It was the early eighties, and I was nearly eight. In those days, I mostly avoided accompanying my parents on "painfully boring" visits to relatives' homes. But I did make an exception when my father dangled a bait: a chance to watch Dara Singh in action against Mighty Mongol. The bout was to be held at Guru Gobind Singh Stadium, Jalandhar, right opposite a distant relative's house. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
From the house balcony, I watched, goggle-eyed, the famous wrestler grabbing and pounding his well-built opponent in the jampacked stadium. Egged on by a vociferous crowd, Dara Singh showed everybody who was the boss. Some of my family members claimed that the contest was stage-managed, but I refused to believe them. There was no way I was going to let them devalue my newfound superhero. Excitedly, I searched for the he-man's posters in the market, but I only got Arnold Schwarzeneggers and Sylvester Stallones, who were good but not good enough.
Dara Singh grew even more larger-than-life for me in subsequent years, when I watched him play heroic roles on the big screen. His immortal line, 'Mard ko dard nahin hota', from the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Mard (1985) made us kids feel manly every time we mouthed it. And his 'martyrdom' in Karma (1986) brought out a tear and a salute. But it was his performance as Lord Hanuman in mega serial Ramayana that accorded him a pride of place in my personal pantheon. A Sikh enthralling audiences in the role of a Hindu god - it was a Herculean feat in those days of militancy in Punjab, when ties between the two communities were marred by hatred and suspicion.
It was fun to imitate his "Punjabi-dominated" Hindi, which he managed to work to his advantage. In a delightful, final cameo in Jab We Met (2007), he shocked the underdressed Kareena Kapoor with this line: "Ghar mein aise kapde pehen ke aayi ho toh Mumbai mein to nangi ghoomti hogi (If you are wearing such clothes at home, then you must be going around naked in Mumbai)."
His iconic stature was reinforced by a Bollywood potboiler from the 1990s, in which a character warns another, "Randhawiya, Dara Singh banan di koshish na kar (Don't even try to become Dara Singh)". Indeed, there was only one Dara Singh Randhawa. The other musclemen were just feeble clones.