Small gestures often reflect the real greatness of a man. Sometime in the late 2007, Sushil Kumar (27) lost an important figure in his life. Even now, whenever he wins a medal, event on the world’s biggest stages, Sushil never forgets to remember his grandfather who, according to him, shaped up his life on the grappling mat. As usual, he was practicing for the Olympics then. Such is his commitment towards the sport, that despite the grief and still in mourning, Sushil returned to the camp just a day after his grandfather’s demise.
“I had to,” Sushil — of Baprola Village, Haryana — recollects with moist eyes. “If anyone has helped transform me into a champion, it is my grandfather. But then I had to leave the house for practice. After all, I had to fulfill his dream of winning a medal at the Olympics. Though he did not live to cherish my victory, I always look up at the sky and offer a silent prayer for him.”
Fast forward to 2010. He landed from Moscow with a gold at one of the most prestigious events in the world – the world championships – headed to meet the Sports Minister, attended a few ceremonies and headed straight for practice in the evening. Some would dismiss it as an obsession. But for Sushil, it’s a ritual he cannot miss. So what if he had just won a gold and beaten the best in the world. Silently, as the dusk melts into darkness, he goes about his chores. More than 70 per cent of Sushil’s life is spent behind-the-scenes in a place he calls the sacred space.
Leading a simple life, almost like a hermit, Sushil’s wants are limited. He doesn’t fancy big cars or big houses. He doesn’t crave fame either. And, akin to a hermit, he believes in karma and tapasya, which in his case is practicing the sport. “If you work hard for something sincerely, everything else will follow,” is his firm belief. “I am one with the universe while training.” He begins his daily routine invoking the deities of power and strength, as well as compassion. A devotee of Hanuman, he offers prayer to him early in the morning before stepping on the mat.
The mangled ears and scars on his face are his most treasured trophies. Enduring pain his forte. Garbed in an impregnable armour of resilience he steps on to the mat, with single-minded devotion that can rattle the best in the world. All these, he believes is possible only because of those hours he puts in behind the scenes, away from the limelight.
“It’s here that I get everything in order,” says Sushil. “One cannot afford to make a mistake when you play the top wrestlers in the world.” And like a child he shows his medal and smiles.
It is hard to describe how much sweat and blood Sushil has put in, preparing for the world championships. Though he rues his chances last year at the Worlds, he says it wasn’t for lack of trying. “We had more mat practice this time. You can’t say I practiced harder. It was just bad luck that I missed the medal last year.” Olympics or this? One is tempted to ask. Pat comes the reply: “Both have their significance. You cannot compare the two. For me, both the medals are equally precious and I have worked equally hard to win them.”
Though he is a recluse, there is a huge fan following in rural India, especially in the North. Once, when he was supposed to take the mat during a trial event in Sonepat, there was not an inch of space left either in the parking lot, or in the arena. From tractors to buses, cars to two-wheelers, the approach road to the Sonepat Sports Authority of India Centre was choc-a-bloc. People climbed up on to the windowsills and balconies to get a glimpse of their hero. “They love me,” says Sushil, but without even a hint of arrogance. Sometimes, such love ushers in gifts and presents and of course money.
“Recently a fan of mine gifted me an SUV,” he says. Other, more rustic fans have given him Rs 500 as a token of their appreciation. Sushil values both gestures equally.
With the Commonwealth Games around the corner, he is gearing up for the tournament. “I have to win a medal here in front of my fans,” he says. “I will be the happiest person if I can win the gold and stand on the podium with the National Anthem playing in the background with my parents in the stands.”
A dream he believes will be realised, if everything goes well. “Luck,” he utters softly, “also plays a big role and until you are standing on the podium, nothing is certain.”
With inputs from Saurabh Duggal