Bagal Doob Laga! Ghutna daba, tangri bacha!” The voices go from squeaky to high-pitched to jarring as a bunch of boys in loincloths cheers on two sweaty wrestlers locked in a battle of body and limb. The gladiators at north Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium are at play. Inspired by the exploits of three of their mates at the London Olympics, the pahalwans at the wrestling nursery appear upbeat and raucous.
They take their shirt off for the camera before you can say Ek Tha Tiger. Still, the Khan with those rippling muscles and bare chest doesn’t rule the hearts of the wrestlers-in-the-making. That honour is reserved for another bhai with the initials SK: two-times Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar.
The 285 wrestling trainees are caught in a whirl of practice and recovery from 5 am till 10 pm. They are kept away from cellphones, mall crawls and the Web – luxuries most urban teenagers take for granted. Their idea of recreation is mud bouts and oil massages, dragging blocks of wood to level the floor, crushing almonds and watching bouts together.
At a time when kids his age would be Googling b-boying and lusting after Rihanna, a pubescent Sansar Olian, 16, from Rohtak district’s Garhi village, brushes aside my query about the attention muscular wrestlers get from girls back home. “Haan unke mann mein bhawna to hoti hai, but we are pahalwans and worship Hanuman,” he says, as his friends break into a collective giggle.
Sons of the soil: Their idea of recreation is mud bouts: trainees at Chhatrasal Stadium
And then, inevitably, the ear question pops up: Do coaches actually break in wrestlers’ ear lobes? “That’s a myth naïve journalists perpetuate,” says Satpal. “Many wrestlers’ ears are fine, but most of us have cauliflower ears thanks to repeated friction or trauma, which hampers blood flow to the cartilage,” explains Satpal Singh, founder of the akhara.
Neither ear deformities, nor a disappointing debut at the London Olympics can wipe the smile off Amit Kumar Dahiya’s face. The 19-year-old son of a milkman from Sonepat’s Nahri village can’t get over the rapturous reception Indian fans gave him at London’s Excel Arena. “It was as if we were playing at home,” says Amit, whose tactical knowledge is rated highly by players and coaches alike. “I’ll be better prepared at Rio. Even Sushil bhai didn’t win a medal at his first Olympics,” he reasons.
After Sushil and Yogeshwar Dutt, Amit’s qualification for the Olympics injected a new enthusiasm into the boys at Chhatrasal. “Till a few months back, he was like any of these boys climbing ropes and doing push-ups. ‘If Amit can go to the Olympics, so can we’ is the credo at the akhara,” says guru Satpal, the coach whose trio of wards – Sushil, Yogeshwar and Amit – has made India proud.
Room With A View
Beyond the bronzed bodied trainees sweating it out at the outdoor gym, busy climbing ropes and doing push-ups in the sun, are the akhara dormitories. It is here, sprawled in room number four that Sushil, Indian wrestling’s undisputed rock star, first nursed his medal dreams. “Pahalwanji is like bade bhai to all of us,” says Rahul Mann, a silver medallist at the Commonwealth wrestling championships in the 60-kg class. Sushil’s long time roommate Pradeep Kumar says the champion’s rustic charm hasn’t waned one bit over the last 15 years. And now, aspiring wrestlers at Chhatrasal also have London bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt to look up to.
Has the thought of switching to a meat diet crossed Sushil’s mind? “Come on, bhai sahib! Now that we have three medals from vegetarians (one in Beijing and two at London) where is the need to turn non-veg?” asks Sushil, who lists watching patriotic movies such as Chak De! India on his laptop and listening to Haryanvi Raagini folk tunes as his greatest indulgences.
Loser to Champ
At London, in his third Olympic outing, Yogeshwar finally shed the underachiever tag. Ever since he lost in the quarterfinals at Beijing in the last round, the group of trainees, too, has shared every agonising moment and Olympian ecstasy that the boy from Bhainswal has experienced.
Yogeshwar, 29, says he has been dreaming of an Olympic medal since 1996, when he first saw Leander Paes win a bronze at Atlanta. “Till now, it had been a tale of what could have been,” says Dutt. As the tricolour went up in London, even with a swollen face, seeing his name on the winners’ list was a treat for the gutsy grappler’s eyes. Gauging the enormity of the achievement might not be easy for fans watching bouts on TV, says Yogeshwar. “Although we are trained to fight five bouts a day, I didn’t anticipate I’d have three within 45 minutes. I spent those 15 minutes visualising my moves and replenishing with energy drinks.”
After the victory, are village elders pestering the eligible bachelor to tie the knot? After all, isn’t former roommate Sushil also enjoying marital bliss? “Marriage can wait. Everything comes in good time. And I am never in a hurry,” says Yogeshwar. He could have been talking about his bronze medal.
Would Hanuman approve?
Boys who would be pahalwans
One for the album: From left: Coach Satpal, Yogeshwar Dutt, Sushil Kumar and Amit Kumar
Most of the around 300 trainees learning the nuances of daanv pench at Chhatrasal Stadium are from villages in and around Delhi. Akhara rules call for celibacy and a diet without meat, fish or eggs. The bedrock of the lifestyle of the trainees is strict
discipline. The gruelling training regime begins before dawn with a sprint. The workouts include weight training, rope-climbing and practising with maces. No mobile phones are allowed in the guru-shishya tradition and instances of corporal punishment are common. Most of the trainees attend schools located near the akharas they train in, but dropout rates are high, says veteran wrestler Deepak Anusiya Prasad, who runs an akhara in south Delhi. “At least in government-managed schools, sportsmen get away with average grades and not-so-regular attendance.” The ultimate aim, says trainee wrestler Rohtas Singh, who hails from a village near Sonepat, Haryana, is to become a champion wrestler on the global stage. “Even the less successful ones get a job on the basis of sports, not their grades.”
From HT Brunch, November 4
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch