August 19, 2005

An evening with 'Vishy'

Photo courtesy: Manoj Kanakamedala / Dibakar R.C.

at Mainz for the Grenke-Leasing Classic.
I was halfway through my daily cursory scan of the news websites last week, when something flashed across my sights. So what's great about it? That I live not a stone's throw from Mainz, free to travel anytime there free of cost with the aid of my student ticket. And this for the past 4 years. And Vishy (Vishwanathan Anand for the uninitiated) has been visiting Mainz every year the past 4 years. And as was custom, I would plan to visit Mainz every year to meet him and miss out on it owing to some frivolous last-minute work crossing my path and dumping my plans in the bin.

Oops, cool, shall I go meet him? (I could hear my 'other me' mocking at me: O! Lazy moron...fourth year in a row, and you're not gonna make it again...guffaws...) I was determined to make it this time. And then I saw the date. Goodness gracious...the tournament ran from August 9 through August 14. And it was already August the 11th. Should I risk my schedule to make a trip which I was not even sure would be successful? I did not know about the situation in Germany, but if it were India, the organizers would normally have not let me get anywhere near Vishy. Well, I decided to take the baton.

Now, I needed a camera. A digital camera. One thing that I did not possess, despite all my journalistic adventures, was a camera. Luckily one of my friends had bought a new camera, and another had bought a new battery-charger. As if things were falling in place specially for me. So, equipped with the camera and a set of charged batteries, I planned for my trip the following evening to Mainz with one of my friends - Mr. G - who I will now reveal to be Gururaj. (Mark Felt? "I am Deep Throat"? Move over Woodward and Bernstein!).

Note: All the photos and scanned copies of the autographs may be found here.

We reached the Hilton Mainz hotel. We were revelling in the surroundings, but there were more pressing issues ahead, including the small matter of meeting the World Champion (ok former, but he still surely is among the top 3) Vishy. We were unsure of what to expect and were loitering in the grand corridor outside the playing halls, when a desi guy (that too from Madurai) ran into us. And cool, he was a close friend of Vishy. He cooly asked us, "While you are waiting for Vishy, why not take the autographs of some other chess players?" Who? "Like, Peter Svidler, who is right behind you!!!" Wow...there was Svidler himself, and he gleefully posed for a photograph with us, and signed an autograph. But the occassion could get only bigger...and there was Vishy himself arriving at the playing hall with his wife Aruna. No trace of pretension, no showmanship. Simple. He appeared cool and calm, his match due in ten-minute's time. When we approached him, he gave us a warm smile, and we spoke to his wife if it was possible to get an autograph from him. She just said, "Shall we have it after the match?" Well, we sat in for the match.

Believe me, that was the first ever chess match I had ever sat through in my life. Just like Svidler was the first ever renowned chess player I had met in my life. Yes, I agree I may sound silly and childish in my descriptions and exclamations, but even that would not have described in full my sense of awe and excitement that pervaded me that moment. Vishy was playing the black pieces against Alexander "Sasha" Grischuk of Russia. After about 45 minutes of intense duelling, Grishchuk ran out of time, and resigned. Anand had won with the black pieces!!! Man, I am a lucky charm (hehehe...)

We shot pictures of ourselves with Anand at the table, and then got autographs and photos with his wife, who on hearing that I was from Tamilnadu, spoke to me in pure Brahminical Tamil: "Neenga evvalavu naala inge irukkel?" (How long are you here?) So simple and unassuming the couple was, I seriously began to harbour doubts if the non-cricketing fraternity in India is reallying getting the cold shoulder from fans and others alike. I have been used to the arrogance and upmanship of the Indian cricketers, having met them just before the historic 2001 series against the Australians, when they trained at the IIT grounds at Chennai.

Vishy's (and his wife's) attitude was a sea change from those of the cricketers. And that too, Vishy was not just another club player or a faceless amateur. Here was a two-time world champion, a man who challenged the chess demi-god Kasparov for the world title and made him sweat before losing out, the undisputed king of rapid chess, the man who single-handedly gave India its respect in the sporting world, at a time and in a place where acievements by individual Indian sportspersons were rarer than Bush uttering a whole long sentence without his usual Bushisms. Well, to put it simply: Vishy was, and still is, India's pride in chess, nay, the entire sporting world. Bloody hell, he is an icon!

OK, ok, back to business. After the usual post-mortem at the end of the match, Anand moved out of the hall for a press conference. We waylaid him and requested for an autograph, and, er, a photograph. And there we were..our 5 minutes of fame with Vishy. He patiently posed for the photos, without as much a hint of unease or such things as is shown by most of our cricketers (well, Sachin Tendulkar was an exception when I had met him 4 years back). Then he politely asked me, "Neengalum Press Meet-ku varalame?" (Why not come to the Press Meet?) So we sat through the Press Meet.

Once it was over, there was a short interview from Doordarshan, India's national broadcaster. Once he was done with it, he stood up to leave. Now was the moment. We approached him and asked for a photo of him and his wife with us. "Oh, eduthukkalamae!!!" (Why not? Let's have it!!!) And them came the sucker punch. Our camera memory had run out. We had forgotten to bring an extra memory card. With it, even our brains began to run dry of ideas. Should I delete this picture? Or the next? We had to delete atleast two pics, if we had to take the group photo with Vishy and his wife. I was getting mad with every passing minute.

Photo courtesy: Manoj Kanakamedala / Dibakar R.C.

"We are making him wait, you idiot...No, delete this, not that..."
, I was shouting at poor G, who was totally blank, and was like the proverbial hare caught in the headlights. And all through, Vishy was smiling and waiting, and so was his wife. "No problem, take your time". I can't believe my ears. The evening was filled with surprises, and they were never-ending. Once we had settled our dispute as to clearing the memory card, we snapped pictures of Vishy and Aruna with us. And we got autographs from Grishchuk and (Zoltan) Almasi to boot.

And there was more in store for us. The parting line from Mr. and Mrs. Anand summed up not just the entire evening, but also the personality that he is. "You must both be present tomorrow for the remaining games, too". And, "marupadiyum vandellna nanna irukkum" (It will be nice if you can visit again). Simplicity and humility at its best.

In a world where even an amateur sportsman or the new kid on the block flaunts his wares, it is indeed rare to see people like Vishy and his wife, who never for once forgot the twin principles of humility and courtesy. And I put it bluntly to Anand: "If it were India, I doubt if we would have been allowed to even get near you. Even if you so wished, the organizers and policewallahs would have never let us get anywhere near you". And he just gave his usual smile in reply.

Did I go the next day? Well, I would have loved to, but for the only fact that I thought frequent visits would render the magic of that first evening with the Anand couple meaningless. It would be nice to boast in the future that I met Vishy Anand three days in a row from close quarters, but I felt it was far more important that I did not lose that sense of excitement of meeting him as casually as a friend walking in on a visit. I wanted to savour that moment of having met the first ever down-to-earth icon I have personally come across in my life. And man, am I savouring it!!!

Note: All the photos and scanned copies of the autographs may be found here.

1 comment:

Raven said...

Nice account. Cricket has been given much too media attention in India, that nowadays, even the ranji level players donot know the word humble. Vishy, from your account, is all humble and most importantly is able to handle fame and success with poise, a rare quality indeed. Nice account of a humble evening.