engage with words, and spoke in minimal ways with the serving staff. Periodically, he would rise to pace the room and get some exercise, or sit down and eat a simple meal, or gaze at the sunset, or throw some walnuts in the direction of the squirrels he noticed outside his window. The rest of the time, he would be quiet and still, and, with every passing day, his face acquired a joyful glow that Michael’s staff had never before witnessed in any of Michael’s circle before.

In his fifth year in confinement, Antonio emerged from his solitude and started to interact more warmly with the serving staff when they arrived at the cottage. He inquired into their lives, their families, and their dreams. He seemed to be totally at peace with himself, and he almost never inquired about the happenings in the world outside. Every now and then, he surprised the staff with a thoughtful word of appreciation or some encouragement and guidance he had written for one of their loved ones or a book he wanted to encourage them to read. After a while, the staff stopped getting surprised by these gestures, for this is the Antonio they now expected to encounter every day – a kind, unhurried, thoughtful presence who always left them feeling a little happier, wiser, and stronger from within.

Michael’s fortunes meanwhile had taken a negative turn. The stock market had crashed badly, and Michael lost most of his hard-earned wealth. If he were to lose the bet to Antonio, the five million dollars would destroy him, financially. The same alcohol he had been drinking socially now became a daily balm to help him calm his frayed nerves, but it also made his suffering worse. He feared his wife would abandon him and take their two children with her, leaving him poor and lonely for the rest of his life. In desperation, he devised a diabolic plot.

He would slip in one night and take Antonio’s life. He would make it look like a suicide, bribe the local authority to do a cursory medical examination, then give Antonio a quick burial and announce the news of his sad loss to their circle of friends.

Two nights before the five years were to be up, Michael slipped into the cottage late at night unseen to execute his plan. He found Antonio slumped by the writing desk, fast asleep, with a recently penned letter on the desk. Curious, he picked up the paper to read the letter.

“My dear Michael. This will come as a surprise to you, so please find a seat, take a deep breath, and then read on.

In my first year of confinement, I thought of leaving a thousand times. But I hated the idea of losing the five million, so I kept suffering through it. In the next year I rekindled my old habit of reading. I roamed the whole world, past, present, and future, and even the universe beyond, through your books. My imagination was taking me to places where my rational mind could never have gone. But then I started to feel a hunger to contemplate rather than assimilate. I started writing. The diaries I have filled are some of the most precious realizations I have had about life; I will be taking these with me. This year made me want to discover more about my inner world. You see, I was starting to touch a part of my being where even my thoughts weren’t being allowed to go. So I took on a practice of stillness I had learned ten years ago, at a retreat, and it yielded many gifts to me that I cannot describe in the coarse garb of language. Your guards may have told you I was still on the outside; that, after some practice, was the easy part. What I spent many months perfecting was to still myself from the inside – my thoughts and feelings. I started to feel, in those moments, that I was finding my true self. I started to feel a great kinship with the spirit within me. After a year of this practice, I realized I do not need to always sit still in order to be still – tranquility is now a part of me even as I go about my daily activities. The more I nurtured my own spirit, the more I found this spirit everywhere – in your staff, in the squirrels, in the trees, in the sun. Therefore, Michael, I have no use for your wealth, for I have discovered an inexhaustible supply of gold in the spirit that hides behind everything in nature. My wish now is not to defend the laws of our nation, but to decode the laws of our universe.

I have been keeping track of the days in one of my diaries, and tomorrow, one day before the appointed date, I will walk out of the cottage in order to violate my commitment and lose the bet. When I leave tomorrow, Michael, you will not see me anymore for I will walk a very different path than I did five years ago, and I will not be of much use to you and your circle. I wish you well.”

Michael reeled back as he finished reading the letter. He was visibly shaken, but also stirred. He went back to his home, and, sitting by the fireplace with his bottle of wine, read the letter again. Tears rolled down his eyes. He could not put his experience into words, but deep down he understood Antonio and felt a love for him that was purer than when they had been friends in the past. He drank some more to quell the ache and confusion and then drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, he walked over to the cottage, but Antonio had already woken up and departed. That evening, at a friend’s party, Michael felt a surge of relief knowing he would have the five million dollars to pay off his loans and maintain his lifestyle for the time being. But he also felt a strange feeling, as though he was, in the midst of his festive friends, missing his very core – a part of him that, until yesterday, he had not even known existed.