It is a pleasant morning and a steady breeze blows from the Bay of Bengal as one enters Customs Colony in the calm Besant Nagar locality. In a street dotted with independent villas, it is easy to locate the residence of K Viswanathan, retired General Manager of Southern Railway; more prominently, father of world chess champion, Viswanathan Anand. The humility floors one as Susheela Viswanathan, Anand's mother, welcomes you into ‘Garga'.
The youngest of three children, Anand was the blue-eyed boy of the family. "There was a difference of 13 years between Anand and our eldest son, and 11 between him and my daughter. They used to be very protective of him. Even we (parents) were very happy. After a long time, a child was born and we could spend more time with him. We pampered him but he was not naughty," says Susheela with pride.
His mother came from a family of lawyers and engineering was the profession on his father's side. But Anand's interest lay in his mother's pastime --- chess. "We used to play at home, I was very interested. Anand saw us play and picked up five-six," says Susheela.
Soon, Anand was enrolled at the Mikhail Tal Chess Club, named after the former Soviet champion. India's first International Master, Manuel Aaron, conducted classes there. "There, once a player lost, he had to give someone else a chance, but Anand would play from morning till evening, without losing."
Aaron, 77, vividly remembers. "He played very well for a young boy. He used to be there when the club opened and play against anyone who turned up. I didn't train him, I used to give him lectures from Russian chess magazines during 1977-79, and he had a lot of questions. His mother taught him chess and he developed the game himself. "I realised he had the spark to achieve big things when he started beating everybody, but he played fast and we could not judge much."
Anand's blitz play earned him the title of ‘Lightning Kid'. "Some felt playing so fast was not good but I didn't want to curb his natural game. He was so fast he made his move and walked around checking games on other tables while his opponent still pondered over his next move," says his mother.
An important development was his father's transfer to Manila on deputation in the late ‘70s. Philippines, a growing chess nation, boasted of Asia's first GM, Eugenio Torre. "He (Torre) hosted a daily show that posed end-game problems. I used to write them down and when Anand got back from school we solved and sent them," says Susheela. Anand kept winning so often the organisers invited him to pick any number of books, given as prize, but stop taking part to give others a chance!
Once back in India in 1980, Anand's competitive streak began to unfold. He won step-by-step - at club level, then city and then at district level. It was in 1983 that the chess fraternity was convinced of Anand's genius. He became national sub-junior champion, and in the national team championship in Mumbai, the 13-year-old was picked to represent Madras Colts. "He won the top board prize (reserved for the strongest member in a team), despite fever," says Ebenezer Joseph, a FIDE trainer who captained that side.
It was no ordinary prize as Anand stunned Manuel Aaron. "This became huge. Aaron was nine times national champion and India's first IM," says Susheela. "Then he went to the world sub-juniors in Paris and finished third. (GM Vasily) Ivanchuk was second. There was no turning back. He won the sub-junior and junior world titles."
Susheela shows a picture of a 14-year-old Anand, with pencil moustache and in a red blazer, with the Arjuna Award in 1985. "He was never interested in awards. He concentrated only on playing. If they want him to, he would go (to receive awards). Even today, he doesn't bother whether he is praised or criticised." The next year, he became the youngest national champion and in 1988, became India's first GM. The rest, as they say, is history.
Still, it was a tough decision to let Anand play full time. "He was a good student. He enrolled for commerce and our idea was if he didn't do well in chess, he could do MBA and join his sister in the US for higher studies. It was a tough decision but DV Sundar (FIDE vice-president, then Indian Bank sports officer) told me he could join the bank on sports quota. That assured us. But we didn't want to bind him to one job with all that travelling," says Susheela.
In a world of moody champions, Anand comes as a breath of fresh air. "He is friendly, does not like to put anyone in discomfort. If at all he makes a blunder, he will curse himself," says Arvind Aaron, Manuel's son and Anand's former teammate.