In Part 2 of his piece on kushti wrestlingI contributing editor Antonio draceffoI mhKaKI discusses the hectic life he lived while in fndia to sample this ancient grappling artK
After spending a few days in India, where I’d come to learn traditional kushti wrestling, I began to suspect that the people of this country tend to lack my sense of urgency.
Everything seemed to take more time than it did elsewhere, which taught me that the trick to coping was to make as few plans as possible and just accept that things will happen when they happen.
Example: Traffic in Delhi was like nothing I’d ever seen, and that greatly reduced the number of activities I could expect to complete in a single day. The roads were clogged with cars, bikes, pedestrians and cows. Holy and revered, cows are allowed to roam everywhere, and it would be unthinkable to interfere with them.
While driving, I found that it’s normal to have repeated fender benders during the course of a single day. Driving to the park for morning training, only a few kilometers from the place I was staying, took nearly an hour. The kushti lesson lasted two hours. By the time I got back to my base, it was after 11 o’clock and I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. Food in India is always prepared fresh, and it tends to take an inordinate amount of time to cook. To even make a cup of tea, you have to start by boiling milk, which takes 20 minutes. So at an hour when I would have been eating my second meal of the day anywhere else, here in India I had my morning training done and was sipping hot milk tea while waiting hungrily for lunch.
WHEN I ASKED Deepak Ansuia Prasad Bhardwaj Hi about food in India, he explained that while vegetarianism is part of the traditional culture of Hindus and Sikhs, some modern wrestlers eat meat because they need the protein. But even the ones who do consume meat eat it much less frequently than their Western counterparts, the prime reason being that it’s relatively expensive here. Every two days, I gave Deepak $8 to buy chicken or $16 to buy mutton. The meat was slow-cooked with curry and shared among Deepak, his son Anuj and myself. The rest of the family was vegetarian; only the wrestlers ate meat.
The food was incredible and well worth the wait, but from a training perspective, it was less than ideal. I’m used to training and eating on a tight schedule: breakfast, a morning workout, a shower, lunch, a nap,
another meal, afternoon training, another shower, more food and finally sleep. But in India, by the time we’d finished lunch, there was generally only an hour of downtime before afternoon training. Meanwhile, lunch was the only meal I’d eaten that day. The wrestlers I worked out with would generally drink milk and eat nuts after waking up so they weren’t training on an empty stomach. Anuj discovered my passion for Indian peanut brittle, and he started bringing me tea and peanut brittle in the morning and afternoon, which helped mitigate my hunger pangs.
ENOUGH FOOD TALK! Afternoon training normally finished by 4:30 or 5 o’clock, which, in winter, meant that the sun was already going down and that I had to clear out of the
akhara ( kushti school) as quickly as possible to avoid mosquitos. I quickly learned the importance of looking after one’s health in India and especially avoiding bloodthirsty mosquitoes that can carry malaria or dengue fever.
The drive home from the akhara, because it was in the middle of rush hour, often took me two hours. Then I had to boil water for a shower while food was slow-cooked for dinner. By 9 p.m., I would be just finishing dinner and thinking about the next day, when it would start all over again.
As I mentioned, I found such a hectic schedule unsettling. The Indian wrestlers with whom I trained, as good as they were, would surely benefit from a more structured diet and exercise regimen, I figured. But I didn’t see how that could happen, given the cultural and financial constraints under which they lived.
PART OF THE BUILDUP to my journey to India was reading about the seemingly superhuman strength training that its wrestlers did. I was particularly inspired by tales of The Great Gama, also called the Lion of the Punjab. He was an Indian wrestler who was active from the late 19th century to the early 20th century and who remained undefeated after some 5,000 matches. Even Bruce Lee wrote about Gama and adopted some of his strength-training methods such as Hindu squats, Hindu push-ups, and the swinging of clubs and mace balls.
Gama is reported to have downed several pounds of nuts per day, as well as a quart of ghee and copious amounts of milk. I found that his diet of extremes and his workout routines are still employed in India. I observed plenty of club and maceball swinging, as well as Hinduinspired calisthenics. Interestingly, rope climbing has been added to the regimens of many wrestlers.
IN MY AKHARA, sparring comprises about 70 percent of the training time. Kushti competition matches are extremely long — from 15 to 45 minutes with no breaks. Consequently, stamina is a vital attribute of a good wrestler. The first grappler I tangled with was a man named Jeetu. He’s known as one of the best wrestlers in the country. Before beginning, we followed the custom and honored the venue by touching the mud. It was the Indian equivalent of bowing before stepping into the ring. Next, we smeared mud on ourselves and each other to ensure a firm grip. Then we picked up some extra mud to hold in our hands during the handshake.
When the signal was given, we did as expected and locked up in a classic collar-and-elbow stance, partly to test each other’s strength. Then things quickly got rough, much rougher than mat wrestling — which is one facet of kushti that I love. It often entails grabbing the back of the opponent’s head and slamming him down for no other reason than to see his reaction. A wrestler might even slap the other person’s head with a cupped hand to annoy him and hopefully take him out of his game.
Now, Jeetu was a mountain of a man who looked like the statue of David and positively towered over me. The moment we locked up, I could feel his strength. I knew there was no way I could manhandle him. So we pushed back and forth for a few seconds, after which he secured his grip and slammed me to the ground facedown. Luckily, mud is softer than a wrestling mat, so the only thing injured was my pride.
Jeetu immediately dropped, pegging me to the earth with his knee. Then the behemoth began rolling me onto my back for a pin. And he succeeded. The contest lasted less than 30 seconds. The second and third matches went equally well for him and equally badly for me. (To be continued.) Antonio Graceffo’s book Warrior Odyssey is available at centurymar tialarts.com/collections/black-beltmagazine.