T. S. Sudhir, Hyderabad
Nimby Books was born out of Civil Society. And Civil Society came out of a desire to build an independent media business. We set out nine years ago.
The Saina Nehwal kind of story is what we like to publish. We have a bottom-up orientation and celebrate the successes of ordinary Indians. We see in their efforts the larger picture of India. Saina’s amazing rise goes much beyond badminton. It is about middle-class aspirations in the face of awesome odds.
Indian sport, we know, is plagued by power games. Politicians enjoy the kind of control they shouldn’t. But when a Saina succeeds we all have reason to cheer loudly. It is possible, we tell ourselves, for talent and integrity to prevail.
Harvir Singh, Saina Nehwal’s father, an agricultural scientist with the Choudhary Charan Singh Haryana Agricultural University in Hisar, moved to Hyderabad on 1 April 1998. It was not one bit a foolish decision. His new office was at the N.G. Ranga University, that is a stone’s throw from the new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad. A distance of 25 km from the heart of the main city, this university has the reputation of having done some pioneering work in the field of agriculture. The Indian Science Congress has been held here, a matter of great prestige for any university.
Taking six weeks to settle down in his new environs and set up home for his wife and two daughters, Harvir went back to Hisar to move them to Hyderabad. A Tata Sumo in the searing heat of May brought them from Hisar to Delhi where they boarded the Andhra Pradesh Express at 5 pm on 25 May. Little did eight-year-old Saina know that she was set to log on to an exciting new world, that would virtually transform her from just another schoolgirl to a www.aworldwidewonder.com.
It is with a shine in his eyes and immense pride that Harvir points to Usha Rani and says Saina gets the DNA of her game from her mother. And that DNA has its own funny way of working for the progeny. “Her mother was an exceptionally talented badminton player. Even now, people who saw her play in Hisar remember her flicks, the way she would move her wrist. Saina has got her mother’s stamina but I would say Usha is still better in skill.”
Though the impression most people have is that Saina is her father’s pet, Saina draws much of her willpower and a stubborn refusal to accept defeat from her mother.
“Every day on our way back home from the stadium after training, my mother would scold me,” says Saina. “She would tell me I did not do this right today or that I committed this mistake. She was very involved in what I was doing.”
Saina’s introduction to professional badminton came by chance in December 1998. Harvir, as sports secretary of the Agricultural University, visited the Lal Bahadur Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad to enquire about hiring it for a tournament. The stadium was 25 km from the university, but Saina had gone along. Like all little kids, the precocious side of Saina took over when she spotted the racquets kept by the courts. As she started playing with the racquets, Saina caught the eye of the badminton coach, P.S.S. Nani Prasad Rao.
It is insignificant looking moments like these that become turning points in a career. For Saina, Nani Prasad making a note of how she held the racquet was one such moment.
“He apparently liked the way she held the racquet. Nani Sir asked me to bring Saina to the summer coaching camp in May 1999,” recalls Harvir. “I felt very excited, searched for a court near home and Usha Rani and I started our love affair with badminton all over again, this time with Saina in tow.”
The summer coaching camp was to begin from 1 May 1999. The doting parents travelled to Hyderabad’s old city area near the Charminar and bought for Saina a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and shoes from a Bata showroom. And a Carbonex badminton racquet for Rs 1,700. She stood out because she was taller than most girls her age.
Saina’s memories of that age are fuzzy but she does point out that her family always has ensured she is insulated her from any of the family issues. “My sister is also like my mother. She was aware that my parents would give priority to my game. At home, no one says ‘no’ to me, as the effort is always to keep me in a happy frame of mind. I think I am blessed that way. No family problems are ever discussed with me, only happiness is shared,” says Saina.
But there are regrets. Harvir says because the focus was always on badminton, the small joys of growing up were ignored: “I never bought a doll for Saina. Instead of a doll, we gave her a racquet to play with. Every time I think about it, I feel very emotional.”
Goverdhan Reddy, one of the badminton coaches with the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh (SAAP) who even today works with kids during the summer, says Saina was among the 120-odd kids who had enrolled for the camp. Now, on the opening day of the summer camp in May every year, Goverdhan shows younger kids, with stars in their eyes, videos of Saina Nehwal winning the gold at the Delhi Commonwealth Games.
Once the summer coaching camp in 1999 was over, Nani Prasad told Harvir Singh that he would like Saina to continue playing badminton. Not that Harvir and Usha Rani needed any prodding; they were as keen.
And within just days of the conclusion of the summer camp in 1999, Saina was asked by Nani Prasad in June to travel to Chennai to take part in the Under-10 category in the Krishna Khaitan Tournament. This tournament is considered one of the most prestigious badminton tournaments even today. Like any family that takes the first tournament very seriously, Saina’s parents bought her an expensive Isometric racquet for Rs 2,700. Most players those days used the Carbonex racquets that used to cost Rs 1,700.
“I made the mistake of sending her without Usha or I accompanying her. We were very tense,” remembers Harvir. “But the little girl performed well, reaching the quarters where she lost to Shravani of the East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh. Saina received an award of Rs 500 and a certificate for her efforts. But someone, either by mistake or deliberately, took away her expensive racquet. So, when I received her at the Secunderabad railway station, Saina was in tears, heartbroken at the loss. I hugged her and told her I was proud of her for doing so well on debut.”
Goverdhan remembers Saina as a girl with a strong shoulder whose baseline hits were good but drops were slow. “But she was good for her age and showed promise,” says Goverdhan.
Saina’s next outing was to a tournament in Thane in Maharashtra where she lost in the Under-10 semi-final. Goverdhan says he remembers her exiting the court after the match, as if it happened yesterday.
“There was a grill that she had to cross. Her mother Usha Rani was standing beside the grill. The moment Saina crossed, Usha Rani slapped her. I rushed asking, Aunty why are you hitting her? Her reply was: ‘She didn’t play the game the way she should have. She just did not concentrate’.”
Looking back, Saina says her mother was totally involved with her game. “During those growing up years, she made me eat a lot, made me more strong so that I could compete in five to six categories in the same tournament. She really pushed me a lot.”
Usha Rani’s phenomenal motivation and dedication to keep Saina’s focus on badminton does not come as a surprise to those who have known about her own unfulfilled dream of being a national level badminton player. Abu Chandranshu, Saina’s sister, moved towards volleyball instead of badminton. But Saina’s interest in badminton was actively encouraged and supported by Usha Rani.
Like Harvir, Goverdhan credits Saina’s badminton sense to her mother. “Till she was 13 or 14 years old, Usha Rani’s efforts were outstanding. She would take care of her diet and ensure Saina was punctual and on time. She also influenced Saina’s mindset and guided her how to play. I would tell Aunty that on their way to and back from the stadium, she should keep talking about the game to Saina in the bus or the auto.”
Saina worried about upsetting her mother by not playing well. It was a combination of fear and respect for someone who understood the game and knew what was needed to excel in it. Today Saina credits her genes for her ability to work hard.
“When I was 9, 10, 11 years old, I used to spend two to three hours just at the gym,” she recalls.
But while Usha Rani was strict when it came to badminton, Harvir’s forte was to encourage Saina if her spirits drooped. This carrot-and-stick approach worked very well to make Saina a better badminton player.
Making ends meet: What that summer camp did for Saina was to give her a second home at the Lal Bahadur Indoor Stadium till about mid-2004, when she moved to Gopichand’s camp. Every morning, she would be among the first to arrive with her father at 6 am and train till 10.30 am. She would be back on court at 2 pm, this time with her mother, and play till 7.30 pm. Once school reopened, she trained from six till eight in the morning and then again from four till seven in the evening.
The same month, Saina became the cynosure of the badminton circuit in Hyderabad, by winning the Under-10, Under-13 singles and the Under-13 doubles titles. And by virtue of being the district champ, she got direct entry into the Under-10 Andhra Pradesh State Championship in Tirupati, a temple town.
Interestingly, Saina won the Under-10 title by defeating Shravani, to whom she had lost to earlier in Chennai. The Rs 150 award was made much more sweet by the special VIP darshan that was organised for the little champion and Harvir at the abode of Lord Venkateswara in Tirumala.
While Saina Nehwal was fast becoming a known name in India’s junior badminton circuit, the everyday routine of taking her for practice was quite strenuous for her parents. It was a 25 km ride on the scooter from Rajendranagar to the stadium and Saina had to be there very early. This meant the child had to be up at four in the morning. Many a time Saina would doze off on the back seat of the scooter, which prompted Usha Rani to accompany the father and daughter. In March 2000, the family purchased a Maruti 800 car only for Saina. Maruti is another name for Hanuman, the Monkey God, who is a symbol of strength and positive energy.
Even as Saina was steadily climbing up in the game, Harvir’s bank balance was diminishing. He rates the time between 1999-2004 as the toughest period of his life.
“I drew money from my provident fund some six times, mostly citing my wife’s illness as the reason. Everyone in the office, of course, knew what the real reason was. Sometimes Rs 50,000, sometimes Rs 1 lakh. Of course, all of that has thankfully now been put back by me.”
Young Saina had no clue about how every day was an expensive affair. Harvir ensured there was no discussion about these matters in the family and got on with the job of ensuring Saina’s needs were taken care of. “She was too young to understand all this and I did not want to disturb her,” says Harvir.
Saina admits now she never knew he was borrowing from his provident fund to spend on the tournaments. “I did not know where the money was coming from. I did not know that he was taking loans to send me to tournaments. My Mom used to travel with me and sometimes we would spend Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 on one championship. And I would take part in at least 10 in a year. But he never asked me before any tournament if I really want to play it or skip it.”
As Saina started tasting success outside Hyderabad, especially abroad, telephone bills became another burden for the family. Saina admits she would be too lazy to acquire a local SIM card in a foreign land and would keep calling home to chat with her parents. There would also be calls from the media. Harvir says during the touring months in the Philippines Open and the World Junior Championship in 2006, the mobile bills were almost Rs 50,000.
All this mercifully seems a long way back now that Saina paid Rs 60 lakhs in income-tax in 2010 and Rs 1.5 crores in 2011. The chartered accountant’s fee alone was Rs 2.5 lakhs.
Harvir says, “Those years were difficult years but today Saina has made sure there is no shortage of money. I wish every parent a daughter like Saina. If she had decided to study further she wouldn’t have earned like this.”
‘I am Saina’: Dr Harvir Singh leaned forward and asked me to read the brand of the shirt he was wearing.
“BOSS,” I said.
“Saina bought this shirt for me in Hong Kong,” he said. “This Swiss watch is an 18 carat gold watch by Dubey & Schaldenbrand, worth 8,000 francs. These shoes are by Yonex. From my head to my feet all that I have belongs to Saina. If you ask me, I will say I am Saina.”
As he opened the almirah in his office room at the Directorate of Oilseeds Research to take out various things bought by Saina on her different trips abroad, he got emotional. It was obvious the importance of the purchases was not so much in their material value, but in them being symbols of Saina’s success. Each represented a rung on the ladder she had climbed.
“This is a Longines watch worth Rs 2 lakhs,” said Harvir, opening the box in which the watch was kept. Lest it did not register, Harvir pointed out that this is the brand that Aishwarya Rai Bachchan endorses.
“But then she does not wear a watch at all so it is kept in the almirah. The same is the case with this Sony Vaio laptop that she bought for Rs 50,000. She uses a Mac so this brand new piece is kept here. We struggled a lot in the early years, but now the pains have become gains,” he continued.
Badminton is a cheaper sport when compared to say cricket or tennis, but if the player has to excel, the parents have to be prepared to keep aside enough funds to take care of every small need. Harvir says that by 2001, when he and Usha Rani realized Saina’s future was in badminton, he would purchase expensive shuttlecocks, the ones that she would get to play with in tournaments, despite his modest means.
“The AS2 or AS3 shuttlecocks used to cost Rs 55 a piece. There were other parents who said why spend so much on shuttlecocks, but then I did not want to leave anything to chance. I used to buy 10 cartons at a time with each carton containing 10 shuttles, which meant shelling out Rs 5,500. At best the carton would last four weeks.”
Families make systematic investments in a youngster over years before a champion emerges. Arif says more than the player and the coach, the parents should get the credit for the success of a sportsperson.