Match point

'She gave in and I gave in, totally' — Naresh and Sunita Kumar’s mixed doubles with love and luck 

By Saionee Chakraborty
  • Published 9.09.18
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(Top) Sunita and Naresh Kumar at their wedding; (above) at their Middleton Street residence. 
Picture: Rashbehari Das

Quiet, serene, muted. The mood in the art-strewn residence at 9/1 Middleton Street is a reflection of the couple that call it home — Naresh and Sunita Kumar. He is dapper, at 89. She is stylish, at 76. On September 1, he rang in his 90th three months early, on the birthday of the woman he has been with for 57 years, and raised a toast surrounded by family and friends. A few days later, t2oS dropped by to find out what being together means for the Kumars. 

‘When they turned a year younger, together’ on September 1…

Sunita Kumar: It went off very well. He (Naresh Kumar) hadn’t been well for a while. Of course he had started getting better. On that day he stayed there for the whole evening. We were getting friends from all over. I did all the invites personally. I always do that. We don’t send out cards. I call them personally. I loved your headline.

Naresh Kumar: You got it wrong! You should have said ‘10 years younger’. (Laughs out loud)

We don’t look for birthday presents for each other

Naresh: I have given her my life!

Sunita: That’s true. We don’t look for presents for each other. I mean the present can come in October!

Naresh: As long as it is within our budget!

Sunita: My December plan for him (when Naresh Kumar will turn 90) is a good meal at home... when the family will be together again, hopefully. At that time, we will decide with our children whether we should be at home, or go somewhere and have a special meal.

Naresh: Actually, I am thinking to get my fellow tennis players together and then we can have fun. We had such wonderful times. (Ramanathan) Krishnan was playing tennis, praying and reading the Gita at home. He did not want to go to Champs-Elysees or to see cancan. The thing is, I learnt a lot from him because he had such honest application to what he was doing. He never lost his focus.... 

When we met

Sunita: It wasn’t a love marriage like that. We were introduced. Naturally my parents were very keen that I should be getting married. I was only 18, but for them it was the right time. I had two other younger sisters.

When I was introduced to Naresh in 1961, he had just come back from Stockholm, Sweden. He had had an accident while playing tennis, while rushing towards the net. He hit the pole. So, he got a cut above the eye and he got stitches. I knew that bit.

His brother and his wife had been sent by my to-be mother-in-law to our place on Burdwan Road. They came and said, why don’t we introduce them. I met him first at his other brother’s residence in Chowringhee over lunch in September 1961. I was keen to see whether the mark was very prominent. It had practically disappeared. At least I took off from there. (Laughs) 

I sort of enjoyed his company. And I made certain comments on purpose! One of the family members asked him, what is a film you have seen lately and he said, The Bellboy. I, of course, hadn’t! He asked, which film have you seen? I replied, The Bellboy! Just to be funny. That’s my temperament. Then we met for a week, every day, and decided to get engaged. The marriage date was fixed for that year.

I had watched his match at the Calcutta South Club but the funny thing is my sister was with me when we went to see this match and she would want his autograph, but I didn’t do that. I wasn’t thinking like that, you see. I didn’t know I would be married to him!

Naresh: But you knew of me.

First impressions

Naresh: She deceived me! If you look at her eyes, they are innocent, but there is steel behind it! (Laughs out loud) She was very beautiful and innocent as well. Her father was strict. Good family. Good morals. I was quite old. How old was I?

Sunita: We are 14 years apart. I was 18. He was 32.

Naresh: So, I had been around the world and I preferred somebody who was simple, of course pretty and from a good family. She had no flings here, there, everywhere. Her father was a very strong man. He was known for being straightforward and honest. It was disarming to see her in the beginning. I didn’t know she was coming for lunch. My brother invited her and invited me. Surprise.…

Sunita: I didn’t know it was a surprise. I remember my mother telling me that I should wear a sari. I said: ‘What rubbish! Why?!’ She was like, he is that much older! I said: ‘No, I am going in my normal clothes.’ Salwar kameez. His brother’s wife came and collected me from Burdwan Road. I liked him. He took my wit! (Laughs) During that lunch, his brother and his wife disappeared to give us time to talk.

Naresh: I never imagined this was going to happen. By that time I had seen enough of the world and wanted to relax and have someone at home. She fitted the bill and touch wood, I was enslaved for life.

Sunita: We went to Darjeeling for our honeymoon.

Love at first sight?

Naresh: No, I won’t say that.

Sunita: No.... Thank god I enjoyed tennis! I was with him most of the time. Once we got married, I was bringing his lunch from Jadavpur to the office. Also, I was fond of painting. So, next to his office, there was a room where I painted and he encouraged me to paint. All that added to our togetherness.

Marriage to us meant family. At least to me. There was no question of being hoity-toity. You know what I mean... the girls nowadays. If you don’t like each other after two months, you can divorce. There was no question of anything like that.

Naresh: I had no problems. I don’t have problems with most people. She’s got a good temperament and is truthful. I don’t like chalak people. She is very straightforward. The great thing that happened was she gradually matured into my ways. She had finished her exams and (at that age) people are not ready for marriage. She had no demands. She never asked for anything. In due course I realised that I had hit a winner!

I think the great part of our life was that we travelled together. I never travelled without her. Not a day. Since I was playing quite a lot, we were always together. Fortunately, we didn’t have opposing types of personalities. She gave in and I gave in, totally. We were able to have a lovely relationship. Her family was good... not throwing their weight around or demanding anything or wanting anything. 

Sunita: Also, nobody interfered in the marriage.

With Mother Teresa at the extension of Shishu Bhavan
Sunita Kumar with close friend M.F. Husain

Best friends? 

Sunita: I imagine! I have girlfriends who are very special to me and I enjoy their company. I like the men also. But not in that way! I wouldn’t even dream of looking around.

Naresh: I never wanted anything out of the way. I never tried any tricks because no matter what you do, eventually you get caught. But not because of that... but because I was with her all the time. I loved being with her. No friction at all.
Sunita: All our friends have been gentlemanly.

Naresh: Supportive.

Sunita: For the last year, I have been going alone to cocktails and dinners because of his health, but I never stayed for dinner because I wanted to be home for dinner with him. Also, when I went for cocktails and dinners, there was always somebody to assist me. I have a problem with the eye.

The Kumars with Leander Paes

Teamwork 

Sunita: He was a known player and I was nothing!

Naresh: I joined hands with her with Mother’s (Mother Teresa) work. It was wonderful that she got into Mother’s work. She was the best doer. Even now.

Sunita: Also, we loved music. I enjoyed the music of Raj Kapoor films.... We were very fond of classical music and sarod was one of our favourites. Bismillah Khan. The sitar. The flute. In fact he had a flute. He played one Sunday morning and it was all wobbly. So, the next Sunday he never found the flute! (Laughs) That was the kind of fun I had!

Naresh: The thing is I always adjusted. I still don’t fight about anything. Even in the sporting world, I did not fight with anyone.

Sunita: Some couples don’t talk to each other for a week. I cannot live like that. I won’t be able to sleep. He has to make up or I have to make up.

Naresh: We got on very well together and wherever we went, we were an important couple. I was much loved and so was she.

Sunita: If you are friendly by nature, you get along and I am friendly by nature.

Naresh: We love being together. You have to have good luck also.

Ted Dexter and his wife Susan Longfield at the Kumars’ Middleton Street residence

The high points

Naresh: We are still growing higher!

Sunita: I am very fond of stylish clothes. My way is stylish. Even if I have to stitch my own clothes, you will notice they are different. I continued doing that and he accepted it. I choose his shirts. When we got married, his trousers were not fashionable. So, I changed them and he did it!

Naresh: Whatever she revels in, she will look good in that. I know her colours. She likes light colours.

Sunita: Pastels.

Naresh: All pastel shades. No outrageous colour. She does no make-up. I love that. I think a little too much make-up makes you tart-ish, not nice. A little low-key should add to your beauty.

Sunita: I only use lipstick. So many people ask me, ‘What cream do you use?’ and I say, ‘Nothing!’

Naresh: Over the years, I had made good contacts in high society. So, when she came, it was additional boost to us. She didn’t throw any tantrums or misbehave. She is very artistic, which I encouraged. When she had a show in London, it was a terrific thing and Hermes was so happy.

Truthfully speaking, there are few bad people. It’s just that you don’t understand them and you don’t understand the reason they become like that. Also there was no fight for supremacy. When I was playing tennis, everyone knew me. When she had her exhibitions at Royal Albert Hall, I wasn’t jealous. Many people asked me how I adjusted to this. I was like, adjust to what?! Her success is my success.

I think we have been faithful friends to our friends. Done our duty and remembered their birthdays…. She is very good at that. She has all the things down. Some of them don’t even remember their own birthdays. Her social output, in the sense that the things she did for people… she’ll remember that you like rosogulla… if you come home, you’ll get that. We went out of our way to be nice to people and reaped a rich dividend for that. We found that we gave less and got more. 

Keeping fit together

Sunita: I walk a lot. I walk in the house and then I do a half-an-hour walk… up and down.

Naresh: She is busy running the house!

Sunita: Very active.

Naresh: I take a lot of adequate exercise regularly at the same time. I eat light. I am only walking. I also walk in the house.

The Kumars surrounded by family and friends

Our togetherness is all about

Naresh: Love all!

Sunita: Hahaha!

Naresh: ‘Love all’ has a sweep far beyond your family. You have to have love.

Tips for couples

Sunita: Settle your disagreements as soon as you can. This is the most important point. My way of anger is not shouting….

Naresh: It’s only shooting. (Laughs) But you settle it. We don’t have any issues. The Europeans have more issues than us! She is not wanting to go out and roam on her own at night. And if there are things like she wants to put this vase there, I back out and say, ‘You do it. It’s your home’.

Sunita: I have done up the home completely. 

Naresh: I think you have to give to get. It’s by loving each other… then the children bring you together. If anyone is sick in the family, all the family will be there within 15 minutes.

Sunita: For instance, when I went through my treatment of cancer in Paris, he was with me for seven months, every day.

Naresh: I did not leave.

Sunita: And the children were taking turns. We didn’t want them to leave their families and children and come to see me. But they decided to take turns.

Naresh: To support me…. So, be kind and nice. I don’t have a single complaint. God has been so kind. Nobody has got better love from friends and God like I have. It’s been beautiful.