Vishwanathan Anand’s dry wit can be as incisive as the moves that have made him a world chess champion. Last March, when I interviewed him for a television show at the magnificently restored Bhau Daji Lad Museum at Byculla, after spending a while studying the exhibits, he quipped, “Nice place to meet relics.”
Some critics, including Garry Kasparov, had suggested that at 41 Anand was becoming a little long in the tooth, but at 42 he is a world champion for the fifth time and the only argument remaining is whether or not he is the greatest chess player of all time.
Anand’s spectacular record has inspired a silent chess revolution in the country. We have more players than ever before, with Chennai, not surprisingly, being the hub. Other cities throbbing with chess activity are Kolkata and Hyderabad.
What of Mumbai? While chess is now popular in this city, it hasn’t generated prodigies or champions. Many youngsters seem to be taking to it because they think it is a status symbol or see it as being “useful.” Most parents are enrolling their children in chess classes not because they want them to compete seriously, but because they think the game sharpens the intellect and consequently boost grades.
Mumbai was, however, at one point, at the vanguard of India’s chess scene. The All India Chess Federation was formed in this city in 1950. RB Sapre, a Mumbaiite, was the first national champion, jointly with D Venkayya.
Chess flourished in Mumbai from the mid-1970s to the end of the millennium, with national champions emerging in both men’s and women’s sections, such as Pravin Thipsay, Bhagyashree Sathe, Anupama Abhyankar, Raghunandan Gokhale and the fascinating Khadilkar sisters — Vasanthi, Jayshree and Rohini.
Their background was unusual. Their father, Neelkanth Khadilkar, owns the Navakal newpaper, at one time the largest-selling Marathi newspaper in the city. He also puts out an evening paper, Sandhyakal. Unlike most leading chess players, who came from the suburbs, the Khadilkar sisters came from the heart of south Mumbai — Girgaon.
The Khadilkars came to chess more through a process of elimination. “My father wanted us to excel in some field,” Jayshree explained to me over the phone from her home in Girgaon. “Initially, we were all into swimming but we soon moved full time to chess because my father didn’t like being dependent on the whims and fancies of officials. In chess, you get selected only if you win matches.”
In those days, women were not allowed to participate in men’s tournaments, but Neelkanth Khadilkar contested this rule successfully. The Khadilkar sisters became the first girls to play against men, and with distinction. In the first decade of the women’s championships, from 1974 to 1984, the sisters monopolised the title, the eldest, Vasanthi, winning in the first year, Jayshree winning four times and the youngest, Rohini, winning five times.
To everybody’s surprise, however, the Khadilkar sisters gave up chess before the millennium was through. “It was very time-consuming,” explained Jayshree. “There was little support from officials. We had to live in filthy places at competitions, and the prize money would be R500 or so.”
The sense of disillusionment appears to have been so great that Jayshree didn’t even teach her son, now 21, how to play the game that she loved so much. “No regrets though,” she said. “We played well and achieved some success.”
In 1997, Jayshree became editor of the flagship newspaper Navakal after completing a degree in law. Rohini edits Sandhyakal while Vasanthi is in charge of administration. “I am enjoying my role as editor,’’ says Jayshree. “It provides a more panoramic view of life.”
But she extolls Anand, whom she saw starting out. “What he has achieved is stupendous,” she said. “I remember him coming to tournaments and burying himself in a book on chess or working out moves by himself while the rest of the players would do other things.
“But Anand’s mother’s contribution must be appreciated equally,” she said. “She didn’t know the game, but would come to every tournament and stay there for hours, keeping an eye on her son and looking after his needs. Her dedication deserves a book or film.” Any takers?
When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds