HARYANA’S MEDAL FACTORY
Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt, products of the finest finishi Ng school for wrestlers in Haryana’s Bahalgarh village, have inspired a whole new generation
Kushti mein tukke na laga kare hain ( There are no flukes in wrestling)!” Diwan Singh explodes, indignant that anyone could ever insinuate that his son was a “one- win wonder”. Olympic silver- medallist Sushil Kumar’s father, a driver with Delhi’s Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited, is thrilled about his son’s unprecedented triumph at the London Games, but also a little wistful: “My boy was his best. He was within grabbing distance of the gold medal.”
Sushil, 29, and his India teammate Yogeshwar Dutt, who won the 60 kg freestyle bronze medal in London, are the biggest success stories from the Chaudhary Devi Lal Sports Centre. The 83- acre Sports Authority of India ( SAI) facility— a finishing school for wrestlers— in Sonepat’s Bahalgarh village, where India’s best hone their grappling skills in gruelling training schedules, has happily been rechristened the ‘ Haryanvi Medal Factory’ by local residents.
“Lajawab uplabdhi hai ( It’s an unparalleled achievement),” says chief coach Anil Khokhar, 35, who has seen a distinct change in younger wrestlers at the centre. From simply striving to participate in international events, he says, “our boys have smelt blood. They all want to chase medals now. Sushil and Yogeshwar have shown them it can be done”.
Unlike the father, who will just not settle for second spot, the sleepy village of Baprola, on the fringes of Delhi’s northwestern border with Haryana, is euphoric about their new hero, Sushil Kumar, silver medallist in wrestling at the London Olympics in the 66 kg freestyle category and a bronze- winner in Beijing in 2008 in the same event. Says Mukhtiar Singh, a veteran of many a past dangal ( wrestling tournament), “This boy has made it all worthwhile. His victory makes me feel truly celebrated for the first time in all my 84 years.”
Every youngster in Baprola wants to follow Sushil into wrestling. Tenyear- old Ritik and his three friends walked 2 km from their homes to touch the feet of their champion, just back home from London, in keeping with the old akhara tradition. “Kushti ladoge kya ( Want to wrestle)?” asks Sushil. All four nod vigorously, swelling visibly with pride.
Eighty kilometres to the north along the monsoon- damaged road to Gohana in Haryana’s Sonepat district, the residents of Bhainswal Kalan stayed up the night to welcome their own champion. A thousand of them thronged Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport to carry the 29- year- old Yogeshwar Dutt home on their shoulders. A large settlement of nearly 20,000 residents, Bhainswal has a long tradition of sending its sons and daughters into teaching. But it’s taken the single- minded devotion and grit of a wrestler to bring home the accolades. Pleasantly tidy despite its large population of water buffaloes, every street in the village is paved with concrete and lined with street lamps that actually work.
“All this is thanks to Yogeshwar’s
successes,” says Rameshwar Vashishth, 63, a former teacher, recalling how the Bhupinder Singh Hooda government first took note of Bhainswal after the wrestler found a place in the Indian squad for the Beijing Olympics. “Every man, woman and child here owes this young man a debt of gratitude,” he says. So they all thronged his freshly repainted house in the centre of the village just before sunrise on August 14 when he drove in. “The first thing he did was to touch the feet of his biggest fan— our mother,” says his younger brother Mukesh Dutt, 26.
“It rained on the day Yogeshwar was born,” says 59- year- old Sushila Devi, fondly hugging her favourite child. “I knew then he was meant for great things. You know how they say sapooton ke paer palaane mein hi pehchaane jaate hain ( good sons indicate their path in the crib itself),” she says, quoting an old Haryanvi adage. And breaking a long and worrisome dry spell, there was rain yet again on the morning Yogeshwar returned from London, convincing all in Bhainswal that he is their luckiest charm.
But besides luck, India’s Olympic triumphs are rooted in an age- old rural wrestling tradition that extends all the way from the Najafgarh villages in Delhi to Sonepat, Rohtak, Hisar, Bhiwani in Haryana and further across to Baghpat, Shamli and Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh. It is like a thriving cottage industry. Every other village here has an akhara where older pehalwans ( wrestlers) teach youngsters the finer nuances of grappling, widely misconstrued as a rustic sport involving brute strength.
“It’s all in the soil and water that God gifted our people,” says Suresh Malik aka Bhaddal Pehalwan, who trains 100 young boys at the Balraj Akhara, a private wrestling school in Bhainswal Kalan set up over three decades ago by Satbir Singh, a cele-
THE ‘ HARYANVI MEDAL FACTORY’ IS THRIVING EVEN MORE WITH LAVISH MONETARY REWARDS FROM THE STATE GOVERNMENT.
brated local wrestler. Malik starts them young. His youngest pupils like Harsh, Shivam and Rohit, all between nine and 13 years, fight hard to stay ahead amid the mustard oil and turmeric- infused loam that serves as the mat in their akhara.
“Yogeshwar and I were about the same age and just 30 kg each when we first began training under Mahabali Satpal at Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium 15 years ago,” Sushil recalls. His guru’s older brother Chaudhary Dara Singh first spotted the champion, when he won the gold medal at the
National School Games in Delhi at the age of 12. “I imagine that ( the exhilaration of the school- time victory) is how it would have felt had I struck gold in London,” he says a trifle ruefully.
For 17- year- old Praveen Kumar, who just rejoined training at the SAI Centre in Bahalgarh after six months of rehab to treat injuries sustained when miscreants pushed him off a speeding train on his way to his village near Shamli in January, Sushil’s silver medal has been inspirational. “Beijing was the beginning but London has shown the world that you cannot mess with Indians,” says the youngster who is back to a punishing workout from 4.30 in the morning until lights out at 10.30 p. m. every day.
The results are evident. Fourteen of the 15- man squad of ‘ Bahalgarh Boys’ that participated in the November 2011 Inter- SAI Games at Hisar came back with medals. Six of them struck gold at the national sub- junior wrestling tournament in May 2012.
The ‘ Haryanvi Medal Factory’ is thriving even more with lavish monetary rewards from the state government. Chief Minister Hooda not only announced a cash award of Rs 1 crore for Dutt but went on to proclaim similar prizes for every medallist even remotely connected with his state: Sushil because he speaks Haryanvi and trained here; badminton star Saina Nehwal and shooter Gagan Narang because their families are originally from Haryana.
Back in Bhainswal and Baprola, both champions say they are not ready to hang up their boots. “I will go for gold in Rio 2016,” says Sushil, who is spending most of his 15- day break before the upcoming SAF Games Camp in September, watching YouTube re- runs of his failed final bout. “I have to spot where I faltered against the Japani ( Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu),” he says. Relatively relaxed, Yogeshwar too heads for the computer when he gets the chance.
As Diwan Singh reiterates, “There are no flukes in wrestling. It is all about keeping fit, training hard and perfecting tactics to be far superior to anything your opponent can possibly come up with.”
( LEFT) SUSHILAT HIS HOME IN BAPROLA; YOGESHWAR AT HIS HOME IN BHAINSWAL