Anand through the eyes of Aruna - From 1996 to 2020!
Perhaps Vishy Anand would not have been the legend that he is today if it wasn't for his wife Aruna Anand. She has been the biggest factor behind most of Vishy's key successes including even the World Championship titles. We got in touch with Aruna a few days ago and spoke at length to her about Vishy's life, his ambitions and endeavours then and now. From being a wife and manager to a loving mother she has come a long way. In this revealing interview you get a unique insight into her 22-year long journey of change, challenges, and transformation in the world of chess.
A revealing interview with Aruna Anand
Frederic Friedel, the co-founder of ChessBase, often likes to joke that Vishy actually looked through a catalogue of prospective brides to find Aruna as the perfect match! Well, it might have been a somewhat orthodox arranged marriage but nevertheless it was a tremendous success and vouchsafed the chess world a conjugal bond that couldn't be nobler or more resilient. Aruna Anand has been Vishy's rock through 22 years now. She has managed him in countless high-pressure situations over the years which even include the World Championship matches. If the mighty Viswanathan Anand is the Tiger of Madras, then Aruna, his suave and sagacious better half, can rightly be called the Tigress of Madras. Vishy turned fifty not many days ago and there can't be a more opportune time to acquaint yourself better with the person who has arguably played the most significant role in his life!
Then and Now!
Vishy Anand got married to Aruna in 1996 and now it is already 2020! How have things changed from Then to Now? We ask about this to Aruna:
SS: You as Anand's manager, how were things back in 1996 when you started and how is it now in 2019?
AA: I don't think I started off wanting to manage Anand's career. It was not pre-planned or ordained to be that kind of a role. I think we both got married and thought that we would just figure out how things work. But when in 1997 Groningen Lausanne happened there was a clear need to manage and plan things like getting air tickets, getting Anand to Lausanne, seeing that he was physically and mentally okay. So at that point I think it became rather a necessity that someone handles these things. I think from then on it became a natural progression that I would take care of these things while he would focus on the chess part. I don't think we sat down and told each other that this is how it was going to be. It was a very a organic process.
Now, I think life has changed a lot. Clearly, being a mother is my top priority right now. But it is not that just because of that I have stopped being Anand's manager or I stopped doing things. I think the world has changed a lot as well. Now almost everything can be done with a click of a button on your phone so you tend to be more efficient in doing things. Things are easier to do wherever you are, however you are. I would say I am still very efficient but clearly the focus has changed from Anand to Akhil, unless Anand needs me at a certain juncture in time. For instance in Kolkata I had to be there for him. I guess that's how things work these days.
SS: How do you think Anand's temperament has changed as a player, then and now?
AA: I think clearly first you have to take pre 2000 when he was trying very hard to become the World Champion and he also came very close to achieving it at times. Then 2000 happened, he became the FIDE World Champion. He then had this slump. I think it was a very good exercise in keeping himself for the future because clearly he learnt some very hard lessons from the period of 2000 to 2003, and you can see from 2003 to 2005 he had this huge jump again. I think also it gave him a lot of self-confidence. He was actually able to overcome a lot of obstacles and it wasn't the first time he was going to go through it, there were a lot of bumpy rides even after that.
I think winning the Mexico 2007 was clearly the big jump because he was in excellent form and at very few points he was actually in danger. He had this incredible preparation in that tournament. That was the start of Anand 2.0 if you may call it so. Then after Chennai it was a different feeling but after 2013 he went back and won the candidates. At all the junctures when he thought he had hit a low, a good result would happen. It was because he was working very hard, putting himself out and being very ambitious.
Anand is now very happy as a person but as a chess player I think he is working the hardest at the moment. He understands that he needs to work very hard to just be where he is because of certain factors like age, stamina etc which are not within one's control and one cannot fight. You just have to factor them in and see how best you can work. Anand has always been a very pragmatic person and player which has helped him at many points in his career. He is someone who understands his own strengths and weaknesses very well. I have known him to factor in his weaknesses beautifully, be it physical, mental, or emotional and then he is able to recheck himself and decide how to approach his game and his life. But I clearly see he is working much harder now than ever before!
In 1996-97 he used to have very long working sessions. Now the sessions are not that long but you can see the work is at much higher level, more serious and intense. Back then he used to have set work for three or four hours and then the rest was easy. He would play and come back and have a nice dinner. Now he is more intense than he has ever been, at least that's what I feel. This is also partly because of his tremendous dedication and work ethic. He hardly wavers from the work that has to be done. And for him chess is still very much the priority. The public persona and celebrity thing is fine but chess takes precedence over everything else. That is what has kept him going till now.
SS: When I asked Peter Svidler about what he thinks is the secret of Anand's longevity, he wrote that he has surrounded himself with a lot of positive people and a lot of people who care for him.
AA: Definitely, I think Anand has been very lucky in this regard. First of all to start with his parents and siblings, they were all and have been very committed to both Anand as a person and Anand as a player. Then when he came abroad he found Maurice and Nieves. What they did for Anand, you know you can't just say thanks for that. What we have for them is beyond gratitude. They just took him into their house, treated him as their son. You don't get that kind of selfless love these days. Maybe because of that Anand and I are also very conscious. We try to do a little bit of what they did for us. We try and keep an open house and welcome people in. Because the way they helped Anand is simply beyond words. You should have seen how beautiful that relationship was.
Then there was Frederic, there was Albert - all very good friends. They would just take him in and he could stay and work there. This was a time when we needed a visa for every European country and when foreign exchange was very limited. At those times this kind of help was a big boost. After that again he found Hans Walter and Cornelia. As Anand describes in his book Hans Walter is someone who would take a bullet for him. His commitment to Anand is at an altogether different level. Sometime even I think whether I am so committed to Anand like Hans Walter! He has been immensely lucky to have these people in his life and maybe they are so kind to him also because Anand himself is a very nice person! And at home, you know, he always has Akhil and me. At home he is just a husband and a father, we are just a regular family and we do regular family stuff.
SS: How has Anand changed over the years as a husband?
AA: (Thoughtfully) Hmm...Essentially he has stayed the same. Perhaps one can change only so much as a person but I think he has become very good with assistive technology which has made him much more efficient as a husband. I am choosing my words very carefully but that's how I would put it!
SS: (Laughs) What does efficient as a husband mean?
AA: Well, earlier I used to tell him something and he would forget it. But now he can tell Alexa to remind him or ask Siri to record a voice note! So I would say with the help of assistive technology he has become more efficient as a husband!
SS: And what about Anand as a father?
AA: I think Anand as a father is the most beautiful role I have seen him in. Though Akhil understands that Anand is something in chess and all but for him he is a playmate who always turns up and when he is there it is just a complete mayhem. And sometimes Anand is just so powerless against him.
The other day these two had gone to the terrace and somebody was coming to see Anand and wish him for the birthday. They came with big bouquets and I saw the security guard behind them carrying one of Akhil's slippers! What had happened was, Akhil had attempted a cartwheel which had sent one of his slippers flying through the air and it had almost hit the people coming to our place. I looked at Anand and he was completely helpless! These, I think, are the best things about being a father. These are things you remember and smile.
Anand as a father is the most beautiful thing. He is very involved with him. Sometimes he would pick him up from school. He is also very involved with his homework and all. Akhil, for instance, is taking French and I don't know French so often he would ask Anand for help. That's why sometimes Anand would finish a game and ask me what the current homework in French is so that we can write it down quickly.
If Akhil wins a prize we are just very happy. The day after the book released he had his annual day performance at school and it was an absolute pleasure for us to sit there and watch him enjoying himself. I don't know if he was doing exactly what he was asked to but he was enjoying himself thoroughly and people were clapping. As parents we just felt very proud being there. You know, I think in moments like these it doesn't matter whether you are a Viswanathan Anand, you are just a proud father. And Anand can do that effortlessly, that's the beauty of being Anand.
SS: A lot of chess players think if they have kids it will affect their career.
AA: I think Anand said the same thing when we got married! But okay after Akhil came, Anand played three World Championships!
SS: How is the way you celebrate success now? How is it different from back then?
AA: Maybe a few years earlier we took success somewhat for granted but now I think we are much more grateful, we know that there's a lot of hard work involved and when it happens we are much more thankful.
SS: What about Anand as a Chef?
AA: Anand as a Chef has also gotten a lot more efficient I would say. The two Norway tournaments have trained him very well. He is now able to distinguish one thing from another and can also open the box of cereals effortlessly! (Laughs)
The best chef .two years in a row !Grandmasterchef! What can i say?— Viswanathan Anand (@vishy64theking) June 7, 2019
To my wife .. Yes love that is a perfectly cooked salmon according to the judges!...
One salmon a la Chennai coming right up!!
Its a big climb from opening cereal boxes ... pic.twitter.com/SuxaYNYyM6
SS: What about movies and TV shows? How have they changed from back then to now?
AA: Okay, now we are just living in a different era. There's Netflix and Prime, we can't even compare the two eras. When we were newly married and living in Spain people used to send us VHS tapes of Fawlty Towers and The Kumars at No.42. In Spain back then to watch something English we needed all that. Now it doesn't matter in which country you live or what you do. You are just able to watch whatever you want, wherever you want. The shows too can't be compared but we still like to watch Fawlty Towers or Yes Minister once in a while. Now there's just so many good series, we enjoyed "The Crown" recently, we enjoyed "Narcos", "El Chapo", "World War II in colour".
Of course we also end up seeing a lot of children stuff because of Akhil. Akhil watches "Our Planet" which we like a lot and also something called the "Elephant Queen" which too is breathtakingly beautiful. But once in a while we have to watch things like "Horror Henry" or "Green eggs in ham" (Laughs). We are learning something new everyday because of Akhil!
SS: And what about your tastes in music?
AA: In music I think Anand and me have very different tastes. I listen to a lot of 80s and 90s but he likes listening to old Tamil songs and I keep teasing him because you know these songs were made even before his parents got married. But actually he likes them because his mother used to enjoy them a lot.
SS: What about his friends in the world of chess? Have they changed or are they the same?
AA: I think the set has more or less remained the same. [Jeroen] Piket was his good friend who has retired and then there have been [Boris] Gelfand, [Vladimir] Kramnik. I guess more or less people in his age group that he hung out with.
SS: What was your favourite quality of Anand back then when you married him and what is it now?
AA: I think Anand tries to keep his life very uncomplicated and that would be my favourite quality of his and this has remained more or less the same over the years. He never complicates his life by not being true to himself. He does what he likes or feels comfortable doing. If he doesn't like something he will not pretend and will have the honesty to say it. The book is also an example of that, he wouldn't have written it if he didn't feel comfortable doing so.
SS: How has his fitness regime changed over the years?
AA: I would say in fitness also he is much more regimental and disciplined than ever before. He has been training quite hard on his physical fitness from 1998 but I would say from 2012-13 he has become much more serious and intense about it. He is running 5 kilometers, doing cardio and lifting weights. Earlier he used to just do what he liked but now it is much more structured and supervised.
SS: What about a date with Anand? How was it back then and how is it now?
AA: (Thoughtfully) Well, I don't even remember going to dates back then! I think what we enjoyed back then when we lived in Spain and we still enjoy now is having a simple home-cooked meal, a simple movie to watch. Just enjoy the food and conversation, that's it. If one day Anand bought me a bunch of roses or something I might just end up laughing! I don't think that's him or that's me.We both like the most simple things in life.
SS: There's one question which I always wanted to ask you. You yourself are so talented, do you ever feel overshadowed by Anand and think about doing something on your own and be famous?
AA: I think I am very happy being Anand's wife. Whatever fame that brings is more than enough for me. I did have some qualifications and a certain skill set. Being a chess player's wife on the other hand requires a very different set of skills. But I feel very lucky that I was able to go beyond what my skill set was. I feel very proud that I could play a significant role in a lot of these World Championship matches at least at the negotiation and execution stage. Had I been working in a company using my qualifications I think I would not have been able to push myself to that level because it really requires you to rise above your qualifications and skill set. Maybe it needs a lot more emotional skills or people handling skills. In a high tension situation to be able to remain calm and think through things clearly demands a special talent. I am very proud I was able to do that.
SS: The last question and a very tough one, who do you think is luckier? You, because you found Anand, or Anand because he found you?
AA: I think all three of us are lucky because we found each other. Anand found me and Akhil, Akhil found two great parents, and I found Anand and Akhil because one without the other would not have happened. So I think we are a lucky trio!
SS: That is a very nice answer! Thank you so much for your time Aruna
AA: Sure. Thank you!