Chennai: It was the end of day nine at the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast. As the Indian contingent continued to bring home the medals, later that Friday night, yours truly decided at around 11 pm – for reasons best described as bizarre – to travel home to Trichy from Chennai for the weekend. There was nothing planned about this.
It was, incidentally, the day India ensured that the table tennis contingent would more than double their one-medal return in Glasgow four year ago.
Vijaya Kumar arrived in his auto, after a considerable delay in locating me. I get into the auto, and a few minutes later, get a phone call from a friend with whom I start talking about the day’s proceedings at Gold Coast. We were especially proud of how the Chennai boys – Achanta Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan G – were doing. The duo had reached the final of the men’s doubles earlier in the day.
Once I hung up, Vijaya Kumar starts a conversation with me. “Did Sathiyan and Sharath qualify for singles semis? Who is Sharath playing in the semis? What happened to Manika Batra and Mouma Das?”
I told him the results, he listened intently. He then offered his insights about the contrast between Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan’s playing styles. He spoke about how the veteran is one of the best attacking players the country has produced and how Sathiyan, the engineer that he is, uses his brain to counter for the lack of physicality.
Vijaya Kumar first had my curiosity, now he had my complete attention.
As it turned out, his son and daughter (18 and 15 years old respectively) are both table tennis players of a solid reputation in Tamil Nadu’s circles. He went on to talk about his kids’ various achievements, a sense of pride evident in his tone. They train at Chandra’s TT academy in Chennai, run by V Chandrasekhar – the man who is regarded as one of the best to have played the sport in the country.
In the next 20 minutes or so, Vijaya Kumar spoke about the struggles he faces to enable his children to continue playing.
“I have to spend Rs 33,000 to get my son and daughter new wood and rubber. Their game is good but they are not going further because they don’t have the right equipment. If only I worked in a bank or something...”
The rest of this story is how, despite their hardships, Vijaya Kumar and his wife, Amudha, have kept at it for the last 10 years.
The Vijaya Kumar residence in Arumbakkam, Chennai, is a modest but comfortable one bedroom-hall-kitchen building. It’s tucked away in a quaint little corner, away from the hustle and bustle one associates with the area in Chennai. It’s on the ground floor of a two-storied building and would not be much larger than 400 sq ft in area. The rent for the apartment is Rs 8,000 and they only moved a couple of months earlier, when Vijaya Kumar made the switch to Ola Autos, and the income became steadier. He now makes upwards of Rs 20,000 a month, give or take.
The moment one steps in to the apartment, the collection of trophies that proudly sit on a three-tier shelf can’t be missed. So can’t the framed photograph atop the refrigerator, with two kids standing next to a young-looking Sharath Kamal.
“Sharath anna is our favourite player by far,” says Vaishnavi, the 15-year-old daughter of Vijaya Kumar, as Malesh Kumar Yadav, her brother, nods in agreement. “I want to play for India one day at the Olympics just like he did,” she says. “That’s the same dream for me too,” adds Malesh.
“There are so many trophies that we don’t have the space to display all of them in our house,” says Vijaya Kumar, chipping in. “Some of them are at my sister’s place.”
The brother-sister duo have been playing table tennis for nearly 10 years now. Starting in 2008, when they joined Chandra’s TT Academy, their growth has been steady and impressive at the state level, as the number of trophies and medals stand testament to. They have won multiple tournaments within Tamil Nadu, and have been consistently ranked in the top four of the various age categories they have been part of. Going to zonal tournaments, which only the best in the state are selected for, would not have been a problem for Malesh and Vaishnavi, if rankings were the only criterion.
Vijaya Kumar’s wife, Amudha, 45 years old, says their primary aim is to make sure their kids travel to as many ranking tournaments as possible. Unfortunately, travelling to all tournaments is nearly impossible, because they cannot afford it.
“I was ranked quite high nationally in my age category a few years back (13th in early 2014 in the cadet category), but over the last two years I have not gone to most zonal events and my rankings have consistently dropped,” says Vaishnavi.
Their mother is the one who takes them to tournaments. Amudha had a polio attack when she was just a year old, and has never had the ability to walk properly. The limp is unmissable and she takes her time to move around. That has not stopped her from travelling around the country with her children, something she takes great pride in.
“There have been instances in the past where we just would book train tickets and be on our way to a tournament with no extra money in hand,” she says. “My husband would use the time we spend in the train to drive his auto non-stop and deposit money in our account just in time when we reach our destination,” recalls Amudha with a smile.
Malesh, who Vaishnavi has no doubts in admitting is the better of the two players, is a shy teenager who barely talks unless spoken to. He too is a big fan of Sharath Kamal and Vijaya Kumar announces with great pride that a lot of his coaches have told him that Malesh’s game is very similar to arguably the most successful TT player produced by India. Malesh, for his part, is similarly built – good height for his age, broad shoulders, no excessive fat.
But he was not always so. A look at Malesh’s old photographs show a remarkable transformation. A chubby kid has grown into a well-built teenager, thanks to a strict fitness routine and dedication. Both Malesh and Vaishnavi start their days at 4 am, attend their fitness sessions at the other end of the city three times a week, return to their academies for the morning session and go back again in the evening.
“They are both very good kids – hard-working,” says KV Srikanth, one of the coaches at Chandra’s TT Academy. “Malesh, for instance, has a great rapport with his coach K Vishwanathan and head coach Andrew at the academy, and is the kind of player who will follow their instructions to the T.”
“What is within their control, both do it the best of their abilities. They can control how well they train, how sincere their efforts are and they do that very well. Their game is there, their future depends on them getting the right breaks.”
The legend Chandrasekhar himself has been a part of these kids’ journeys from the beginning. Vaishnavi has been training at the Vin-Win Academy, run by G Vinod and Aishwarya Vinod in SBOA School and Junior College, where she studies with a full sports scholarship.
“Malesh is a very, very promising player,” says Chandrasekhar, who himself knows a thing or two about fighting against odds, having lost his playing career to a surgical error. “Malesh had a setback for a year or so, but he’s coming back up. His strokes are very good. He needs to learn to mix those strokes with better planning. His top-spin forehand is a big weapon.”
“He’s not the most talented player you’ll meet but he is dedicated and hardworking. Adu podhum, vandhiruvaan. (That is enough, he will make it),” adds Chandrasekhar, who has not taken academy fees from Malesh for over six years now.
And even if she is not part of his academy anymore, the veteran has words of praise for Vaishnavi as well. “Vaishnavi on the other hand is a very talented player, but she is yet to fully realise her potential.
“The opportunities in table tennis are great. When you look at the talent at the top level now, there’s only a handful of great players we have. For these two kids, and even others in my academy, there is a big chance to succeed.”
Vaishnavi’s coach at her current academy, Vinod, doesn’t have any doubts over her potential.
“She is a special girl,” says Vinod, who, like Chandrasekhar, has waived the academy fee for Vaishnavi. “It’s tough to see someone so hard-working and dedicated, despite not having the best resources to play with. I am 100% confident she will do well if she could afford to participate in more tournaments, and as coaches we try to help her out as much as we can, when it comes to equipment, from time to time.”
This is something that is not lost on Amudha.
“There is no way we would have come this far without the help of these coaches and even parents of my kids’ friends,” she says. “They have always been understanding of our situation, like taking care of our food during our travels, even helping with accommodation from time to time. Waiving the academy fees has been a big help because we spend so much in travel. My husband and I have asked for loans so many times and we have tried our best to give it back on time, but without these small gestures from the table tennis circle in the city, it would have been impossible.”
Did Amudha and Vijaya Kumar ever think this is all getting too much to handle? “No, never,” Amduha shoots back. “We don’t want to save money, what we earn, we will spend on our kids. We need a place to live, we need money to make sure we are well-fed but beyond that, it is all for Vaishu and Malesh.”
There is a fair chance that the two kids might not go on to become world beaters because they are not what one would call prodigious talents. That’s just the nature of sports. At 18 and 15, they are already on the older side when it comes to making a splash at the national level, and for that they have to go to every single zonal event - a task like that needs an outlay of Rs 4-5 lakh every year, according to Vaishnavi’s coach Vinod.
But what they are, are two hard-working kids, who want to keep playing as long as they could, who give it all in their training, rarely missing a session. And parents who want, above all else, to see them continue holding the paddle in their hands.
“The biggest hindrance for their growth is equipment. If they have to play regularly and keep improving, the wood and rubber needs to be changed regularly. And their shoes too,” says Vijaya Kumar pointing to his son’s green-and-black footwear that has a hole the size of a two-rupee coin at the bottom.
“I did not even know he was playing with a hole in his shoes because Malesh wouldn’t tell me. He knows I can’t afford to keep buying him new ones, so he didn’t even bother telling me.”
During the auto ride on that night – which, incidentally, was Friday, the 13th, but there was nothing unlucky or horrific about this – I told Vijaya Kumar that all it could take is one big break or one big tournament win, and his family’s life could possibly change for good. We have seen stories like that aplenty in Indian sport recently.
His response was telling.
“I don’t want my or my wife’s life to change. I am more than happy to continue driving this auto. But I want my kids’ lives to change.”