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Aruna and Viswanathan Anand prove they're no squares

`Staying at home is like holidaying'

I love both your routine and experimental cooking. — Anand

TO RING in something new, for the first Take Two of 2005, we switch from two celebrities quizzing each other to a tête-à-tête between a sport icon and his wife. Viswanathan Anand, child prodigy of the chess world, and Aruna appear picture perfect as they walk in for a fun-filled Take Two. He is tall, impeccably attired in formal shirt and trousers, and measures his words like his moves on the chessboard. His petite partner is vivacious and talks nineteen to the dozen.

Anand's mother initiated him into the game and home was his training ground. From the age of six his life has revolved around black and white squares. But the champion of the mind-game has a cool sense of humour too.

Aruna had the normal upbringing of a South Indian girl, where studies and the arts co-exist. A trained Bharatanatyam dancer, she had a stint in advertising before becoming a perfect foil to her famous husband.

What strikes you most is the young couple have no airs about their celebrity status. CHITRA SWAMINATHAN is treated to a witty account of their first meeting (girl-seeing ceremony), traditional marriage, setting up home in Spain, her tryst with chess, his take on her innovative cooking, constant travelling around the world, and tackling the ups and downs of the game.

"Oh! There's so much to talk but I wonder where to begin", laughs Aruna (that's what she mostly did through the 60-minute chat) looking at Anand who sits quietly, allowing her to take the lead.

Aruna: Okay, tell me what did you think of me when we first met?

Anand: I don't know. (With a confused expression.) Nothing in life prepares you to see a girl for a few minutes and decide whether you want to marry her. I really didn't know what was happening and felt relieved to leave the place, but not before having a second cup of coffee.

Aruna: Also a second Mysore pak. My mother was extremely impressed with you because you asked for some more of her special coffee. "First-class paiyan," she told me. So, coffee was crucial in bringing us together. Though I always thought chess players are intellectual and serious people, I was floored by your down-to-earth behaviour. You seemed to be absolutely untouched by adulation. But wait a minute; you never actually said what you thought of me.

Anand: You kept giggling all the time even then. I fell for your child-like innocence and happy face. Remember our weird honeymoon destination? (And she breaks into laughter again.)

Aruna: How can I ever forget that? I used to dream of going to places like Switzerland. But three days after our wedding you played a tournament at Dortmund, Germany. When my friends asked me where I was going for honeymoon, I promptly said Dortmund. Thinking back, I am sure most of them would have been amused.

Anand: I think we did enjoy ourselves even though that town was in the industrial belt. Even their tourism board would not have imagined the romantic appeal of Dortmund.

Aruna: It was my first foreign trip so I kind of freaked out. But your tournament was quite an unnerving experience for me, as I had absolutely no clue about the game. In fact, I started following chess only after we got engaged.

I remember sitting in the last row of the big theatre, the venue of the tournament, to avoid being asked chess-related questions. And after some time, I would doze off only to be woken up by the sound of applause. Then I would run and hide near the ladies' loo and wait for you to come.

Anand: And respond with a blank look even when I would tell you the result.

(With a mischievous smile) That was the only time in all these years when I have seen you at such a loss for words!

Aruna: However, the funniest thing was most people in your chess circuit thought I was a child bride because I looked tiny in front of you. Remember how they would try guessing my age. Fourteen? Fifteen?

They even thought our wedding was some exotic affair with elephants and horses in attendance.

Anand: They are used to just 50 or 60 guests at their weddings. So when we said 2,000 invitees, they imagined the entire town going to the hall. Those friends of mine from Europe who had come down for the occasion spent more time in the kitchen taking pictures of cooks cutting loads of vegetables and meals being cooked in huge vessels. Of course, I had warned them against taking pictures of me bare-chested. Anyway they did.

Aruna: You are so used to being dressed formally. What do you think I look best in — Indian or western outfits?

Anand: (Thinks for a while) Both. But I can never forget how you once came decked up in a shimmering Kanchipuram for a post-tournament dinner.

Aruna: I felt really out of place that day at the party. Though I do know many of your co-players' wives admire — some secretly — my designer bindis and mehendi patterns. After you pointed out I realised that typical Indian dressing doesn't gel with all occasions. Now you know why I call you my guide, who also misguides many a time when we are on the road.

Anand: It's hard to keep track of directions if you are constantly travelling. I find it extremely thrilling to go on long walks and explore the place myself. I do not mind even losing my way. But with you around I need to be thorough with the road map because you refuse to walk even an extra half a mile.

Aruna: Any sweet things to say about my ladle-wielding skills?

Anand: I do. However, in the process of mastering the skill, many dishes were burnt, many changed taste, size and shape by the time they reached the dining table and the kitchen generally looked like a battlefield. One good thing is you never give up till you get it right. That's a positive approach. For your sake, today I admit on record (pointing to the recorder) that I love both your routine and experimental cooking. Of course, idlis remain a `sour' point.

Aruna: That's unfair, not any more. We didn't have a grinder earlier and I was using those instant idli mixes.

Anand: Cool. You know when I am not travelling I stick to home food. Because staying at home is like a vacation for us.

Aruna: And most of the time you spend in the basement training area stuck to the computer. But I know with a chess grandmaster for a husband, I can never complain about long practice sessions. Over the years, I have learnt to perfectly handle your pre-match and post-match moods.

Anand: Maybe you never realised that sometimes I just hang around in my basement workplace because that's the only area in our house where I can be myself and keep things the way I like (which means messy). And if it's a Friday I wait for you to come back from your ceramic class and update me with neighbourhood gossip. Initially I wondered how you gathered so such `vital' info without knowing the language; but now that you speak Spanish fluently nothing can stop you.

Aruna: I can establish a rapport even with sign language. See how every year during Navaratri they come with those little dolls to line the golu steps and sing Spanish songs. (She has learnt the flamenco too.) You have to agree that now there's more cultural exchange in our neighbourhood. I often treat them to our kind of food.

Anand: You also made one of our friends shed copious tears after feeding her rasam. Not to blame you; it was the blandest rasam I have ever had. It's all a matter of taste. Remember how we enjoyed watching Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham in German!

Aruna: Now like an interviewer, I am going to ask you something serious. How do you plan to take chess to more youngsters in India?

Anand: One-on-one training can be possible only after retirement. But I am supporting NIIT's Mind Champion Academy to promote chess in government and private schools across India. We also conduct chess competitions for kids and it is heartening to see the number swell. Even if a few pursue it seriously it will be worth the effort. Anyway, with increasing competitions at home there's greater awareness and eagerness to learn the game.

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