Eat, Play, Love: Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap on life, love and the game

Shivani Naik
Love all: Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap’s wedding has been dubbed as #TheBestMatch oftheYear.

It takes more than a Sabyasachi ensemble to make a memorable wedding. But Saina Nehwal believed her indigo-velvet lehnga was nothing less than iron armour on the day she married Parupalli Kashyap and the two waded into the battle called a wedding reception. This entailed standing still at one spot and smiling as 2,500 guests come to greet you. Somewhere in the chaos that ensued, Saina, 28, and Kashyap, 32, laughed about how this was no different from going on court to play badminton.

The two were in Mumbai together for the first time last month, hopping cities as a part of the Premier Badminton League (PBL) caravan. Memories of the wedding are a week old; they have traded their finery for the green and yellow of the North East and Chennai teams of PBL, respectively.

"The sports spirit, where we just walk on to the court, not knowing the result, came into play that day. We walked on stage and said 'Dekhte hai what'll happen'," Kashyap says.

Saina has stood her ground against a rampaging Yihan Wang from China, Kashyap has endured the looming barrage of her compatriot Chen Long, but the wave of guests mobbing them was a different thing. "Before we went on the stage, we were all cool. She was looking beautiful. But once we got on to the stage, we realised, 'Bhai, this is chaos.' So, I screamed for Guru."

Guru Sai Dutt is Kashyap's unofficial Best Man; he could well be Saina's bridesmaid, for the trio's friendship runs deep and goes back in time. A compulsive ping retriever on court and known for his acrobatic chasing down of the shuttle, Guru got down to organising his forces - the group of friends the pair has grown up with. "They all stood for five hours with us," Saina says. The strain melted into fits of laughter in those obligatory group photo frames as Saina-Kashyap's band of merry men kept up a steady supply of wisecracks. This was the protective ring of friends who had given them the privacy they needed in a 13-year-long courtship. A gorgeous indigo lehnga and true-blue friendships - it was a perfect wedding, Saina says.

All these years, when Saina and Kashyap attended weddings of academy-mates who they grew up with, they had a routine: He picked on his food, she polished off her plate and rolled her eyes at him. "I can't eat at functions and dinners where you have to stand and eat. And talk and chat also. After every wedding, I would tell her...Bhook lag rahi hai," he says. Saina is rolling her eyes even now at the memory. "I finish in 10 minutes," she says. "He'll take one hour... And he talks about time management!"

Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap at Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas’ reception in Mumbai. (Photo: Varinder Chawla)

There were no squabbles deciding on their own wedding spread. Kashyap had a feast on the day of the tasting menu - a quiet sit-down with no one talking and disturbing him while he ate. "It was very nice, tough to choose. So, she picked and I just said okay." He just wanted her favourite chaat and some paneer starters added to the menu. On wedding day, the two gobbled down something they both liked. "Bas jalebi-rabdi. If I'd eaten the rest of the food, I'd put on weight," Saina says with a laugh.

No off-season for these athletes, no exceptions for the wedding day either - though they've gifted themselves the freedom to sit together, taunt and poke each other good-naturedly, argue till it ends in a peal of chortles, and even hold hands in public - something they avoided in public all these years, because they wanted the attention on their game.

At an earlier photo shoot they did for The Indian Express, well before the 2012 Olympics, the two had even dragged coach Pullela Gopichand to pose between them - the trio looking into the camera with the tautest smiles, in dying hurry to get back to practice.

The best place to catch Saina for a candid byte is right after she steps off the court having beaten a Top 10 player. She'll then bare her soul about the intricacies of the game - insecurities, weaknesses, errors, all of it. So, the only time she'd open up about Kashyap and how they fell in love was bound to be after the wedding, right after what they called the #BestMatchOfTheYear was won.

"But this will be the best match of my life. For me at least, I don't know what she's going to say," Kashyap says.

It was sometime in 2005 over the course of a tournament, is all she reveals at first. "Frankly, my thoughts on girlfriends or relationships were influenced by coaches and seniors, who told us to avoid all that and just train and play. Focus, focus, focus," says Kashyap.

"Then we started playing tournaments together-Asian, World Juniors. I sensed in one of the tournaments she was behaving weirdly with me. She was not talking to me. So I asked her what the problem was. She said something like 'You are ignoring me.' I said it was not intentional. And then she seemed to suggest that 'I like you'. She could not say it, but I could understand it," he says with a chuckle.

"We never really had to propose. Because we were always together. We became close friends. Jaise movies mein hota hai, waisa laga thha. We never thought we would take everything about each other so seriously," says Saina. "We were not thinking about the future," Kashyap says. "That time it was just girlfriend-boyfriend types."

Except, it wasn't "just" another girl-meets-boy, because this girl also wanted to beat the boy. Well before Saina Nehwal took on the Chinese, and got into a cracking rivalry with PV Sindhu, she competed with Parupalli Kashyap. He remains incredulous at the idea after all these years.

Saina: "Training mein bhi competition hota tha. (There is competition even while you train.)"
Kashyap: "I was not competing with her. But she used to compete with everyone in the world. Even me!"
S: "Yes, I did. Jo bhi karo, isse better karna hai. (I had to be better than him)"
K: "In 2005, the first year when she was my girlfriend, I won a tournament in Indore. She lost to Trupti (Murgunde) in the final. I was upset that she'd lost in the final because she was my girlfriend. She was upset that I had won! She didn't speak to me because I won and she lost. Imagine!"
S: "It's not that I didn't like him winning. But the competitive feeling is too much."

In later years, this would play out on the biggest stage-at a World Championship, no less. The two were playing on adjacent courts in Denmark in 2013, when coach Gopichand prioritised Saina's match over Kashyap and hopped across. Kashyap reminds both the coach and his champion ward to this day that had Gopichand hung around for the crucial end game, he could have won a medal as well.

One of India's most intuitive stroke-makers and hardest workers, whose peak coincided with the prime years of Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei, Kashyap scalped most of the big names, but couldn't string an entire week together for the title wins. A bulk of the pair's conversations is devoted to analysing their game threadbare. It goes along these lines:

K: "If players were rated on the will to win, or that simple attitude that 'This point I have to take and I will not leave the shuttle', Saina would be No. 1 in the world. And No. 2 would be very far off. That is an ability that is inborn, it's very tough to develop. You can train, train, train and become stronger physically, but on days when you are not physically strong, your body lets go. That pain threshold for legs and lungs - that's an unbelievable quality."
S: "He can win many matches, but he loses them… He can win against the best. But I see him giving up with 3-4 points left. You won't believe kaise koi player aise kar sakta hai. Just easily he'll gift a match. Ye le le bhai. That's something I don't like much."

There's something in Saina that Kashyap doesn't like very much either: her love for Bollywood. "I'm toh full filmi. I'm Bollywood only. He's very matter-of-fact, sincere about life. I even try throwing things at him dramatically like in the films," she says, laughing. "Jaise English movies mein hota hai na? Serious-types, very intense discussions - he is like that. He'll not even laugh when I crack a joke."

Meditation and deep discussions are his latest fad, she laments, which make him a little boring as compared to before, when he would at least pretend to like Bollywood. "He wasn't like this. He's changed," she says in mock-despair, before they plunge into another round of hysterical laughter.

It's Kashyap's turn: "Even the fights she picks are filmi. You know why we've been together for so many years? Because uske fights ko kuchh hawaa nahi diya maine. (I haven't reacted to any of her provocations.) And we do completely disagree on Bollywood."

S: "That's the only point where we don't agree on. We gel otherwise. What's life like without Bollywood? It's boring."
K: "It can be very happy also. It's not like I don't like Bollywood. They're all very pretty, very beautiful. But I don't find it very interesting. I like more intense, gritty stories."

Basically, he likes Saina.

Like is an obvious understatement, and not just because they married on December 16, last year. Every step down the proverbial aisle over the last 13 years has been about self-discovery for both - a kind mirror, but held close. "Most of our life has revolved around me," Saina says candidly. "I think he's spent nearly 24 hours thinking about my game, my issues, my stress. I don't ever remember helping him out of a stressful situation. He's never openly told me that he is in stress, that he needs help. Whenever I can give him inputs on the game or what he needs to improve, I give. Rest I think he thinks ki isko kuchh pata nai hai life ka.." Kashyap shakes his head vigorously, indicating she's got it all wrong.

But no one denies Saina her theory: "Maybe it's because I still can be childish. I can't make the big decisions for others. I can't help someone out of a stressful situation and I know I'm bad at that. Even if he's crying, I'll end up upsetting him further. Mujhe woh situation control karna aata nahi. I can't help him, I can't help anyone. Maybe they feel bad about it. But they know Saina is not bad at heart, she just speaks it like she sees it," she says.

The last few months in the lead-up to the wedding, Saina has also processed just how much that support has been central to her success. "I realised in the last three-four months that he only brings out the positive side in me. I'm very negative. I'm not a very positive person at all." ("Zara pessimistic hai. I am between realist and optimistic," Kashyap says.)

"I'm very pessimistic," Saina continues. "Kuchh bhi cheez mein I'm one big zero. Except for working hard. I'm not the best person in everything. He gets it out, the positive bit. He gets the best out of me. Even before we were dating, he would tell me - you are good, challenge yourself to do bigger things."

As a connoisseur of badminton's most delicate nuances, Kashyap was the first to see an utter absence of that sense in Saina. "She's not someone who needs to enjoy what she's doing. She wants to be successful. It happens to be at badminton. But if it was something else, she'd be as good. She only wants to win. Badminton se aisa kuchh lagaav ya pyaar vyaar nahi hai," he says. Saina agrees. "I basically don't like badminton specifically. Bas, achha rehna hai, top pe rehna hai," she says.

"Among India's top players, there are some who love the sport. They appreciate subtle things about the sport but she doesn't care," he says. "She's not involved in those things. Jeetna kaise hai batao, woh kar doongi (Tell me how to win and I'll do it) is her mantra."

That, or Saina doesn't complicate her reading of the game, for if there's one topic that her father Harvir Singh, her coach and Kashyap and she can talk endlessly about, it is Taufik Hidayat - the high priest of shuttle's artistry. So, she isn't entirely inured to the beauty in badminton.

But coaches like clean slates and uncluttered minds, and Saina has set winning above all else and it's something Kashyap admires. "She's always focussed, always pushing me, telling me, criticising me on the point that you have not worked hard at something. We are only about the game - there's nothing else in our lives," he says.

Saina sums it up in her own inimitable way: "He doesn't need my help. Positive yeh hai. Negative main hoon. (He is the positive one, I am more negative). It's just that I have got the results. It's luck. Things fall into place. But he's the one who is perfect in what he has to do at his game, and even in life. I am the opposite."

For close to three seasons from end-2014, though, Saina left it all behind and hiked up to Bangalore to train with coach Vimal Kumar after she thought Gopichand couldn't give her the personalised attention she needed. But that also meant leaving Kashyap behind at the Gopichand Academy. "Badminton always came first. That will always remain first. Kashyap understood. I said dekhte hai kya hota hai, but I had to do that," she recalls.

But Kashyap, who was Gopichand's first batch of trainees and remains largely devoted to his coaching, had believed the decision would play havoc. "I tried my best to resolve the situation, but it got very desperate. She had to move. I knew our relationship will be affected because I'd seen my friends' long-distance relationships," he recalls.

Saina, steadfast in her search to find answers for the missing World Championship medal, had sensed his restlessness but wanted to train like a monk, away from the mental demons that swirled around her in Hyderabad. "I know he felt like that. But I had to do it - not even once did I think something would go wrong in the relationship."

Kashyap, not surprisingly, struggled. "We were together for 10 years - always seeing each other. And suddenly she was not there. " Saina, though, had the blind faith of a zealot.

The role reversal - Kashyap worrying himself about the long-distance equation, and Saina confident about seeing that phase through - was down to the building blocks of Kashyap's own personality. Deeply in love with the sport and mighty good at it as India's No 1 for years, Kashyap had the game to score the titles. He went up to World No 6 but it's the championship victories that eluded him.

"I used to enjoy national camps more than staying at home. The only reason I moved back with my parents was because my sister passed away. I could've stayed at the national camp all my life because I enjoy being with my friends," he says.

Saina, in contrast, lived a blinkered but greatly successful life, where she trained and competed. Friends barely figured in her scheme of things, and all adventure was limited within those four court lines. "She's always stayed at home. I don't know what she likes about it. But she never needed friends. Only because of me she has made some friends. Otherwise she would only be at her home, and she would only know me," he says.

"I can spend the whole day in a room," she says. "In a room, yes," he considers. "Now, in that room I need lots of my friends."

Saina's needs one person to bounce off her whirling thoughts. On court, it's been her coaches. In life, it's been her father and then Kashyap. "All I need is to irritate him," she says. "When something bothers me, I want him or my father around, so I can irritate them. Then it's out of my system," she says. Kashyap exults at the inadvertent confession. "Told you right, she will keep provoking. Kuchh hota nahi response mere side se..."

"Yes, he won't react, neither does Papa. He'll say: 'Theek hai beta, jo bolna hai, bolti reh.' That thing comes out, and I'll be perfectly alright after that," she says.

Kashyap leans towards calm caution, and is left flabbergasted at times by decisions she takes in a huff. "I'm very confused in making choices. She's very clear. Even if she makes a bad choice, she'll stick to it and make sure she proves it right. Conviction bahot hai. She gets really irritated with my indecision," he says.

Trading exasperations, the two decided this December was a good time to marry. "Nothing's going to change really, you know. On flights, also it's fixed. We chat for five minutes, and rest of the time we play Uno or something. Or irritate each other by saying bad words. The things I won't say to anyone else, I'll say to him," Saina says. Bitter barbs are the new sweet-nothings in the shuttle world.

The article appeared in print with the headline ‘Eat, Play, Love: Badminton champions Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap on life, love and the game’.