HT Brunch Cover Story: Meet chess ace Viswanathan Anand and his one-woman army
The photo session is under way at Viswanathan Anand’s home in the discreetly swank apartment block in Chennai’s Kotturpuram. The scores of medals won by the five-time world chess champion are in small frames lining a wall, and chess sets occupy various niches. The photographer has asked Viswanathan – Vishy to friends and fans – to take off his spectacles because the light is bouncing off them. Aruna Anand walks into the room, sees Vishy without his glasses and returns with an anti-reflective pair. He slips them on, laughing. “Now it’s the hall of mirrors,” he says.
Aruna is more than the woman in the cliché about every successful man. She has been Vishy’s constant travel companion and efficient manager over the last two decades. Until their son, Akhil, now eight, was born, Aruna went everywhere with Vishy. “Now she comes to just one or two tournaments a year,” he says. “But she continues to do everything, even when she’s not with me.”
In 2010, Aruna was pregnant and in Chennai. Vishy was in London where bad weather had caused delays and flight cancellations. “I was in the queue at the check-in counter when she called and said, ‘Take a train to Amsterdam,’” Vishy says. “I asked her why and she said they will tell you the same thing when you get to the counter. So stop wasting time and get on that train.”
Vishy rode on a very crowded Eurostar and made it to Amsterdam in time. “She lies in bed and does it all,” he says.
How long have you been married? I ask.
“Let him answer,” Aruna says with a mischievous smile.
“I remember that,” says the champion, who is known to forget such details. “Twenty-three years.”
But he did get in trouble for forgetting another number. It was when Aruna had set the code for a safe. It’s easy to remember, she told him: 2706.
“Who has a ranking like that?” Vishy queried.
“It’s not a ranking, it’s our wedding anniversary,” said a mildly annoyed Aruna.
Given Aruna’s diligence, Vishy has been able to concentrate solely on his game. “At the time we got married, I handled all the planning for my tournaments, travel and correspondence. A year into our marriage, Aruna began to manage these,” Vishy remembers. “Now that she’s not travelling with me all the time, she does the planning and I cope with the actual execution. It’s something I’ve had to relearn.”
Aruna is also the person who has been at Vishy’s side through moments of elation, in the despair that comes with defeat and the times of desperation that can strike at the beginning of a challenging game. In his forthcoming book, Mind Master, releasing to coincide with his 50th birthday on December 11, Vishy recounts his panic before the now-famous encounter with Vladimir Kramnik in Bonn in 2008. He desperately needed to speak with his trainers before the match, but couldn’t reach them. Aruna told him, ‘Nothing can be done now, go and play.’ And how he played and won is part of chess history.
“You’re certainly happy after winning, but there is also relief. After a big success you feel a sort of emptiness within,” says Vishy. Aruna says: “When a tournament ends, he’s like a kid after a birthday party. The mind is buzzing with energy, but the body is tired and it takes a couple of days to wind down.”
The beginning of a tournament is similarly exacting. “He’s extremely focused,” says Aruna. “Sleep is disturbed and eating patterns go awry. Amidst the tension, he looks forward like a teenager to the travel and the excitement. Then as the tournament progresses, he slips into that zone of focus and concentration.”
The outcome of a game causes another surge of emotion. “Defeats are when you want to separate yourself from the person who played, forget the tournament, get home yesterday and burn the whole memory down,” Vishy says with candour. “Bad games put me in a lousy mood. Then there’s the typical advice people give you, boilerplate stuff like buckle up and be strong. You tend to get dismissive after a point.”
In Dortmund in 2003, Vishy had two losses in a row. He strode out for a walk, seething with self-loathing. Aruna figured it was better to say nothing. “Nothing to say? I asked her,” recalls Vishy. “She said, ‘Forget about today, tomorrow will be better.’ Having goaded her into saying this, I said, ‘If you have a useful idea for the opening, that would be helpful, not this.’ And Aruna said, ‘If I had a good idea for the opening do you think I’d be married to you?’” remembers Vishy. They laughed and the tension was defused.
Aruna knew nothing about chess when she married Vishy who had already arrived in the top league. “Once the marriage was fixed, my brother told me I should get a chessboard and at least count the squares,” Aruna says. She was 22 when the marriage was arranged. Did she not want a career of her own? “My parents put it this way: they said, you have a set of skills, use them where you can. I think they were brave, sending me to a country they knew nothing about.”
Vishy and Aruna moved to Collado Mediano, a Madrid suburb, soon after their wedding. Vishy has another anecdote: “Aruna was shopping to prepare for Spain. She went to this shop in Chennai and the shopkeeper asked, Foreign-a? America-va, IT-ya? These will be perfect for front-load machines. Not America, not IT, Aruna had to tell him. Then her friends asked whether she was going to Paris or London on her honeymoon. ‘Dortmund,’ Aruna had to tell them. ‘For a chess tournament.’”
He also remembers how in the early days, when she knew nothing of chess, she’d fall asleep while he took on the world’s top players. “She would hear some clapping and wake up but wouldn’t know who had won, so she would hide in the ladies’ room,” he says.
She soon learned the game and he was able to discuss nuances with her. Now that she doesn’t always travel with him, he calls her to give the results of the day. “Earlier, if he had a bad game he would expect me to say something and if it was the wrong thing he would get angry. Now, with WhatsApp, I just send him sad face emoticons, lots of them,” smiles Aruna.
The chess champion who became an International Master at the age of 15, says he still hates losing after all these years. “There are games after which I am nearly suicidal,” he says. “But part of evolving is that you learn to keep a bird’s-eye view of things. I know I have to see a bigger perspective. I think, for instance, of the happy stuff Akhil does and that makes everything different.”
For Aruna, staying home with Akhil and immersing herself in motherhood is different and fun. “But she does miss the travelling,” Vishy says. “She sometimes points out that she hasn’t even driven past the airport in a while.”
They may not be hopping on to planes together as frequently as in the past, but they are fellow travellers on the same journey. “We got married because our parents decided we should,” says the pragmatic Aruna. “We didn’t have high expectations and decided to figure it out along the way. It’s been a wonderful journey.”
Does nothing disturb the idyll? “The usual squabbles,” Aruna says. “In the early days, it was about the toothpaste tube. He’s disorganised in every other way, but had a problem with the way I squeezed the tube. Get your own toothpaste, I had to tell him. And, oh, now he’s downloaded some sticky note programme to keep a record of our chats. He usually doesn’t pay attention to what I say. So I would bring up something and tell him I had mentioned it before and that he had forgotten.”
“Yes, too many things we hadn’t agreed upon were creeping in, hence this solution,” Vishy says and Aruna gives him an indulgent smile.
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Author bio: The writer is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru, who specialises in food, travel and lifestyle writing. She has edited several mainstream publications in the past.
From HT Brunch, December 1, 2019
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