There is an unaffected openness about Viswanathan Anand that is at once striking and endearing, writes Nirmal Shekar

In a country where the vast majority of sports lovers are glued to television screens watching and cheering men despatch a white leather sphere over the boundary ropes time after time after time, why does Viswanathan Anand matter?

 After all, the slightly portly old Vishy moves tiny wooden pieces on a 64-square board in a silent hall with his often stubbly chin cupped in the palm of his hand. No skimpily clad cheerleaders to greet that move, no roars from the stands, no hysterical cries in the television commentary box. Just a few billion hyperactive neurons doing their job to perfection — so who cares?

 I, for one, do. We often refer to rocket science when something seems truly mysterious and impenetrable. But, believe me, rocket science is nursery rhymes compared to neuroscience. For, the 3 lbs of grey matter that each of us carry makes up the most complex organ in the known universe.

 And that's a no-brainer, for the brain is far and away the most mysterious part of each of our bodies. It is for this reason that a sport that relies almost entirely on the fitness (in a truly Darwinian sense) of this remarkable organ bears little comparison to anything else in the athletic world.

 Even for a person — such as this writer — who believes that the brain is as embodied as his collar bones, its unimaginable possibilities are mind-boggling. This is precisely why this columnist has chosen to comment on a game in which he'd hesitate to wager a 10-rupee bill while playing an uneducated neighbourhood tea-stall owner.

Mind is matter

Mind over matter, goes the famous cliché. But as with most clichés, it is nothing more than that. Whoever said that first, never applied his mind; for mind is matter; although it matters more than most things in our bodies.

Then again, how much does it — the mind — matter in sport? Certainly not as much as it did in places where Newton or Darwin or Einstein worked. Yet, it does indeed matter.

And it is exactly for this reason that few achievements in the entire history of Indian sport can rank alongside Anand's, no matter the fact that fans don't jump out of their couches or burst crackers when Anand makes a smart move as they often do when Tendulkar lofts one over the mid-on fence.

For, the real significance of what the Chennai-based genius has accomplished in three decades at the top reaches beyond the strictly defined boundaries of sport. It may well be something uncommon in terms of the average sports fan's experience structure, but there is no denying the fact that an Indian dominating the world of chess has a meaning way beyond what it would in any other sport.

 In an age of mass-market driven TV sport, when a club triumph in a single country eats up all front page space in newspapers and most of the time on television programmes while also triggering chest-thumping hubris, Anand's success is a bracing antidote.

Putting things in perspective

 In a way, it puts things in perspective. What is true sporting greatness? How is it achieved? What does it take to accomplish it over a long career? Study Anand's life in chess, and the answers would become obvious.

 If his first triumph in Tehran was an indelibly iconic moment, then the great man's consistency at the top and his ability to hold on to the title even at a time when he may be — forget Garry Kasparov's rantings — a little off his peak, are all tributes to a rare and luminous talent who looms like a colossus over the entire Indian sporting landscape.

From the time I first met him in 1987, after his success in the world junior championship — when he struck me as a brilliant, but shy and laidback young man — I have always been amazed by his humility, his feet-on-the-ground attitude and his remarkable candour. There is an unaffected openness about him that is at once striking and endearing.

 There have been comparisons between Tendulkar and Anand. But these might be unfair to both men. For, they pursue excellence in sports that are poles apart.

 But this much is sure. Supremacy in an activity that is primarily a sort of intellectual warfare has a meaning all its own, something that goes beyond mere sporting domination. Some might even venture so far as to say that it reflects on the intellectual wealth of a nation.

 Then again, one Anand does not make a nation of geniuses; but at least we do have one, which is more than most countries do. Viva Vishy!