This is a tale of two young men, both champions, both Olympic bronze medallists, both from similar socio-cultural beginnings and economic backgrounds.
Their lives should have run along remarkably similar lines, with name, fame, wealth and glory being theirs for asking. That Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar have led such vastly different lives in the year since Beijing, is a fascinating reflection not just on the effect of individual personalities, but also on society and social mores and patterns.
Take Sushil for instance. He can walk down the street and it’s unlikely that he’ll be mobbed, or even that anyone who’s not interested in sport will recognise him straight off, outside of his own region.
The quiet, down-to-earth grappler might prefer it that way, but he probably wouldn’t have had much choice in the matter. First, he’s in a sport that doesn’t really have an urban following. And two, despite his feats, his look/personality isn’t exactly the kind that will set the glitzy marketing world on fire.
Sushil acknowledges it all with his trademark shy smile: “Actually, I got some offers but I have no interest in TV interviews, so I refused them all.”
That’s a remarkably refreshing attitude, but one man’s poison is the breath of life to another.
So then, there's Vijender, the boxing hunk with the chocolate boy looks who’s got teeny-bopping hearts around India thumping for a sportsman other than a cricketer. Vijender was never a wallflower, even before his bronze, but post it, he has simply waltzed into the arclights like he was born for it. He’s on TV chat and reality shows. He’s walked the ramp, done several ads and parties to the hilt when he has the time. And he’s loving the attention.
“Now, people recognise me even on the streets. I got the chance to share a stage with Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar and have featured in many TV shows,” he says with a grin.
So does he think a lot of this is because of the way he looks? The grin is replaced with a more thoughtful face. “Looks matter. Of course they do. But I have the same face I had before the Olympics. At that time, no one cared to look at me. The Olympic medal made all the difference. If I’m not the boxer I am, I will be a nowhere man again.”
True, he’d then probably be just another good-looking face. But that bubbly personality and yes, the face, has helped in bringing in the moolah that has made massive changes in his life post Beijing. He owns an SUV (a Ford Endeavour) and a Verna. He can afford life in the fast lane. He has a snazzy laptop that he now can’t do without. He surfs, checks mail and is hooked to YouTube and Facebook. He is a DSP in the Haryana Police. He also has money.
For Sushil, on the other hand, the changes have been big, but not dramatic. The big one? The man who didn’t own a mobile phone pre-Beijing, now has two. He’s thinking about getting a laptop but says he’ll then have to learn how to use one. But he’s just bought himself a second-hand Tata Safari, one he’s learning to handle. “It's scary sitting near him,” says a friend. “He’s just learning.” It’s also something that his parents, who are completely against his driving, aren't too happy about.
But then again, his room in the Sonepat Sports Authority of India Centre lacks modern amenities. There is no air-conditioning but Sushil says the cooler has always been around. He doesn't care. The players don’t even get mosquito repellent at times, so he makes do with his mosquito net. “We are happy with whatever we have,” says Sushil. “Wrestling has given me everything, so it’s the game that matters."
In that, at least, they are in agreement. Sport is their life.