Parupalli Kashyap could pull a long face and sulk about the times life’s been “unfair” to him. One time he returned from winning a title and Hyderabad was celebrating Saina Nehwal’s Padma Shri. This last week, he arrived at his academy – freshly crowned Syed Modi International champ – and his academy was still festooned to welcome home PV Sindhu’s Padma. Except, he chooses to shrug it off with mock-bewildered amusement and loudly chortle.
In a cruel twist of fate – Kashyap guffaws to narrate – he got upgraded to first-class on Wednesday morning on a Hyderabad-Mumbai flight sharing the same spacious enclosure with Indian Test great VVS Laxman – but had to stay away from the wondrous looking goodies served in the premier passengers cabin as he was expected to get a blood check-up on an empty stomach. “We’re always travelling in Economy. One time I get into First Class, and I’m headed straight from airport to a doctor who’s expecting me to starve! I’m like, What man!” he chuckles.
At the Commonwealth Games, where Kashyap won India’s final gold medal, a couple of Olympic association officials had decided to get themselves booked for drunken driving and assorted other misdemeanours, stealing his thunder in Glasgow. India’s most consistent Top 20 shuttler in men’s singles, believes this devilish luck follows him, title or no title.
At the Hyderabad airport where he returned after the Syed Modi win recently, the press mobbed Saina Nehwal – who won the women’s singles title – and left him fuming alone. “Arre, even I had won the title. They wouldn’t even congratulate me. I just got very angry and stormed off,” he recalls, sheepishly. He smiled to himself, when he realised no one followed him to placate his fury, even as he made peace with the situation.
“Srikanth beat Lin Dan. I won CWG gold. What more are we to do to get the same attention? We’re far from being seen as or gained as ‘brands’” he wonders, adding that the cricket star’s stratosphere is an orbit too far from his current pedestal. It’s financial sponsorships, endorsements, twitter adulation and recognition on the street – all of it, that he craves as someone who’s been in the Top 20 of the world for half of the last decade.
As if in response to his own question, Kashyap offers possible explanations for why India’s men’s singles players have been routinely overshadowed by the girls. “I guess we need to be consistent. Keep winning tournaments. Stay in Top 10 for several seasons. I realised quarters, quarters, semis, quarters – that sort of graph was just not enough. After Srikanth beat Lin Dan, we all know it’s possible. So we’ll need to work towards that sort of performance,” he says, in self-realisation.
One of the most skilled strokemakers in India, Kashyap has often been let down by his fragile body and fitness in the past. Yet, plodding on, he has braved the pressure of watching other shuttlers leapfrog over him even as he’s strung together decent outings at the majors. “I’m not talented. I’m consistently hard-working,” he exclaims, even as he cracks up on some of the meanest jokes played on him by luck – injuries, unforgiving draws, inexplicable form slumps. The men’s singles scene in India is one of the most competitive, yet, the appreciation coming their way is negligible. “I jokingly told the president of the association he should name the Lucknow Open something with a foreign name, so the press acknowledges that it is as important as winning abroad. The grade might be the same, but winning in Macau is somehow bigger than winning in Lucknow for people,” he says. Beating Viktor Axelsen and K Srikanth on way to his title, Kashyap believed he’d done enough for his win to at least register. The Hyderabad airport, taught him he needed to do better.
Kashyap believes he can take credit for raising the bar of the new crop – Srikanth and Prannoy who’ve started winning regularly. One of the goofiest characters on the circuit who wears his talent lightly, Kashyap has also shared trade secrets with his juniors selflessly. “Maybe I need to stop that because I need to stay at the top,” he jokes, knowing that should a junior approach him, he will easily part with any tricks he knows. He’s recovered from playing in tournaments where his injury made smashing very painful on his muscles, and is zoning in on the most ideal training workout to manage and prevent his injuries. It’s the jump into the top 8 by mid-year that he’s targeting this season. That, and at least a semblance of recognition at airports – those most striking of spotlights where everything seems large and magnificent, if he’s returned from winning a title.