Editor's Note: This story was originally published on 2 April, 2018.
Sushil Kumar is drenched. Sweat on his face, sweat on his hands, sweat in his hair, sweat in the air. But if you know the smell of it, you’d know this one’s different. It’s not, well, sweaty.
He is on the mat, heart pounding, limbs shaking. Our man is going through a churn within. He talks in audible grunts and incomprehensible guffaws. He converses in cryptic signs and ambiguous symbols. Those who watch him know what this is all about. Those who know him, respond.
Vladimir Mestvirishvili falls in the second category. He points to Sushil’s crotch. You’d assume he is warning against a possible groin injury. Wrong.
“Huh,” goes Sushil.
He is sparring with a man whose muscles threaten to pop out if his skin. Sushil goes down and wraps his tree-trunk arms like a vine around his partner’s right thigh and lifts him before junking him like a toothpick. That’s kalajung done to perfection.
“Huh,” he grunts again.
“Huh,” Mestvirishvili, the Georgian coach who Sushil once called “God”, grunts back.
Telepathy. Carnal primitivism says hello to naked athleticism.
Mahabali Satpal, his first guru and now father-in-law, is watching. He looks besotted and proud. He joins Sushil on the mat, and points to his thigh again.
They are standing at the centre of the yellow mat, smack in the centre of the centrally-painted ring on the rectangular space. Sunlight pours in from the solitary open window, right behind Satpal’s 110-kilogramme frame. Like a stream in tearing hurry that has collided with a giant boulder, the beam of light divides itself on either side of Satpal, before converging, almost magnetically, on Sushil.
We could well be sitting in an opera; orchestra and all. Except, the barely-noteworthy wrestling hall in capital’s Chhatrasal Stadium, where pehelwanji enters wrestling nirvana, is a bit stuffy.
The light and sweat make Sushil’s face a glistening portrait of focus and fortitude. The halo makes him infallible, at least this evening.
Satpal has watched a move by a female Russian wrestler at this year’s Pro Wrestling League, an event that adds to the ubiquity and uselessness of suchlike that have come to headline every conceivable sport in an unsporting nation. He doesn’t remember the name of the wrestler, but knows she had “chitt” – pinned – her opponent. The opponent, Satpal insists, was India’s only woman to win an Olympic medal in wrestling.
“Usne Sakhsi Malik ko chitt kiya tha.” (She had pinned Sakshi Malik).
Mestvirishvili steps in, and the concert is ready to roll. Satpal points to Sushil’s legs and lets his Haryanvi-English take over.
“Coach, see. Lift, like this, throw.” “You do.” “You are great.” Brevity, they say, is soul of wit. Coach nods.
Satpal confesses he doesn’t remember the old man’s name. “He is Georgian,” I am told with the command of taking it as his name. He is also called “laado” here. It translates to “dear”, but translations rarely convey emotions in their entirety.
Besides, it’s worth knowing that the septuagenarian is based in India since 2003, and has overseen a handy clutch of Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships, and Olympics medals. His contract was not renewed by Sports Authority of India (SAI) in 2016 at the behest of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), and it took a word from Sushil to secure his stay.
On mat, there’s a mini-conference in progress. On an unusually cold February evening, the three men are bathing in light of the receding sun, conversing in Haryanvi-English and familiar grunts. Sushil is dressed in a black bodysuit that clings to each of his ripping muscles. It covers his arms, accentuating his protruding shoulders and massive forearms.
The mat is lined by pre-puberty boys who have come from as near as Jind in Haryana to as far as Nagpur in Maharashtra. On the other end sits a bunch of brawny boys with copious amounts of muscle and sheepish eyes. They seem to wear their masculinity with ludicrous ease. Dudes.
More grunts, and Sushil and the sparring partner are ready for another bullfight.
The men breathe heavily. After a quick slap of hands, they lock foreheads and proceed to beat the hell out of each other. Sushil goes down with a thud, and you feel the two-time Olympic medallist is losing his sheen. Wrong.
He grabs the wrestler between his legs and decides to show off some cool fitele moves. Also called leg lace, the manoeuvre gained popularity when Yogeshwar Dutt aced it in the bout against North Korea’s Jong Myong Ri to win bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012.
“Chitt kar,” shouts Satpal. Sushil obliges, and backslaps his partner — who has chosen to keep his ego and tools aside to help the accomplished wrestler master his moves — in gratitude and respect.
They practice kalajung and a quick, slippery move aimed to get out of opponent’s hold.
Past couple of years have been far from ideal for the two-time Olympic medallist. Post his triumph at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, he has participated in a solitary international competition of note, the Commonwealth Wrestling Championships in Johannesburg in December 2017, where he won gold.
On 29 December last year, Sushil injured his knee during the national selection trials for Asian Championships and Commonwealth Games. He aggravated the injury during practice ahead of the Pro Wrestling League on 12 January. Add to it his farcical march to the Nationals glory and the brawl that his supporters allegedly started against ex-protégé Praveen Rana’s camp after their selection trial for the Commonwealth Games, and the aura seems reasonably chequered.
If those incidents still clog his mind — which the writer is sure they do, for our man is more than a heartless, soulless mass of muscle — Sushil does a fine job concealing them. He takes a mini-break from thumping his grappling partner and tells us he is raring to court glory in Gold Coast.
The knee looks fine — he cancelled a training trip to Georgia and chose to practice in Chhatrasal Stadium to avoid any risks — and the shoulder, a major worry post London Olympics, is ready to lift the weight of opponents and expectations.
“Look, I participate in bouts only when I am completely fit. The injury is behind me and I am ready to do well at Commonwealth Games for India,” he says in a voice that is trying hard to match the speed of his pumping heart.
India have been traditional powerhouses in wrestling, and occupy the second spot in all-time tally in the sport with 90 medals — 38 gold, 35 silver, 17 bronze — and once again, the onus would be on Sushil to deliver. He won the gold in 2010 and 2014, and 2018 presents a mouth-watering opportunity to complete a rare treble.
“The coaches have prepared a diet and training schedule for me and I stick to it. The preparations are on course.”
Sushil trains six days a week under Mestvirishvili’s watch, his training hours equally divided in two sessions, morning and evening, each starting at 4.
“He is never late. It’s discipline and dedication that has got him here,” Satpal says.
India’s most-decorated wrestler’s sessions are conducted behind closed doors, with only “the Georgian” and a few grappling partners for company. Satpal insists his patent training moves must not travel outside the hall, and “pehelwanji” must have the luxury of training without distractions.
Satpal remembers the day Diwan Singh, a Delhi bus conductor, brought his son to him.
“Sushil was 13 or 14 years old and weighed 24-25 kgs. The first thing I said after looking at him was ‘ladka World Champion hai’ (The boy is a World Champion). Everything about him, from the way he stood to the way he walked, was like a world champion.
“Also, what stood out was his dedication. If I asked him to do 500 push-ups, he would do 600.”
Sushil’s training sessions, when open to audience, are a huge hit in Chhatrasal. Wrestlers of varying age and pedigree cram the hall to watch their homegrown star in action, and go back enlightened.
“Look at these kids. At their age, if they see Sushil train, imagine what it does to their preparation,” Satpal gushes.
Outside the hall is an open gymnasium, with a variety of free weights, rods and a couple of benches. ‘Akhadas’ focus more on bodyweight exercises, and among the best of the lot is rope climbing.
The rope dangles from a giant tree at the height of about 30 meters, and one round constitutes climbing all the way up and returning to the starting point. The workout steels wrists, forearms and triceps.
“Pehelwanji does it 50-60 times every morning,” a coach tells me.
The last time I met Satpal, he had told me he has 600 “pure, desi daanv (indigenous moves).” The number stands at 800 now.
“It’s important to learn. I learn a lot from them,” he points at the pre-teen bunch.
“Yes, they go to various sub-junior and cadet events. They tell me what they observe, what other kids do, what other coaches say. I catch bouts online too, and improvise a lot.”
Kalajung seems to have caught Satpal’s fancy, and he is making sure the kids internalise it. To the undiscerning eye, it’s quite similar to the popular dhobi pacchad insofar as throwing the opponent from over one’s head is concerned. The similarities end there. While dhobi pacchad uses opponent’s arm as a lever, kalajung involves lifting the wrestler from the thigh. Evidently, it’s always performed from a kneeling position.
“I hate losing. Look at this,” Satpal takes me to a giant black-and-white portrait that hangs over the hall’s entrance. The big man has pinned down a wrestler and is roaring. We are watching the moments that sealed his gold medal at the Asian Games in 1982.
It’s 36 years since that bout, but Satpal’s enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed. He showed the framed memory to me two years back, and he is doing it now. He doesn’t remember the wrestler in agony — “he was a Mongolian” — but he does remember the applause he got.
“It still fills me with pride. The hall was jam-packed. It was the 100kg category bout. Look at the anger on my face. You have to be angry if you want to win.” That’s revealing.
For the record, the Mongolian in the picture is Dashdorjiin Tserentogtokh. A two-time Olympian (1976, 1980), he won the Asian Games gold in 1974. He passed away in 2015.
“I want to win an Olympic gold for country. We are such a vast country with so much talent, and it’s high time we perform. We can’t hide behind government’s negligence; I think we are getting enough to rank lot higher in medal-tally at the Olympics. I am preparing these kids for 2024 and 2028 Olympics,” he says.
“When I started, I didn’t have much. No guidance, no shoes. It cost us a lot of medals. Later, I earned a lot through fighting dangals across the country, but those were different times. I don’t allow wrestlers here to fight dangals anymore, because you can’t win on mat by fighting on mud. Wrestling on mat is way faster.
“Also, they should not be wrestling for money, but for the Olympic medals. They are not allowed to leave these premises: no mobile phones, no laptops. You’d say it’s tough on them, but this discipline and sacrifice is needed if they want to win something for the country. I am fulfilling my wish for an Olympic medal through these kids,” he says before zooming off in a large car.
Tomorrow will be a new day, and young men with iron core and dreamy eyes will congregate at 4 in the morning to punish their bodies and push their will. An Olympic medal is a sign of triumph; it’s also a symbol of aching backs and broken arms, of torn tendons and tortured spirits.
In the chilly evening that has now meandered to dusk, under the ceaseless gaze of the zipping Delhi Metro, the veritable symbol of Capital’s urbanity, the dank wrestling hall with its traditional moorings is an oddity. The wrestlers — beaten, weary but happy — are trudging back to their rooms. All that remains on the mat are violent creases and drops of sweat. And if you know the smell of it, you’d know this is different. This smells like promise.
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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2019 16:29:00 IST