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At the Summit of Success

Success never comes on a platter. It demands endurance and diligence. No one would perhaps appreciate this better than ace shuttler Jwala Gutta who has worked her way up the hard route and tasted success. Indomitable, formidable, feisty, spirited, are a few of the epithets used to describe Jwala, one of the few Indian doubles players and mixed doubles players to reach the pinnacle. By Radhika Rajamani

Known to be forthright and eloquent, she has had her share of trysts with rumours and rejoinders controversies but Jwala is not one to be bogged down by controversies. On the contrary, they have prodded her to work harder and soar to greater heights like winning the gold and bronze at the Commonwealth Games, held in New Delhi, in the women’s doubles and mixed doubles category and the bronze at the World Championships in the women’s doubles.

Born to an Indian father and a Chinese mother, the pretty Jwala has emerged as a force to reckon with on the badminton circuit. A host of wins at various tournaments and numerous medals and titles to her name, including the National Badminton Championships thirteen times, the Sri Lankan International Satellite Tournament, Cyprus Badminton International Tournament, Pakistan International Challenge Tournament, Indian International Challenge Tournament (all in doubles), Jakarta Satellite Tournament, Welsh International Tournament, KLRC Bulgaria Open Grand Prix (mixed doubles) have made her a celebrity sport woman.

Dad wanted me to pursue a sports career since the age of three

Jwala was born in Wardha, Maharashtra, where her parents had met in college and later married. Her maternal great grandfather, who is from China, had met Mahatma Gandhi and after going back to China and serving as Chief Editor of a Chinese paper at Singapore had come to Wardha to translate some of Gandhiji’s books. “My mum who was born and brought up in China was his pet and she came along with him when she was 18-19 years old. But he never liked her marrying an Indian. We were in Nagpur for two-three years but later shifted to Hyderabad. I grew up in Hyderabad and speak Telugu. I understand Chinese but cannot speak it.

“When I grew up my dad told me I was the first girl in his family and it was not a very happy moment for anybody. That is when my Dad made up his mind saying ‘I will make her different and I will make her better than a boy.’ That is what he wanted to prove. The whole attitude of my family and the prevalent gender bias was quite shocking for me.”

I instantly fell in love with badminton
She tried her hand at table tennis and tennis before she settled for badminton. “I was good at tennis but Mom was scared of me becoming masculine as tennis racquets are heavy and one tends to get muscular. She told me no matter what sport I play I should remain feminine. She was worried I would get tanned and I am allergic to the sun. She introduced me to badminton and I instantly fell in love with the sport.”

When she was four she went to her coach S.M. Arif (Padma Shri and Dronacharya awardee) who felt she was too young to hold a racquet and suggested she do gymnastics and swimming for physical endurance. “I did that for five years and started playing badminton when I was around 10 years old.”

Choosing my school was very important
“Not many schools were willing to understand that a sportsperson’s level of commitment to the sport meant playing truant from classes a lot. I almost got admission in Hyderabad Public School but they were not willing to give me that kind of leave. Then my Dad found out about Kendriya Vidyalaya (Bolarum) which had a gymnastic training session after school. So I joined KV Bolarum. The school supported me a lot. I was a good student.”

Jwala had to follow a rigorous training regime for years during her school days. “I used to get up by 4 am and I would be at the stadium by 5.30 am and then would train till about 9 and then go to school and again would train from about 4 pm to 9 pm. On a daily basis I used to train for 8-9 hours. I was always a class monitor and the youngest sports school captain.” After schooling Jwala did her BA by correspondence.

I get my personality traits from my mother
Her parents have been her pillars of support. While her dad dreamt big for Jwala, that she would one day win medals and accolades, her mother encouraged her. Jwala says, “For her to adjust in India was not very easy. I think I get the strength from her. She is a very strong woman. Now she runs her own business. She travels the whole world now. She has her own import-export consultancy. Being a foreigner unfamiliar with the culture or language of our country to stay here and encourage her daughter to pursue sport and manage a successful business herself is not easy for any woman. My Dad supported her a lot. My mother and I are very much alike in the way we talk, the way we walk, the way we are: determined, hardworking and strong minded.”

I would not say that I made sacrifices. I have enjoyed my journey
Jwala admits, “I had no social life, I had to give up on a lot of things but it was by choice. So when people use the term ‘sacrifice’ I somehow cannot relate to it as I feel that I gave up something good for something better and enjoyed it. I still enjoy playing badminton. Of course, I still have to give up on a lot of things. When I go for tournaments I miss my friend’s birthday, or my friend’s wedding but I wouldn’t say I sacrificed so much. I thoroughly enjoyed my journey. The real sacrifice has been made by my parents. Mom used to stay at home and cook for me. Dad refused a promotion because he did not want to move away from Hyderabad for my sake.”

The prize money should be augmented
Jwala was a regular on the Indian badminton scene until the last few years. “I was always participating in Indian tournaments. Only for the last three years I have dropped off the radar because I feel the prize money is so less. I am doing really well so the monetary aspect does not pinch that much. However, there are a lot of juniors from not so well off backgrounds who are striving hard and playing their hearts out for the country and the prize money we get is pittance compared to the effort we put in. All players work equally hard. Then why is the prize money Rs.1,00,000 in the singles category whereas it is only Rs.25,000 in the doubles, to be shared between both the players? It is like implying that we are not important. At the end of the day, it is not about money; it is about respect. On the international circuit, however, we get good money. There is not much of discrimination. So I am focusing on training for and competing at the international level.”

At the Commonwealth the focus was solely on Saina. No hopes were pinned on the rest of us
Winning the gold and bronze at the Commonwealth was more than a personal victory for Jwala. “I was really under a lot of pressure during that time personally. Winning gold in front of my home crowd and my parents was overwhelming. I cannot really explain how I felt. I looked at my father the second I won and I broke down. I had won a lot of big tournaments before that. But the moment was precious for me as I felt I had to prove that doubles players are no less than singles players as going into the tournament nobody had expected us to win.

However, even after the big win the president of the Badminton Association of India did not congratulate me. The Association should have been happy that we won but they were not for some reason. Maybe it was due to the fact that I had been talking against the Association before the event about how we are being discriminated against as compared to singles players. I was firm on what I said and still stand by it because I don’t think I said anything wrong.”

It was not a very conscious decision to play doubles
“I was a good singles player and a National champion but somehow I gravitated towards playing doubles. In the singles category, there have been big names like Prakash Padukone, Gopi, Aparna Popat. In the doubles category, we never had anybody to look up to. It was not a conscious decision to play doubles; I just felt I should do something new. Doubles is taken very seriously globally, but in India it is a sad scene.”

It is a myth that only lazy people play doubles
“I am happy to be like this. Almost everybody has this perception that only lazy people play doubles but they forget that you need focus and because it is faster than singles you need more strength too. You have to deceive two people in front of you. You have to have coordination with your partner. There is extra pressure. I am grateful that after my achievements the public has started realising that doubles is also a very serious event. It is technically different from singles. You will see none of the singles players play doubles and none of the doubles players play singles.”

Jwala has been changing her doubles and mixed doubles partners periodically. “I played with Shruti (Kurien) for 12-13 years. I have had good memories playing with Shruti. It was a difficult decision to part from her but I had to make it. I wanted to go further and that is when I decided to play with Ashwini (Ponappa). (Valiyaveetil) Diju and I have been playing for long. Before Diju, I played with Gopi and we won the Nationals also. Prior to Gopi, I played with Vidyadhar and other partners. I played mixed doubles even with Chetan (Anand). I think I am one player who can play with anybody. I have had multiple partners in my game and I have done well.”

I take success and failure in my stride
“I think failure is too big a word. There is nothing called failure. Today if I don’t win a tournament, I come back and train and I want to go and win another tournament. I would say you are not able to achieve what you went for in that moment. You come back, you think about what went wrong, you work on it and you go back and win the next round. I think sports is one profession which teaches you how to handle your life – ups and downs, media pressure, fan following, familial expectations, – everything. I have learnt a lot from this profession and I am very grateful. I would be happy for that moment of success but I will forget about it after two or three days. People around me keep me grounded. I feel success is just part of your life. It should not become your life.”

I feel you should mainly focus on eating healthy, eating at home
Given their crazy schedules, sportspeople have to keep tabs on what they eat and when. How has Jwala coped up with the rigours of dieting? “I have had a seesawing relationship with dieting. I never believed in diets, initially. However, I had to incorporate a healthy diet into my lifestyle as my body got used to physical training and I wanted to lose some weight. I started having low carbs and high protein before the Olympics. After the Olympics I let go of my diet and put on a lot of weight. Now I have restarted dieting so I have lost weight again. I love eating at home and that is important. I have to eat every two hours and restrict my food intake to small portions. I have to maintain a timetable. While travelling it is difficult, but I still try to do it. If I do not get to eat the right food I compensate by eating dates and lot of fruits, egg whites. There are tournaments coming up in June in Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore and I will be playing all the three Super series with two new partners – Prajakta and Manu Attri. I am already training for them.”

My job is my sense of security but sponsors are difficult to get
Badminton is a full-time occupation for Jwala as it involves training, fitness and practice every day but she has a job to balance as well. She has been employed with Bharat Petroleum since the age of 17. “I am the Deputy Manager there and my employers have been very nice. It is a sense of security. I know they are there and backing me up. They have supported me a lot.”

Being active in badminton is quite an expensive proposition. “There has been a lot of discrimination within the badminton association and not many people want to come forward to sponsor me,” she rues.

There was no ugly divorce
Badminton brought Jwala and Chetan Anand together. “He was four years senior to me and we were from the same camp. We were from Andhra too. We got married when we were very young and probably not ready for what was to come. I was very naive. The marriage did not work out. I cannot really explain why. We mutually decided to separate. It was quite smooth. I have had my share of good memories with him and I am happy he has got married again.” Right now Jwala is single and seems to be happy with her status.

There was no truth in the Azhar episode
The one episode that Jwala would like to put behind her is the Mohammad Azharuddin incident. There were rumours linking Jwala with the former Indian cricket captain and MP at a time when he was trying to contest for the post of the president of the Badminton Association of India. The story which was splashed all over the media in July 2010 left a bad taste in the mouth of many. When one asks Jwala about these alleged rumours she immediately retorts, “I think it was very clear that the whole thing was a ploy to try and get me down and to try and sabotage my performance. There was no truth in it. It was created by a few people deliberately and I confronted them also. We are living in a society where everybody wants to believe that sab achha hai (everything is fine) when I know sab achha nahin hai (everything is not fine). That is the truth and I will speak out about it. People do not like this frank spirit of mine and try to quell it by hook or by crook. With the media growing so much in popularity and reach, it is easy to fabricate stories and point fingers.”

One is curious to know how the rumour mills started grinding in the first place. “Hyderabad is a small place where most families know each other well and it was the same with Azhar’s family and mine. I used to hang out occasionally with his son and their group and my parents often visited Azhar’s house. This camaraderie must have given the vested interests enough ammunition to start spreading stories,” Jwala retorts.

She asserts firmly, “I know what the truth was, my parents know what the truth was and that kept me going and I laughed it off. This happened just before the Commonwealth Games and that is why when I won the medal it was a big slap on the face of my detractors and my critics had nothing else to say. I always believe whatever happens, happens for the best. That controversy actually pushed me to do better, pushed me to go and win that coveted gold. Unbelievably, people still want to know who I am going out with and what my relationship status is. How does it matter to them? It is my personal life. It is not for public display.”

‘My father taught me to be honest with myself’
Jwala is known to be forthright and invariably speaks up and stands for the truth. Diplomacy was never her strong point and she inherits the trait of frankness from her dad. “He is very active in the Communist Party and he has always taught me to fight against wrong since childhood. So, even if something wrong happens to the person sitting next to me I will not keep quiet.” She even fought to play badminton when the Badminton Association tried to stop her from playing. “I fought for my right to play.”

I did the dance number just for fun
Recently Jwala was seen doing a dance item with hero Nitin in the Telugu film Gunde Jaari Gallanthayyinde. Does it signify an inclination to move towards films? “Nitin is a good friend. I was in a holiday mood and went ahead and did it. I was very scared on the sets. I shot for four days. On the first day I was so paranoid and panicky that I wanted to say pack up. There are a hundred people watching you and the camera is also on you. I was a nervous wreck for the first two-three hours of the first day. I am never nervous on court. Nitin came and said don’t worry, you will be fine. Afterwards I became confident and I enjoyed it. It was nice.”

“I have been getting a lot of film offers but I would like to concentrate on badminton. Having said that, if anything really good comes along and I am confident of doing it I will do it. I never say no. It is one life. Not many people get opportunities like this. In fact, I would do anything to promote badminton and sports for women in the country. If a movie on badminton happens I will do it.”

Jwala is blessed with good skin, a major plus for actresses; ask Jwala about it and she laughs and replies, “I drink a lot of water. Apart from that I don’t do anything for my skin. I am lucky to have it. Both my mum and dad have good skin. I will not take any credit for it.”

Incidentally, Jwala’s younger sister Insi is keen on joining the film industry and has already bagged a role in the Telugu movie Backbench Student.

‘I live my life every day as it comes’
Planning is not her forte. “I have a person to manage my schedule but still have to live my life on daily basis.”

She winds up on a positive note. “I would be very happy if I get an Olympic medal. I have achieved everything except that. I am working hard for it. I am sure I will be able to achieve what I thought of.”

These are a few of my favourite things

Films: Blood Diamond, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Tezaab

Book: I am not much of a reader. I only read Archie comics even now (laughs). I have a collection of them

Cuisine: Oriental and Continental but I would still prefer eating home food

Restaurant: N Grill, Hyderabad (I love going there as the food is not spicy and it is Continental)

Holiday Destination: United Kingdom

Past time: Sleep, laze around and chill out with friends

Perfume: Miss Dior

Clothing: Casual wear from Warehouse and Victoria Secrets. I love Manish Malhotra and of late I love wearing Shilpa Reddy

Car: Mustang’s Cobra
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