It’s been three decades to the day on Sunday when Saddam Hussein’s tanks rolled into the Kuwait leading to the start of the Gulf War. Pankaj Advani knew nothing about it and was intrigued by his parents getting frenetic. All of five then, the multiple billiards and snooker world champion, also didn’t know he wouldn’t go back home in Kuwait again.
“This is the first time I am talking to anyone about this,” says Advani, winner of 17 world titles in snooker and billiards. “On August 2, we were in Belgrade and staying in a transit hotel for a night to catch a flight to Kuwait the next day. At midnight, the hotel staff knocked at the door, informing that Iraq had invaded Kuwait and all the international airports in the Middle East had been shut. It was a shock as we didn’t know what to do next, where to go from here? We stayed there for two days and started contacting our relatives (in India) and were soon routed to Mumbai,” he says.
The next few days were a blur for Advani who found himself in a completely different environment, surrounded by unknown people. “We didn’t go back to Kuwait. From Mumbai, we shifted to Bangalore as my aunt was staying there and my dad liked the weather.”
Advani didn’t know much about India as months after his birth, on July 24, 1985, in Pune, the family moved to Kuwait. “My father had an import-export business and decided to move to Kuwait.”
In 1992, Advani’s father died possibly after coming in contact with chemicals used during the war. “After things had settled somewhat, my father decided to visit Kuwait. Though most of the things were intact, the car had been stolen. I believe the chemicals used in the war got into my dad’s system and his health started deteriorating.”
Advani would love to visit Kuwait someday. “At some stage you have to move on. I never looked at it (leaving Kuwait) as a painful memory or with any kind of hatred.”
He has some recollections of early childhood. “I remember football was very popular there and I used to play the game with an Arab friend named Hamudi in the compound of our colony in Kuwait. There was a supermarket opposite our house named Sharq where I could get my daily quota of chocolate (wahan chocolate milta tha). I used to accompany my father to the store but one day I decided to go alone, and I was just two then.
“There was a social gathering at home so nobody thought I could go to Sharq alone. Luckily, a Kuwaiti brought me home and scolded my family for sending me alone to cross the road.”
Raising young children alone was tough for Advani’s mother but not being able to return to Kuwait made it worse. “I was too young to realise but the entire burden came on my mother; our needs, our schooling… we were in a bad situation.”
It was also around the time that snooker happened in Advani’s life. “In 1996 during our school days, my brother used to visit a snooker parlour close to our house in Bengaluru. I became curious how he was doing.”
Advani started accompanying his brother and would stare at the green table-top full of shiny colourful balls. “After three weeks, I decided I had to try my hand. I aligned my cue with the ball and just hit it gently. I saw the ball go straight into the pocket. That shot made me fall in love with the sport. That first shot in the pocket; it’s such a great feeling even today.”
‘TOO SHORT TO PLAY’
“My brother and I were playing a handicap snooker tournament in Bangalore in 1996 and both made it to the final. Upsetting some of the better players had the spotlight on us and it was Arvind Savur (one of the greatest baize sport exponents India has produced) who spotted me. When I told Arvind uncle I want him to coach me, he said I was too short (4 feet 11 inches at that time). I was upset and cried all night.”
But Advani kept his focus on the game till it was finally “recognised” “In December 1997, Arvind uncle told me that after Christmas, he would take me under his wings. My game started improving; a drastic change in knowledge, thinking and execution, everything changed.”
“I believe I was destined to become a player. Bengaluru was destined to be our new home. There is always a reason for change. This phase (Covid-19) too shall pass,” says Advani, who wanted to be a pilot and see the world “from a height of 30,000-35,000 feet.”
The pandemic, says Advani, is a lesson in adapting and adjustment. “We have to adapt to the situation as this is a first in everyone’s life. This is the new normal.” For him the modes of recreation are spending time with the family, mobile phone games to keep the competitive spirit alive, reading books and exercising.
“I hope only after a vaccine is developed can the future be certain.”
Former world No. 1 Ronnie O’Sullivan has said that snooker players are being treated like ‘lab rats’ at the World Championship, underway at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, and has questioned the decision to allow spectators. Advani agrees. “It is too risky. With spectators, I would say, ‘no’ to any event at this stage,” he says.