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Mud Pits to Medals

The initial workout over, they cover every inch of their bodies in mud, fighting like gladiators. More desi drills follow and one is left wondering how at the end of it all they manage to stand and indulge in banter. Ajai Masand reports.

india Updated: Aug 23, 2008 19:13 IST
Ajai Masand

GURU HANUMAN'S legacy is still vibrant at the Birla Vyayamshaala here. Some even say the legendary guru, who passed away a few years ago in his mid-nineties, still blesses them in their dreams. His life-size statue stares down at the huge mud pit where bare-bodied boys and men - aged between eight and 25 - dig out mud with gigantic spades and smoothen it by pulling a heavy wooden log over it, ox-like.

The initial workout over, they cover every inch of their bodies in mud, fighting like gladiators. More desi drills follow and one is left wondering how at the end of it all they manage to stand and indulge in banter.

A monk's life

Such is life in India's premier akhara, one that has produced more than 15 Arjuna Award winners and three Dronacharyas, including Satpal pehalwan, whose grappler at Chhatrasal Stadium, Sushil Kumar, went on to win a bronze in Beijing on Wednesday.

"This is the room where Satpalji and Guruji stayed," says Dronacharya Mahasingh Rao, the coach, pointing towards two wooden beds shorn of cushions or pillows and with just a torn bed-sheet. "Sushil might be from the Chhatrasal akhara, but his guru is from here," says Mahasingh even as in another room, a wrestler videotapes Rajiv Tomar's bout on television. "Rajiv is our most talented and decorated wrestler. It's a pity that he lost in Beijing. The boys are so demoralised today, it's showing in their practice," says Mahasingh.

Life here is hard, almost monastic. Forget visiting the nearest cineplex, aspiring wrestlers aren't even allowed to listen to music or read newspapers and magazines. The akhara only provides 50-odd grapplers enough space to dump their belongings and get on with the grind. "Some doze off in the mud pit, others under the gigantic banyan tree, only some senior wrestlers get the luxury of a bed. Some even have to spread charpoys on the pavement bordering the akhara because they don't have a choice. There are an equal number of wrestlers living in rented accommodations near the akhara. They come here at the break of dawn and retire in the evening."

For a livelihood

It's more or less the same at the Chhatrasal stadium. "Sushil's father comes all the way from his village in Najafgarh 30km away with a can of milk and desi ghee. I don't remember him skipping the routine even for a single day," says Yashvir, Sushil's coach at the stadium.

"Life's tough for the grapplers in akharas and even tougher for their parents who have to spend around Rs 20,0000 per month on feeding them.

"For now we have around 89 wrestlers in the residential wing. Definitely there is shortage of space, but then we do not turn away good wrestlers as they come here to learn the art, which would help them earn a livelihood. Most of them come here to master mud wrestling as it helps them earn money at local dangals. They are predominantly from Baraut (Baghpat, UP), Sonepat and Rohtak in Haryana and Jind. But we do make a conscious effort to make their stay a bit easy. We've introduced a co-operative system wherein the players pool in money to run a mess."

Commonwealth Games worry

"For now, there's another worry for me," says Yashvir. "Come September, we might have to vacate the stadium, as it has to be renovated for the Commonwealth Games. We might have to shift base to Singhu or Bawana, but that's life. The wrestlers are used to such hardships, they come from villages where they barely get anything more to eat than milk and ghee. "Producing world-class grapplers is not easy. Where are the resources? If people come visiting and see 4-5 of them sleeping in a single room, they kick up a huge fuss about it.

Says Mahasingh, "The wrestlers are used to this life. Make them sleep in a five-star hotel and they will toss and turn all night. Itni mehnat karneke baad, inko apna hosh nahin rehta (After slugging it out all day long, they don't even know where they sleep." Eight-year-old Rohit, the youngest wrestler at the Hanuman akhara, nods in agreement.

"But sure, give them better conditions, monetary help, food supplements, physios and foreign coaches and exposure trips. We can only take them to a point, beyond that we need huge resources," says Mahasingh.

The young Rohit, from a village in Greater Noida, probably knows more about the business of living than teenagers in metros. He cooks, washes linen and even lugs the cooking gas cylinder on his shoulder to the akhara. All in the hope of mastering the art of grappling.