They search for GOLD IN MUD

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - Times City - Aban­tika Ghosh

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.

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