The Sushil Kumar I knew
In 2012, this writer spent months with the double Olympic medallist while working on a book on wrestling. This is what it was like
Back when Baprola, now a thickly populated suburb of Delhi, was still a village — a patchwork of farmlands and scattered forests — Diwan Singh Solanki took his son to his first dangal, wrestling tournament.
Diwan could hardly contain his excitement as he grasped his seven-year-old son by the hand and walked towards the neighbouring village of Mundka. He told his son all about the excitement and magic of a dangal: the large crowd he will see there, all the food they could buy, the noise and the buzz, but most of all, the big wrestlers he will see, the magnificent muscled men whose very footsteps would make the ground beneath their feet tremble.
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“Will you wrestle too?”
Diwan laughed at the question. No, he said shyly, smiling; pleased that his son had even thought to say such a thing. Diwan had fought in dangals — not in one as big as this — but he was a wrestler, just like his father before him, and his grandfather too.
But Diwan could not make a career out of it, so he had left the world of akhadas and dangals to focus on his family and on farming and cattle. He also got himself a job as a public bus driver. And he hoped that his son will take to the sport.
As they approached Mundka, and the press of people headed for the dangal got thicker and thicker, Diwan swung his boy up on his shoulders. The wrestling had begun, but before Diwan could shove his way towards the arena, his boy began to cry. It was suddenly too much for him, all those people, the shouting and screaming. His eyes stung from the dust, his throat had dried up so he could not even swallow. “Do you want to go home?” Diwan asked the boy.
He nodded through his tears. Diwan swung him back up on his shoulders. The boy and his father walked back home in silence.
A few days later, Diwan stood and stared as his wife Kamala milked the buffaloes in the small cattle shed next to their house.
“What are you looking at?” Kamala asked.
“Right here,” Diwan said, pointing to a bit of ground near the buffaloes. “If I fix the ground here, this could be a good place to teach him kushti.”
Kamala looked at it and agreed. “We could move the buffaloes a bit more to this side.”
“It’s time I started teaching him, no? He could be good at it.”
“He will be good at it,” Kamala said. “He will be better than you,” she added, laughing. “He is faster.”
Diwan and Kamala were not rich. But with a comfortable house, arable land, an extended family and some cattle, they were not poor either.
Diwan got to work fixing a wrestling pit. He dug and hoed, crumbled small clumps of soil with his fingers, rooted around for rocks and pebbles, watered the ground and tilled and raked again, and then levelled it. The earth was now so powdery and soft that it fell like sand through his fingers. He could plant seeds in it to sprout.
He marked the rectangular space off, building a slightly raised boundary of packed earth around it. He brought his son to show it to him. The boy knew immediately what it was. He jumped straight onto the cool akhada earth, delighted.
This is how Sushil Kumar, India’s most iconic wrestler, the country’s only two-time individual Olympic medallist and its only wrestling world champion, was first introduced to wrestling.
Now that glittering career, its historic import and the way it changed Indian wrestling, is in danger of becoming a footnote to something sinister and criminal: Sushil is a wanted man in a murder case, on the run from Delhi Police for days now, with a cash reward on information of his whereabouts.
On May 4, a wrestler called Sagar Dhankad, a former junior national champion, died after he was assaulted inside Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium in a brawl between two groups. The police say they have video evidence as well as eye-witness accounts that put Sushil as the leader of the group that assaulted Dhankad.
‘I have no other passion’
The first time I met Sushil was at Chhatrasal Stadium in 2010, two years after he had won the first of his two Olympic medals. He was already famous of course, and I was apprehensive. I had called to ask for an appointment and he had told me to just come any time to the stadium and simply ask for him.
A part of the shabby complex, comprising a quarter of the stadium’s rafters as well as the space outside it, was the famous residential wrestling school Sushil had joined when he was 12 years old and never left.
I was greeted by a scene that startled and thrilled me; milling under the rafters were these stupendously muscled men as well as boys of all ages, in wrestling gear or in langots, some working out, some grinding almonds to make almond milk in large mortars with oar-sized pestles—and there was Sushil in his red langot, furiously drying his hair with a towel after a bath with a garden pipe in an open bathing area.
The Olympic medallist still lived under the run-down stadium, in cramped rooms packed with other wrestlers, living out of duffel bags, sleeping on mattresses lined up on the floor.
Sushil was already a towering presence at Chhatrasal, its driving force, and wrestlers thronged around him to learn. He was also charming, easy-going and equally warm to everyone — from reporters like me, young boys in their first year at Chhatrasal to even strangers who would often come in and ask him for advice about a wrestling career for their children.
“When I first came here, it was like a dream for me,” Sushil told me then. “I could hardly sleep the first few days because of the excitement. All those huge men with huge muscles! I dreamt only of becoming like them, a big, heavyweight wrestler who could take on anybody.” As a wide-eyed child, his favourite thing in this new life was a dangal for young wrestlers held every Sunday in a park right next to Jama Masjid.
Eventually, while working on a book on wrestling, I ended up spending months with Sushil soon after he had won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics.
For days on end, I would land up at Chhatrasal at five in the morning — training began at 4:30 — and then spend the rest of the day, well into the evening, with Sushil.
In that time, I got to know a man obsessed with wrestling. He seemed to have little interest in anything else — he did not watch TV, read books, or listen to music. He liked big cars and had a fascination for guns — he owned a couple of licensed pistols that someone in his entourage always carried along if they went anywhere outside the stadium complex. But Sushil hardly ever left the stadium.
“It’s true that I have no passion for anything except wrestling,” he had told me. “I am not even very religious. I believe in god, and spend a few minutes in prayer twice a day. In the morning, I pray that the day goes well; in the evening, I say thank you for another day. I go to temples and mosques. I don’t even handle my money—it goes to my father, who does what he thinks fit. If I want or need something, I get it. My assigned role is to be an athlete, a wrestler, and I’m fulfilling that role, and beyond that I don’t really bother myself with anything or keep track of anything.”
That Sushil was something special as a wrestler was evident from his earliest days in the sport — he was the first Indian wrestler to win gold at the World Cadet Championships (meant for 16 and 17-year-olds). He did it twice, in 1998 and 1999. By the time the 2004 Olympics came around, he was in peak form, unbeaten in 15 matches leading up to his qualification. He won his first match at the Olympics in Athens by a massive 9-0 score, before succumbing in his second bout to the eventual gold medallist.
“When I came back to India, I heard all of that talk again, about how Indian wrestlers are only good at a local level, in mitti ki dangal, but put them on a mat on a global stage and they will fail,” Sushil had said then. It was partly true—since a bronze medal won by KD Jadhav at the 1952 Olympics, India had nothing to show for in wrestling at the big stage. This, despite the long and celebrated culture of wrestling in the country.
But that culture was largely rural, and there lay the problem — rural wrestling was done on earthen pits, very different from the international mat-based wrestling, and Indian wrestlers simply could not make the transition well. In Athens, wrestlers from nations around the world — irrespective of race, colour, religion and economic condition — won medals. The list included the US, Russia, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Japan, Belarus, Ukraine, Turkey, Iran and Kazakhstan — but not India.
“People were losing interest in the sport,” Sushil had told me. “In the cities, everyone thought wrestlers were just goons for hire.”
On top of that was the poor system in place in India.
“You can either spend your time fighting the injustice, ranting against the bad training and infrastructure, and trying to change the system, or you can spend your time trying to make a career as an athlete,” Sushil had told me. “If we get into this fight, that’s the end of our careers. We have to keep our focus on training, so we put in our own systems. What else can you do?”
Sushil single-handedly changed that in 2008 — on the back of his medal came a renewed interest in the sport as well as new infrastructure, hundreds of Olympic mats, more money for the athletes, and better coaches.
Pehelwanji in Chhatrasal
In 2012, I watched Sushil’s bouts with his family in their two-storey house in Baprola. His father sat on the floor in one corner with a half-smile on his face through all his bouts even as a raucous collection of friends, family and neighbours brought the roof down with each fight he won as he progressed to the final. Sushil’s mother, a squat, powerfully built woman, bustled through the house with unmatched energy, making sure everyone had tea and something to eat, smiling and cracking one-liners the whole time.
Later, Sushil and the other Indian wrestlers at London would tell me in great detail about what went on during those bouts; how Sushil’s childhood friend and Chhatrasal akhada-mate Yogeshwar Dutt (who himself won a bronze at London) and the Mumbai-based wrestler Narsingh Yadav had helped Sushil as he battled fatigue, cramp and severe dehydration.
In the four years between Sushil’s silver at London and the 2016 Rio Olympics— he failed to make the cut — the cracks began to appear. Sushil fell out with Yogeshwar as well as Narsingh —the latter a long-drawn and bitter public spat.
Yet at Chhatrasal Sushil was everything. Even though pehelwan is the word for wrestler in Hindi, if you went to Chhatrasal and asked for “pehelwanji” you would be taken to Sushil’s door, no questions asked.
One afternoon in 2012, before the akhada had properly stirred from its deep siesta, an eight-year-old boy who had recently started shadowing Sushil, entered his room, all dressed and ready to hit the mat, and began to shake “pehelwanji” awake.
“C’mon! Wake up, it’s time, you said you will train with me, it’s time, c’mon wake up.”
Sushil peered out from beneath his blanket, squinting.
“Oh, no. Let me get some sleep also, will you? I trained with you just this morning! How much can I train?”
“No! Yesterday you said you will train with me in the evening, but you went and played football!”
“Please, don’t shout so much. You go start, I will come.”
Later, on the mat, Sushil smiled and said to me, “this boy will not let me live in peace.” He tried to fashion the boy’s hair into a mohawk. “You are more concerned with my training than your own!”
Then Sushil led me to the bowels of the stadium, down a large ramp, into the massive underground parking built for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Here was another world, a world that was the direct result of Sushil’s success as a wrestler — the parking had been repurposed as a training centre for the huge number of aspiring wrestlers that now thronged the akhada at the stadium. Instead of the solitary mat in the small wrestling hall overground, here at least six Olympic mats lined the floor in one corner, with wrestlers hard at work on each. In another corner, there was a rectangular embankment of raised earth— a traditional wrestling pit.
Sushil and his training partner began their session, and soon the other wrestlers began to gather to watch.
Sushil, sweat pouring out of him in a river, exhorted his partner as he taught him a move—“jerk the hip hard to the left, raise it, raise it, bring it on, come on. Now get your left foot in, get it in, get it in, there, shabash!”
“Put all your effort behind the move only if you see that you can go somewhere with it,” Sushil addressed the onlookers. “Or else, let it go, conserve your energy, think of an alternative. Use your brain first — the muscles will tire easily. Wrestling is in the mind.” He tapped the side of his head hard with his index finger, making pearls of sweat fly.
At home, ‘hugs for thugs’
On another day, I was with Sushil on one of his rare visits home.
Post lunch, Sushil slept on a charpoy in the living room wearing a T-shirt that had the words “Hugs for Thugs” printed across the chest. His father slept on another charpoy in the open courtyard, undisturbed by the rumble of passing trucks and buses.
Sushil’s mother and I sat a little distance away and chatted over cups of tea.
At one point she said, “See, in the cities people thought wrestlers are goons. If a city person saw a wrestler on the street, they would cross to the other side. If I told someone my son is a pehelwan, they thought I was saying that he is a criminal of some kind!”
She laughed heartily. “After 2008, that thought changed completely. The whole country suddenly rediscovered wrestling.”
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