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The paddler in a sari

Queen of the tableKunhimalu had a blinding forehand smash and a deceptive backhand slice.

Queen of the tableKunhimalu had a blinding forehand smash and a deceptive backhand slice.   | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Meet nonagenarian Kunhimalu, a table tennis ace of the Madras of the 1960s

The year was 1949. The bride, Kunhimalu, all of 20, was spirited, and as her husband, M.G. Nair, soon discovered, had an uncanny ability for sports that she displayed at the railway officers’ club. A cricketer and tennis ace himself, he encouraged her talent. She was a wonderful homemaker who excelled in the traditional roles of women, but wanted to leave the caution-ridden precincts to fulfil the sporting urge in her.

After their two children were born, he had a local carpenter make a table tennis table for the large veranda of the spacious government bungalow they lived in. Late in the evening, after the children were asleep and the day’s chores done, he taught her to play. Soon, she upended his game, winning comfortably every set they played. And when she won a local tournament in a crepe sari and jasmine in her hair, he engaged a coach to train her at home.

With more championships in her kitty, she went on to win the top position in the Madras State women’s table tennis roll. In the mid-1960s, there was no single apex tournament such as an annual State-level tournament. Staggered through the year, the matches were held in clubs and community halls in the city and sponsored by public enterprises. A player collected points that tallied with the number of tournaments won a year. Coaches were volunteers who came to clubs to train players before a tournament. The women players of Madras formed deep friendships.

Madras star

Kunhimalu, along with her young friends Jhansi Muthanna and Usha Abraham, represented Madras in the national championship in Bombay in 1963 and in Delhi in 1964. Keeping company was the indomitable Rachel John, who played at the Railway Club, Madras, and represented Southern Railways. Rachel went on to win the national championship and represented India in international ties.

We, Kunhimalu’s children, accompanied her to these sporting events and that accounted for our passion for, and participation in, sports. Balancing her role as a homemaker and mother and transforming into a competitive sportsperson required plenty of will, hard work, sacrifice, efficiency and passion. It was a sight to see her in a crisp cotton sari, hitting blinding forehand smashes and deceptive backhand slices, playing and winning tournaments with ease. Father accompanied her to tournaments and sat in the front benches with a pounding heart when the scores were tantalisingly close.

As life evolved, the sporting career gave her confidence, emotional balance and good health. But fate struck a cruel blow as father died soon after retirement.

My mother, now 92, lives independently, undaunted by the exigencies of life. She does not miss sports broadcasts and can make an accurate analysis of India’s cricket matches or the drawbacks of Indian badminton.

The sporting spirit has never faded, perhaps because of the man who recognised and nurtured it.

vintageviji@gmail.com

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 8:22:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-paddler-in-a-sari/article31069388.ece

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