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Sunday Sentiments

  • A rewarding encounter with a WCC

    Posted On February 19, 2001

    By Karan Thapar

    He was smiling when he walked through the double doors of the hotel. It was a shy smile. Although he is tall and well built it made him look young and vulnerable. His appearance and manner suggested informality and friendliness.

    My mind raced back seven years. This is exactly how he looked when we first met in 1994. Then he was just Viswanathan Anand. Now he is the new World Chess Champion. Then he had come alone. This time his wife, Aruna, was with him. But that apart – as I was soon to discover – nothing else had changed.

    “Hi” I said as I stepped forward to greet him.

    “We’ve met before” he replied, his smile broadening.

    “Do you remember?” I asked, surprised that he should.

    “Of course” he said. “I even remember the prediction I made.”

    That shook me. In 1994 the young Anand had claimed he would be World Chess Champion in two years time. His first attempt was in 1995 when he lost to Kasparov by a margin of three games. His next shot was three years later and on that occasion he lost to Karpov in a spine-tingling tie-breaker. Although last Christmas eve he fulfilled his ambition I assumed he would want to forget his earlier rash claim. I was wrong.

    “Yeah” he said, continuing the conversation. “I’m a few years late but I did it nevertheless.”

    I was to soon realise that Anand has the strength to say what he feels and the character to stand by it. In an age when the rest of us take recourse in political correctness Anand’s candour is refreshing. It also wins respect and admiration.

    The first example happened almost by accident. We were sitting in the bar of the Chola Sheraton – except it had been emptied of all other guests and we were the only ones. In five minutes we were going to start recording the interview Anand had come to give. This was a pause to catch one’s breath before the lights were switched on and the cameras started to roll.

    “I had no idea the weather in Madras would be so pleasant” I said and then, realising my error, hastily added “sorry I mean Chennai”.

    “Don’t worry, I say Madras all the time” Anand quickly reassured me. “You know for 28 years of my life it’s been Madras. That’s how I think of it. Just because they’ve changed the name for political reasons doesn’t mean I am going to change the way I think of my home city.” He was right. If in English Paris is Paris and not Paris, if Rome is Rome and not Roma and Delhi is Delhi and not Dilli or Dehlee then why can’t Madras continue as Madras? Or Bombay as Bombay? And Calcutta as Calcutta? Call them what you want in Tamil or Marathi or Bengali but let them stay unchanged in English. After all, Germany is Germany and not Deutschland and the Germans don’t object. In fact, when speaking English they call it Germany themselves.

    The second example was, if anything, even more revealing. The interview over, Anand was asked by the crew if they could have photographs taken with him. There were 15 of them and each wanted a personal photograph. Anand had to pose individually in each case. Most of our other star guests grimace when similar requests are made and their reluctance is writ large on their face.

    “I’m sorry” I said gently, trying to ease Anand into agreeing. “You seem to be very popular.”

    “Oh don’t worry” he answered, at once aware of what I was doing. ‘Don’t worry’ is a favourite phrase. “After all, where would I be if people did not want autographs and photographs?”

    Several of Bollywood’s bright and best would do well to take heed of Anand’s words. It would be indiscreet, even invidious, for me to name them. My colleagues and crew, however, would have no such compunction.

    “You know Anand” I said as we chatted after the interview. “You’re so different to the image the world has of you.”

    The apres-interview – a bit like the apres-ski – is a time to let one’s hair down and relax. Even the most taciturn of interviewees can become garrulous. I suppose it’s partly to do with a sense of relief that the ordeal is over and partly the realisation that Karan is not the rakshas most people anticipate. In Anand’s

    case my comment was provoked by the fact that he seemed relaxed and chatty from the start. He’s one of the easiest people to talk to.

    “And what is this image the world has of me?”

    Strong, silent, dominating and taciturn” I replied. I thought I had summed it up rather neatly.

    “God how wrong that is!”

    It wasn’t Anand speaking. It was Aruna.

    “He’s not like that at all. He’s the chattiest person I know.”

    I noticed Anand was laughing. His eyes were lit up and twinkling with mischief. How little we know him, I thought.

    “I find it very hard to be serious when I’m not playing” he said still chortling. “I can’t be focussed and dedicated all the time. In fact, sometimes I find it hard to be focussed even when I’m playing!”

    “You know” Aruna added “when we first got married he used to say I was a gossip. Now I know he’s the biggest chatter-box there is!”

    Anand filled all the awkward gaps and pauses with cheerful banter. Not for a moment did I or my colleagues feel we were in the company of a world chess champion. From the start he had us at our ease.

    “Kamal ka aadmi hei ” said Nirmal, the director, once Anand had left. “Itne successful lekin itne simple.”

    True. How little we know the good and great and yet how easily we form the wrong impression of them. A few, like Anand, are much much nicer than we think.


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