Father figure

Padma Shri and Dronacharya awardee S. M. Arif (left) with his pet pupil Jwala Gutta.-Padma Shri and Dronacharya awardee S. M. Arif (left) with his pet pupil Jwala Gutta.

From the days when Jwala Gutta began playing badminton in the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh (SAAP) summer camp of 1994, coach S. M. Arif would stand behind and correct every flaw in her strokes. Over to A. Joseph Antony.

Parents of a four-year-old girl took her to a coach at the Fateh Maidan indoor stadium in Hyderabad. Wide-eyed with fear, the little one hid behind her father, till the coach asked her gently, “Badminton khelegi (will you play badminton?)” To this, she diffidently nodded her assent.

The coach, S. M. Arif, wasn't ready yet for his pet pupil, Jwala Gutta. “She's too small to hold a racquet, so let her start with gymnastics or swimming,” he suggested. Never ever to question Arif's judgement, Kranti, Jwala's father, would later tell her, “Jump off a building if Arif sir asks you to, but don't ask why.”

So absolute was the trust in Arif that, over time, her coach came second only to her parents. “That I began with and have continued to be coached by Arif sir is possibly the best decision of my life, one that I'll never regret,” said Jwala in hindsight.

The relationship between pedagogue and pupil has remained unchanged for over two decades. “Even today, he blasts me if I'm late for practice. We've had our share of fights, but without a trace of any bitterness,” says Jwala.

From the days when Jwala began playing badminton in the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh (SAAP) summer camp of 1994, Arif would stand behind and correct every flaw in her strokes. “His basics being amazing, the beautiful strokes of his players are admired even in China,” Jwala said.

That firm foundation found Jwala winning the State under-13 years title and the National crown in the same age group the following year at Thrissur, Kerala. “I was the only girl in Arif sir's coaching scheme and by fighting with the boys, became a tomboy. I was pampered quite a bit by the seniors though,” recalls Jwala.

“Arif sir still tweaks my ears,” says the Badminton World Championship women's doubles bronze medallist. His terms of endearment are many — maskaru (naughty one), nutsu (crazy one), lallu (silly one, used liberally for all trainees) and mere mote (my fatso).

On occasions, Arif would pull up Jwala, even for the mistakes of her doubles partner. While her partners would be upset, the tall left-hander, despite being scolded the most, would simply shake it off. “That's because he has high expectations, not just from me, but of all his wards,” explains Jwala.

At other times, she would argue with him furiously. “It was good to let out the anger and at worst, I'd crib to my dad. But I never felt like leaving him,” said Jwala.

Beyond all this she saw in him a father figure, a friend, philosopher and guide, from whom she could hide little. “I wake him up at the oddest hours, knowing he's just a phone call away, anytime,” she said. “So I fail to understand how so many star badminton players refuse to acknowledge Arif sir's huge contribution to their growth,” wonders Jwala.

“To me, it's ingratitude if not inhuman,” she reasons. “A good player need not be a good coach and it's not a given thing that a good coach was a good player,” feels Jwala. Although she won the national title in 2001, Arif didn't field her in many tournaments that year. Neither Jwala, nor her parents, questioned his judgement.

As a mentor of many, he has shaped the careers of his players, even off court. “When I got job offers from Air India and Railways, he insisted on a permanent position and officer grade. Both conditions were met by my current employers, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (BPCL),” says Jwala.

If Arif was a hard task master with endurance training on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the other days were full of fun and frolic. Jwala, trying to escape the fitness routine, once faked a hamstring injury. Quick to see through it, Arif sternly said, “You haven't broken a bone, have you. Go and do your training.” Sure enough, after her regimen was done, she came in for some ridicule.

“I am the lucky one to have trained so much with him. If he wasn't behind us, nobody would have worked hard,” she admits candidly. As if to illustrate the point, she narrates an anecdote.

Shortly after Arif left for a coaches meeting during the senior Asian badminton championships in Manila, despite leaving instructions to work out to all his wards, Sachi Ratti retreated to his room. Soon the intercom buzzed in Ratti's room with Arif barking orders to return to his training routine. Ratti rushed downstairs to the gym only to find no trace of the coach. It soon surfaced that perpetual prankster Sanave Thomas had mimicked the revered coach on the phone!

During a competition in Belgium, Arif, a vegan by choice, filled his plate with fruit. “So you have started Lallu fruit stall Sir,” asked Sanave, leaving the coach shaking with laughter.

The discipline he instils begins with himself. Up at 4 a.m. everyday, he wakes up players at 5. “You don't sleep and you won't let others sleep either,” teases Jwala, who labels him ‘batakti aatma,' meaning wandering soul.

Qualified in sports psychology, Arif's able to relate well to his wards. So when he indulges himself by singing a ghazal, his trainees break out in ‘wah, wahs,' in mock seriousness, leaving him with little doubt about how ‘appreciative' they are.

Every training session begins and ends with Irani chai, the brew all of Hyderabad is hooked to. For Muslim festivals, he treats his trainees to ‘sheer korma,' by the bucketful. For those fortunate to visit his palatial house in the Old City, he's a host nonpareil.

On being bestowed the Padma Shri, an award many felt was long overdue, the accolade was widely welcomed. But for his pet pupil, he set another milestone. “The next award for me should be your Olympic medal,” Arif urged Jwala.