They search for GOLD IN MUD
TI he line says it all.‘‘ Hamari nazar gold medal pe tiki hai’’ scribbled high on the wall as one enters Guru Hanuman Akhara, followed by a drawing of what looks like a pebble on a piece of thread. So rudimentary that the pebble needs an identification — gold medal, the scrawl says — sums up the life of the 70-odd young men who sleep in a 60 feet by 60 feet hall, cook their own meals, and have minimal connection with the outside world. The akhara culture of Delhi, which registered its first Olympic kill with Sushil Kumar’s bronze medal at Beijing on Wednesday is almost like a trip in a time machine. Little has changed since the early 20s when they were set up and the simple living great goals motto is almost a revelation.
On Thursday though the mood at the akhara was sombre. It was because the US wrestler who defeated the akhara’s ‘‘product’’ Rajiv Tomer in Beijing in the morning, faced defeat in the hands of a Russian. It’s not quite a case of charity for one’s vanquisher. The entire akhara had been praying for the American’s win which would give Rajiv an extra shot at the medal courtesy the ‘‘repechage’’ method that gave Sushil his moment of glory.
Says Ankit who is all of two months old in the akhara but has taken to it like fish to water: ‘‘We had all hoped it would happen with bhaiyya too. But there’s always a next time. It feels great here. When my father asked me if I wanted to be a pe- helwan I agreed without thinking.’’
Most of the boys here come from farmer families that had had wrestlers and are now keen that their children should get the training they did not get even if it means footing a Rs 4,000-5,000 bill per month — the older ones though manage to earn their expenses at dangals where apart from the prize money, spectators shower currency notes on the win-
ners. ‘‘There’s a lot of respect associated in rural areas with wrestling. It is a feeling difficult to explain,’’ says SAI coach Mahasingh Rao. There is also the hope of a coveted government job like Anuj Chaudhry, an inspector in Delhi Police and a product of the akhara who represented India in the 2004 Olympics Commonwealth Wrestling Championships. Chaudhry missed out on Beijing as he had gone for his year-long police training but is now on a two-year leave from his job to prepare for Commonwealth Games 2010.
The life is not easy, there are no protein shakes and 16-egg omelettes for breakfast. They have never heard of pasta. A rigorous six-hour exercise routine and the daily chores of the akhara including sweeping the floor and cleaning of utensils are all part of a larger game plan to instil humility in the budding sportsman. Humble they are — but what nobody is willing to admit on record is the fact that the akhara culture thrives on tacit support from local politicians for whom the boys are invaluable assets during election time. The ones who do not make it big through sports often do so through the political contacts they develop and that’s one reason families are keen to get their kids into pehelwani.
The akhara is a throwback to the gurukul system where the guru’s words are gospel and the boys are protected as much as possible from outside influence.
They survive mainly on their own with paltry grants, the government also pays for the coach and a mat every few years. Says wrestler Chandgi Ram: ‘‘I hope the medal makes the government realise what I have been telling them for years. Do away with the mud wrestling and make it all mats so that our boys fare better.’’ He proposes a simple bargain. ‘‘ Khana do, badam do, gadda do. Thaila bharke medal le jao.’’
Regarded as one of the pioneers of women’s wrestling in the country, Chandgi Ram’s Akhara has 10-odd young girls staying in a dingy room but the rules are the same for them. Sudesh who has been here for two-three years has seen only one movie.
‘‘ Halla Bol’’, she shyly says as she shows her living quarters with an apologetic ‘‘ Bahut ganda hai.’’ They don’t mind though. ‘‘We work hard all day, that’s why we have come here,’’ Poonam says simply.