To explain the link between banking and virility, Shiv Shankar Singh leans conspiratorially close. “A man’s semen is like money kept at a bank,” whispers the wispy-thin 60-year-old. We are sitting in the Varanasi akhara named after Shiv Shankar’s father Ram Singh. Around us, half a dozen 20-something wrestlers are twirling around in front of mirrors, feeling their rippling pectorals, patting their hair. Shiv Shankar expands on his hypothesis: “If you take the money out of the bank every now and then, you can have anand — but you won’t have it when you need it.”
The need, in this case, is to prove a man’s superiority over the other man in the ring. Nothing matters more to Shiv Shankar and his twirling ‘boys’, who take their masculinity more seriously than the average Vijay on the street. They swear by Hanuman when it comes to devotion to their sport, but haven’t been able to emulate the squeaky-clean record of the deity when it comes to staying off the ‘lures of Kamdev’.
“In my time, one wouldn’t know what happened between man and woman till he’s 28-30. I myself didn’t, till I married at 30. If one had a wet dream, he would be sad for weeks... But these days, television has become the bane of pehelwani; it makes it impossible to practise brahmacharya,” says Shiv Shankar, disgust written on his face.
One of the eldest among his boys, the handlebar-moustached Rajesh Yadav who is in his late 20s, admits that he lost his virginity in 2000. The grappler who has a weak leg says, “I hate my body... Yet I haven’t been able to stay a brahmachari.” Clean-shaven Amit ‘Model’ Yadav, 21, confesses to having already been in a similar, umm, sticky situation.
It’s tough enough for sports coaches to keep their players from indulging in between-the-sheets acrobatics for one night before a match. Imagine how difficult it would be to keep the flock in abstinence for a quarter of a lifetime. As a result, a cruel anxiety hangs over this old rule of the akhara.
“Theirs is not the ascetic, self-contained, ritualistic concerns of other-worldly celibacy that was Gandhi’s,” says Joseph Alter, professor of anthropology at University of Pittsburgh, who had enrolled at an akhara in the late 80s to study the phenomenon. “Their concerns reflect ambivalence between personal character development and morality on the one hand, and the bravado of a competitive sport — ‘who can conquer who’ — on the other. It produces an extremely volatile tension.”
Pramod Yadav, who has won gold for UP Police in wrestling, doesn’t wallow in this tension. “Sex does not affect the game at all. In fact, it would be good to take off such emotions before a match; it would relax you,” says the 21-year-old.
On Hanuman Ghat, at the headquarters of Juna — the oldest, biggest and baddest college of Naga sadhus — senior office-bearer Rajendra Giri widens the scope. “Brahmacharya is the spreading of the essence of Brahma in a being. It’s not just about being with women.” As if that’s not confounding enough, he points to the phallus-in-vagina a large part of India prays to and says, “Then how could He be a brahmachari?”
It’s not a question on top of the wrestlers’ mind, though. Their world is already brimming with dense signifiers. The ghee they eat is considered a condensed nutrient akin to the ‘male essence’. Their custom of rubbing back the dripping sweat onto the body is reminiscent of the hatha-yogic practice of retention of body fluids.
Even these don’t matter once you are in the ring. Ashok Patel heaves out of the ring, huffing after a bout. I ask what mardangi means to him. He stands akimbo, catches his breath, and shoots back: “You mean strength?”