x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Only the absolute best will do for South India parents

In chess, or maths, or even spelling, some parents will settle for only the very best.

For those of us who grew up in Madras (now called Chennai) in the 1970s, the name Vishwanathan Anand carried a certain mystique.

Every now and then we would see this slim bespectacled boy in the newspapers - usually with his mother - being hailed as a chess prodigy. Often we paid no heed, for chess then, as now, played second - if not fourth or fifth - fiddle to cricket.

But as the years passed and Anand won more trophies, slowly the photographs of him in the papers became bigger and bigger, occasionally making the front page.

In the following decades, Anand went on to win world championships and honours and awards from the Indian government, including the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honour.

Chess, unlike some other sports, is closely linked to temperament, and this perhaps is why the world's greatest chess player comes from India; specifically South India.

The burgeoning Indian middle class values academic success, and drives this desire into its younger generations through back-to-back coaching classes that drill, coax and push children towards intellectual stardom. This push towards building intellect, memory and focus plays out in contests that require these attributes, such as chess and spelling bees.

As Slate magazine reported in an article entitled Why are Indian kids so good at spelling?, the Indian community in America has nurtured a disproportionate number of spelling-bee champions. Once Indian parents spot chess or spelling or other talents in a son or daughter, they get behind the gifted child. And not only the two parents, but also the entire community holds local competitions in preparation for national and international victories.

Vishy Anand learnt chess from his mother. Kavya Shivshankar, the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, was coached by her father. Both have the cool equanimity so valued by Indians; one that masks a killer instinct.

Perhaps this temperament is best illustrated by a story with which every Indian can empathise: Year after year, legions of Indian students return home triumphantly with report cards after their exams. This being India, many of them get high grades in maths in particular.

I was one such student. One day I returned home bearing what I thought was an exceptional score from my crucial tenth grade exam. I handed the report card to my grandfather, the patriarch of our household. He glanced at my 99th percentile in maths, and quietly asked, "Where is the centum?"

Centum means 100 out of 100. No mistakes; the highest grade possible. It is what Indian parents expect from their children. When you bring home what you believe is a fabulous grade, Indian parents don't laud you for your performance. Rather, they ask why you didn't get the top score.

This is the kind of parenting that could put to shame Amy Chua, the Chinese-American author of the parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Indian students have not only tiger parents but also grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, aunts and random relatives.

This focus on winning, getting the top score, competing with yourself is what makes Anand a chess prodigy and an international champion. Indian parents don't make relative comparisons. Only the absolute best will do for them. They don't care whether you topped the class; they care only that you get the top score possible - 100 per cent, the centum.

Anand grew up in this milieu, where it was not enough just to win against weaker opponents. What was important was to win against yourself, be the best you could be, not make silly mistakes, get the top score. No wonder he excels at chess.

Like most South Indians, particularly those of us from Chennai, I am deeply invested in the current World Chess championships going on in Moscow.

It matters not whether Anand beats Israel's Boris Gelfand. What matters is that he has shown us Indians that we can play the game; that we can produce a champion; that we can be on top of the world.

The numerous chess clubs that have popped up all over the country owe their existence and enthusiasm to a geeky bespectacled Chennai boy called Anand.


Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India