The cerebral boy next door

Published : Jun 29, 2012 00:00 IST

The proud parents, Susila and Viswanathan.-R. RAGU

The proud parents, Susila and Viswanathan.-R. RAGU

We arrive at Besant Nagar, an upmarket Chennai neighbourhood with a charming seaside, around 4-30 p.m., soaking in the joys of the salty air. The first part of the task, locating the residence of the Viswanathans, is accomplished without much difficulty. It's a fairly old yet sturdy structure packed with enough warmth to make one feel welcome. There is nothing about the house that so much as hints at a celebrity connection. We are visiting the parents of five-time world chess champion Viswanathan Anand a couple of days after he arrived in Chennai to a stupendous ovation. There is a matter-of-fact unaffectedness about the elderly couple even as the understated pride is evident. If you are looking for any outwardly show of residual euphoria from them, the kind that television cameras love, there is bound to be disappointment.

Instead, Susila, Anand's mother, fondly reminisces about the chess wizard's early years. Avan enga ellarukkum romba chellam [he was the darling of the entire family]. As his brother [Shivakumar, who works with Crompton Greaves in Bhopal] and sister [Anuradha, who teaches in the University of Michigan] were much older, they doted on him as well. Even as a child, he was very calm and composed, says Susila, alternating between chaste Tamil and impeccable English. It was Susila who was responsible for Anand's initiation into chess. I used to like chess. I merely introduced Anand to the game. He took to it like a fish to water.

Didn't she insist that Anand, an alumnus of Don Bosco School and Loyola College, focus on his studies? There was no need to, actually. Even as he started playing well, he continued to do well in academics. Once when I went to pick him up from school, his principal told me: I don't know when he finds time to study but he manages to get good grades'.

While we prod her on who played the bad cop when it came to disciplining Anand, her husband Viswanathan enters the room. I wanted for him a disciplined life that didn't interfere with his personal comfort, says Viswanathan, resting on the swing. But then Anand has never given me a chance to reprimand him, laughs the retired Southern Railway official. He has always conducted himself brilliantly. Anand is a divine gift to us.

The couple shares a laugh on being asked if Anand had a naughty streak as a child. When he was young, he used to ride his tri-cycle really fast and stop just inches in front of the gate. He used to get a thrill out of it while I would panic, says Viswanathan. Susila also recounts her son's fondness for swimming during the time her husband was posted in the Philippines.

When it comes to singling out his favourite Anand quality, the father is quick to respond. He doesn't speak ill of others. He is not the gossiping sort.

Susila is a fan of Anand's sense of humour. He's got a terrific sense of humour and looks at the lighter side of life. He is a very good conversationalist. He can discuss exhaustively subjects like astronomy, economics, and international politics.

Speaking of coping with Anand's celebrity status, she remembers his first award. I think he received an award from the Mambalam Chess Academy, where he used to play chess in the weekends. They gave him the most persevering player' prize. Viswanathan adds: He has always been a star. When he started out, we didn't think he would go on to achieve such great heights although we knew he would be successful. But he has always believed in doing one thing at a time. On the day he came back home after defeating Boris Gelfand, the boys in the neighbourhood burst crackers and came home to congratulate him. Anand, despite being tired, received them cheerfully.

We pose a question that a lot of fans have wondered about for years: Does Anand ever get angry? He doesn't get angry very often. But sometimes, he loses his temper for trivial reasons. For instance, during a card game with us, he would get angry if he loses. But then again, I feel he indulges in such mock anger just to make us feel important, smiles Susila, who was once a victim of a prank played by Anand in Spain when she was tricked into trying some less-than-polite Spanish words on the housemaid.

Viswanathan muses about the number of holidays they spent together in the past. We used to go to Kodaikanal and Ooty [Udhagamandalam] very often. Only recently did Anand arrange a small get-together to celebrate his victory. Anand is as affectionate now as he was when young. We are looking forward to more such celebrations, he says. As we are about to leave, Susila gives her daughter-in-law Aruna the stamp of approval. She's rightfully in the right place. She is very smart and good at managing things.

It is Aruna to whom we had spoken a day before our meeting with the Viswanathans. Now, it is simplistic to refer to Aruna as merely Anand's better half. In fact, she has been his manager, financial planner and confidante, all rolled into one. Right from packing Anand's clothes to booking rooms for his team on tours, Aruna's role is one that is all-encompassing in nature. Armed with a Masters degree in advertising, Aruna is also a trained Bharatanatyam dancer who nurtures a passion for painting.

Aruna, who has been married to Anand for 16 years, remembers the first time she met him. My first thought was that he is so simple and down-to-earth'. You expect someone who plays such a cerebral game to be moody but when you meet him, he's like a boy next door. I first gifted him a tie to which he said he didn't like wearing ties. Thankfully, he meant it as a joke and gifted me a perfume. She feels not having an independent career has not been a sacrifice on her part. I wouldn't say it is a sacrifice. Obviously, I do have a private life that's outside of chess and Anand as well. Initially both Anand and I weren't thinking of how I would fit in [in his team]. At the end of a year, we thought it wasn't such a bad thing [travelling with the team]; it was a gradual progression. There is an emotional aspect to the job because of the bond we share. But there is a lot of responsibility as some decisions would have a big influence on him.

Travelling together has helped bring them closer to each other, admits Aruna. Travels teach you a lot. You are physically together but in reality not together. When Anand practises, we end up being in the same room and still don't talk for five-six hours. Even during this world championship match, we barely managed to speak for a couple of hours every day.

Anand's presence at the time of Aruna's pregnancy last year was a source of great comfort to her. I really enjoyed pregnancy. He was there for all the medical consultations. I had this craving for Thai food and would ask him to take me to a Thai restaurant all the time. He would do it without complaining. Even when he had to leave for tournaments without me, we would talk to each other every day. Aruna also cherishes the time spent in Spain where Anand had set up base a few years ago. I didn't really miss home as Anand had a lot of very close friends there. We have travelled to many exotic destinations. One of the most memorable ones was our first wildlife safari in South Africa.

Aruna, however, says they have gone through some emotional roller-coasters and ended up enriched by the experience. After losing game seven in the World Championship match against Gelfand, he came up to me and said: I am really sorry to put you through all this.' It was then that I realised this was life'. The toughest moments bring you closer. The best thing about him is even if he's slightly irritated, he would frankly apologise. As a wife, if I see that something's bothering him, I try to prop him up by telling a silly joke or just being there with him.

According to her, 42-year-old Anand has brought about changes to her outlook, albeit unobtrusively. I am not as short-tempered as I used to be, thanks to Anand. What makes things easy is he is simple and uncomplicated. Do they have disagreements? Oh yes, one quirk of mine is I can squeeze a toothpaste mercilessly whereas Anand has a more organised approach. At one point, we started using two different toothpastes, she laughs. If the smaller issues are handled well, the larger ones can be easily resolved.

The celebrity status, she says, has not changed Anand. With his parents as well as mine, he is very friendly and behaves normally. When I ask him to look after our child, he gladly does that like any other father.

For Aruna, actor Aamir Khan's SMS congratulating Anand's victory has been one of the more special ones. For Anand, the high point would obviously be meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin. At a personal level, Aamir's message was special. My son Akhil somehow learnt to unlock the phone's keyguard and would accidentally dial Aamir's number every time. Aamir would courteously text back asking if I had called.

Aruna believes in enjoying every stage of their child's life. Akhil is only 14 months old. We want to enjoy every moment of his growing up. At the moment, the only goal we have set for him is potty training.

Arun Venugopal
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