Indians have become so accustomed to mediocrity that they don’t quite know what to do with a genuine hero and a real champion. The culture of chalta hai and taking short-cuts and muddling-through that Indians, as it were, absorb with mother’s milk, prevents people from recognising true merit and stupendous achievement. And there are also the usual suspects — the media — who would not recognise genuine-ness it were handed to them on a platter, and it jumped up and bit them on the nose.
Here is Viswanathan Anand, world chess champion for the fifth time, someone who stands at the very pinnacle of the sport. Tell me, in which other sport does India have — or has ever had — a world champion, especially one who dominates the field as Anand does? It is true that there have been occasional world champions in billiards and women’s weightlifting and women’s boxing, but they, too, have been slighted.
But chess, now that is the ultimate sporting test, the test of strategic insights and the endurance and fortitude in tough times: indeed, war by other means. Come to think of it, maybe that’s precisely why Indians don’t appreciate chess, because after all, these are the very areas where India is most deficient. Strategy? Hardly. Endurance? Hah! Fortitude? No, India is full of cry-babies, asking for privileges where none are due. And despite the valour of the armed forces, India has cut a sorry figure in its more recent wars, mostly because of a total lack of strategy on the part of the netas.
Thus, there is no appreciation of how difficult Anand’s path has been, and the odds that he has overcome to be the best of the best. First of all, there is the old Soviet/East Bloc stranglehold in chess: they do not like interlopers, as they see those from outside their system (that applies especially to non-whites, I would imagine). Second, Anand has achieved all this with absolutely no support, and in fact hostility from Indian apparatchiks.
So poor Viswanathan Anand, sort of like Abhimanyu in the chakravyuham, has had to, all by himself, fight the Soviets in their own den on their own terms. The fact that they are not keen on his winning the world championship yet again was highlighted when Anand played Topalev of Bulgaria a couple of years ago. European air travel was shut down because of a volcanic eruption, yet they wouldn’t postpone the championship; so Anand had to drive some 3,000 miles to get to Sofia, Bulgaria. But he had the last laugh: he won.
And what did Indian officialdom do to Anand? The Kapil Sibal HRD ministry alleged in 2008 that he was a Spanish citizen (because he spent much time there), and spoiled the award of an honorary doctorate to him (actually why should citizenship be a criterion for awarding a doctorate?). Most countries are delighted to grab a world-class chess player — see how Gata Kamsky moved from Russia to the US; Boris Gelfand from Russia to Israel, etc. — and here is Anand, who would be welcomed as a hero in at least dozen chess-loving nations, being actively encouraged to give up his Indian citizenship by these brutes in the HRD [sic] ministry!
A great inability to see the diamonds in their own backyard, and to hanker after chimeras! The inevitable comparison is with the lionisation of all those cricketers, playing what, if you were to be objective about it, a game that only the Indian middle class cares about. It’s like the Americans talking about the World Series in baseball, with only about five other countries playing it. But at least in that case, the Americans dominate the game they invented (as they do in basketball). But India, in cricket? Dominance? Only in coming up with the money to be wasted on this… entertainment.
The late great Graham Greene used to describe some of his books as “entertainments”, while his serious works he called “novels”. That is the difference between cricket (an entertainment) and chess (a sport). Of course, I say this quite aware of the fact that cricket has become the sacred opiate of the masses in India — and I have noticed that one may abuse anything and anybody, but cricket, and some of its players, are sacrosanct. There is totally no sense of proportion about this.
But there is something more to Anand. He is a gentleman, tense underneath, but calm still. In this he reminds me of Ramanathan Krishnan, tennis player of another era. Maybe it is a Chennai thing, this preternatural calm, when many tennis players do showboating: remember Ilie ‘Nasty’ Nastase, John McEnroe, et al? Then there was, of course, that perfect gentleman in tennis too: Bjorn Borg, undemonstrative and quiet.
On second thoughts, it is not a Chennai thing, because there are also some Karnataka players who seem to be exemplify decency: Rahul Dravid, and maybe Prakash Padukone in badminton. So maybe it is a Southern Thing. But no, really, I cannot think of a single Kerala or Andhra player who has the same bearing of gravitas, unless it is Koneru Humpy and other chess players.
But then I am anyway partial to Karnataka, my favourite state in the Union (it has Bangalore, and then Coorg, and it has Belur-Halebid-Sravanabelagola and Badami-Aihole-Pattadakal, and above all, it has Hampi, that ‘teardrop on the face of time’, a stark reminder that barbarians are always at the gates).
So maybe it is not a Southern Thing; it’s just that Anand is a decent human being. And a very great champion. All of us are lucky to be around to see him play: some day we’ll tell our kids that we have seen this man in action. Sort of like I tell people about being lucky enough to see Larry Bird and Magic Johnson play in Boston Garden or Joe Montana make a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice in Candlestick Park.