Sunday, April 1, 2018

Wrestling and bodybuilding in India

When I was about 12, I would spend a few evenings a week at a hobby club building electrical and mechanical models.  On our way back home, we would wait at a public bus-stop for our ride back home, and across the stop would be a traditional akhara, or a training club for traditional Indian style wrestling.  Pehelwani, or Kushti, or Mallayuddha, as it was called, has been popular in India for hundreds of years and is a blend of the orginal version of the sport practiced since at least the 11th. centuries, that was subsequently influenced by Persian methods brought in by the Mughal kings around the 16th. century.  Waiting for the bus, I would see young men grappling under the supervision of an older teacher.  They wrestled in langotis (G-string like one piece briefs) on wrestling pits made of soft sand curated using sand, oil, water and buttermilk.  Commitment to an akhara was a serious one: there would be two sessions of practice, one in the morning that began at the crack of dawn, and a second session in the evening.  The wrestlers circled and sized one another in the pit slapping their chests and thighs with cupped hands. They grappled in a style similar to freestyle wrestling, their bodies caked in sand.

Bodybuilding and wrestling have been part of tradition in India and, while in middle school, I began going to an Indian style “gym”.  Gyms were grim pulpits of sweat in those days. To get there, I would navigate a warren of narrow lanes in a slum.  One of the rooms in this slum, about 15 feet by 15 feet was the gym, its floor made of hard packed mud.  A small window let in some light and the equipment consisted of free weights in rough cast iron, Indian clubs and, if I recall correctly, a set of parallel bars for free form exercises.  Babua, an older kid from our neighborhood was the reigning pehelwan (strongman and/or wrestler) and he would be here in the gym all of the time.  One of the professions of the locality’s pehelwan was to be a malishwala—a masseur to the richer businessmen who could afford it—and this is what Babua ended up doing for a living. The weights would be called “loha” (iron) and you treated the loha with respect.  If your feet touched the loha, you touched your forehead in remonstration and respect.  

A top flight wrestler, called a pehelwan, typically carries out several hundred baithaks (deep knee squats) and dands (a “cat-stretch” push up—combination of a stretch and a push-up) in training every day, aside from jogging a few kilometers. They engage a daily diet that includes a couple of liters of milk, a half a kilo of almonds (for the protein) and a half liter of ghee (clarified butter).  A wrestler does not have the sculpted muscles of a bodybuilder or a Bollywood star.  They train and eat for strength and look down upon the narcissism of the bodybuilder.

Strength training in an akhara incorporates many traditional Indian elements of free form and  weight based training, and they offer certain advantages. In the 1970s, if you were into exercise, you grew up practicing dands and baithaks (in Bengal we called them “don”).  The “dand” was incorporated by Bruce Lee in his exercise routine after he had studies the routines of the early 20th. century Indian wrestler “The Great Gama” (more on him in a bit).  Traditional Indian weights consist of the gada (a club or mace about 10-100 lbs that could be a decorative mace or a sturdy piece of bamboo stick that was end weighted with concrete, stone or iron), a pair of clubs--jori (each 25 to 80 lbs) that one worked in rhythm and synchronicity grasping one with each hand, and Nals, stones used as free weights which, by the 1970s, had largely been replaced by regular iron free weights.  Unlike the restricted motion routines of western style free weight exercises, routines with the gada or jori involved swinging them in specific trajectories and they offer the advantage of angular momentum and inertial direction changes, aiding the balancing muscles significantly.

There is a theory that wrestling became popular in Bengal in the 19th. century, in response to Bengalis being considered soft, weak, and effeminate by their British colonizers. Nineteenth century British accounts of India are rife with such descriptions—Bengalis were considered more suited to clerical jobs as opposed to the warrior like Sikhs and tribes of Northwest India who were described as tall, fearless, and honor-bound. Physical exercise along with Western education became popular among the educated upper middle class Bengali elite in the mid-nineteenth century.  Wrestling akharas sprouted.  Famous Bengalis of that time, Vivekananda, members of the Tagore family had all taken classes in wrestling.  Kheti Babu and Ambu Babu were famous wrestling teachers of the mid to late 19th. century.  Their nephew, one Jyotindra Charan Guha, a.k.a. Gobar (Cowdung) Guha, was to become one of the first Indian wrestlers to ply his trade in the West.

For those times, Gobar Guha was a large man—between 6 feet 1 and 6 feet 2 inches, and between 240 and 290 lbs.  He arrived in the US in the 1920s by way of stints in England, and stayed in the US for about 6 years performing as a wrestler.  Accounts of Gobar’s exploits in the US by Indian writers paint a highly successful career.  He is said to have defeated famous wrestlers of that time such as Ad Santel.  When he lost, such as to the greatest professional of that time, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, it was only under extenuating circumstances. He fought the boxer Jack Johnson in England.  Historical win-loss records, which I was able to look up on the internet, however paint a more modest picture. Gobar, by one account, won 5 fights and lost about 23. Here, for instance are a set of fight cards from Utah:
6-18-1926:  Ogden, Utah, Armory
                Al Dawson  def.  Joe Rond
                Pete Visser  def.  Goho Gobar

6-30-1926:  Ogden, Utah, Armory
                Ralph Morley  drew  Don Furniss
                Al Dawson  def.  Al Craven & Fat Dawson
                Pete Visser  def.  Goho Gobar

9-15-1926:  Ogden, Utah, Auditorium
                Goho Gobar  def.  George Nelson
                Jack Woods  def.  Charles Mason
                Ira Dern  def.  Bill Edwards
 “Goho Gobar” offered an exotic sight—a large man in a turban who as also erudite, and spoke his mind freely about colonialism.  An American newspaper wrote about him (as quoted in Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India by Rononjoy Sen, 2015): Gobor “seems to have the temperament of a bushy Newfoundland pup, the strength of an unusually mild mannered elephant, the manners of an Oriental nabob and the general line of intellect of George Bernard Shaw.

Gobar returned to India to fight, in 1926 at Park Circus, Kolkata, a man who is likely the greatest Indian wrestler of all times—the Great Gama—all of 5 ft. 7 inches, but with a 56 inch chest, 17 inch arms and 30 inch thighs. Gobar lost, after which he retired and ran a wrestling akhara in Kolkata. 

Gama, unlike Gobar, came from North India, from a poor family, and was part of a traditional line of wrestlers who would practice their craft under the patronage of kings and rich landlords.  Gama gave notice of his talent after he tied the reigning Indian Champion, Rahim Baksh Sultaniwala, a seven foot tall Kashmiri, around 1910. Gama’s promise then led him the the John Bull Championship in England where he dominated the world champion of that time, Stanislaus Zbyszko, but with the match ending in a tie.  In the second fight, Zbyszko did not show up and the match was handed over to Gama by default. Gama then went on to defeat a number of prominent American and European wrestlers after which he returned to India.  His training regimen consisted of wrestling forty wrestlers daily, five thousand Baithaks (squats) and three thousand Dands (pushups).  His daily consumption included 2 gallons of milk, and a  pound and a half of almond paste with fruit juices. After India gained indepence and the country was partitioned, Gama moved to Pakistan where he passed away in 1960. In 2015 he was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame, as the greatest Pehelwan of all times.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Bollywood near the Beltway

My most enjoyable conversations with drivers are usually in Washington D.C., which nurtures a mother lode of cosmopolitan drivers much more aware of the world than the average citizen. The first indication usually comes right off the bat when the driver asks you where you are from and when you say India, he asks where in India? Today’s Uber driver, on the drive to Bethesda, wrapped me under the vise grip of his knowledge about India and took me in a delightful direction—Bollywood films from the 1970s.

Wasting no time, he told me his parents owned a movie theater in Barra, The Gambia, and that he used to see movies 5 times a week while in high school. Many of them Indian. We were roughly the same age, went to high school about the same time, and the orbits of our movie interests were well in synch. Those were the old multistarrers of the 1970s. Most non-Indians who have some familiarity with Indian commercial films may note Raj Kapoor (if they are over 60), Mithun Chakraborty of Disco Dancer fame (if they are between 40-60), and Shahrukh Khan (if they are younger) in conversation. If they are more than familiar with the genre they might point to Lagaan or Three Idiots. This gentleman was off-the-charts. He kicks it off by telling me that he had seen all of Dara Singh’s movies. Now, Dara Singh was a pro-wrestler turned B-grade movie star who catered to a small town audience that reveled in preposterous scripts. Then he names “Charas”, a 1977 film, starring Dharmendra, as one of his all time favorites. Charas was a hit during its time, but by no means an alltime classic; and Dharmendra, a sex symbol in his time, has been largely forgotten. But the mention of this movie polymerized our bond instantly, for I had seen Charas in three installments, cutting afternoon high school classes for bites of time and heading to the Basusree movie theater in Kolkata. This was a time when I was somewhat obsessed by Hindi films. I remembered most of the songs and some of the scenes even today. My driver did not enjoy the newer Hindi films—they were too westernized, he felt. He preferred the earlier ones with their soppy themes and sentimental stories. I suggested that he take the time to watch Dangal and Kahanee, two of the best that I had seen the past few years. He jotted this down with one hand and with one eye on the road.

The hindi film market in Gambia exploded with the release of Julie in 1975 and its melodramatic love story. This made his knowledge time bracketed: he was unaware of films released prior to Julie—even major ones such as the cult film Bobby (1973) that actually led to the release of Julie, and the groundbreaking, hippie backdropped Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) that debuted the timeless Zeenat Aman (by the timeless Dev Anand). Our conversation continued. What was the name of the thin, funny guy who was constantly drunk, he asked. Forgetting my age and the need to comport myself, I responded with Keshto’s signature mix of inebriated giggle and laugh combo, and he recognized it instantly. They used to call Keshto “Gehe” in Gambia he said. He was wildly popular there. I could see why. Keshto cut across cultural and ethnic boundaries and appealed to the ethos of a certain age group. I told him Keshto was a teetotaller in real life. This was news to him.

My driver turned out to be a master of what are now long forgotten Hindi films. Of course we talked about Sholay (India’s second 70 mm film and a masterpiece) and we talked about Helen, Bollywood’s queen of the “item number”. But along with this he rattled off Chor Sipahi (story of two brothers separated at birth), Aa Galey Lag Ja, Dus Numbri (Manoj Kumar), Kala Patthar. He waxed wistfully about Hema Malini. It was meant to be, he said, that Hema should end up marrying Dharmendra though Dharam already had a wife. He asked me about Amjad, the brooding bandit in Sholay who delivered one of the greatest onscreen performances of a villain ever and whose lines today have become pure poetry. “Arre O Samba”, I responded, imitating one of his famous lines. He smiled in recognition and we were both transplanted back to the 1970s. He knew those dialogues (we always referred to the monologues as dialogues).

On the drive from Alexandria to Bethesda this morning I received a master class on 70s Hindi movies from a Gambian Uber driver with a photographic memory.

Thursday, July 23, 2015



When I first saw Lily Aunty, she had just arrived from Yugoslavia and was sitting in the bare professor’s flat assigned to her in Pune, eating fried chicken and smelling of stale smoke and perfume like European women did in those days.  There was a book of matches on her makeshift dining table, which looked unusual to me, since I was used to matches that came out of a regular little box. The chicken--just legs heaped on a plate--fascinated me. I wondered how one could have cooked up such exotic looking stuff with ingredients we had access to as well and why there wasn't any rice or curry to go along with it.  I was maybe 10 years of age and my mother and I had come to say hello to this new neighbour of ours, who was going to spend a year as a visiting scholar at my father’s institute.

Lily Aunty took to India very well and soon became a close family friend.  She went native, she wore a sari at times, she called my mother Didi and on occasion unwittingly came to our rescue.  When my mother and I tried to get into the Film Institute of India campus to meet some Assamese students, we were halted at the gate by the sentry.  As we argued, Lily auntie whizzed by on the pillion of a friend’s scooter, her blond hair blown by the wind.  She waved to us.  The sentry, impressed by the fact that we knew a white woman, conferred immediate legitimacy upon us and let us go.  One must remember that these were the late 1960s, less than 25 years after independence.

Lily Auntie talked to us a lot about her life.  Told us about her father, who had been a partisan, fighting the Germans in the second world war.  He had been shot to death in a concentration camp and the only memento that she had of him were his blood soaked socks that were left over after they killed him.

She was young, in her late twenties or early thirties, and soon fell in love with a young Indian man with a slim figure and a nice moustache.  He was a reasonable guy who hung around with Lily Aunty.  We did not come to know him too well and my mother, who had become like an older sister to her, viewed him with suspicion.  After a year, Lily Auntie’s term was up and the couple wished to get married and return to Yugoslavia.  This posed a problem.  These were still the hey-days of the communist era and marriage to a foreigner required the Yugoslavian government’s permission, which Lily auntie was denied.  Heartbroken, she returned to Belgrade alone.  I was a kid then—I did not appreciate the pain that such separation can cause.  About a year or so after that my mother met Anil, the young boyfriend, in a public bus.  He had married someone else by then.

Over forty years went by and I was now settled in New York.  Lily Auntie had been the first European lady that I had come to know well, she loved me like a nephew, and I had never forgotten her.  One day, after an afternoon’s conversation where I brought up her story, a good friend from her part of the world dug up Lily Auntie’s phone number in Belgrade from the internet.  I called her up after that.  It was an emotional conversation.  She reminded me of the clay necklace that I had made for her over 40 years back and which she still had in her possession.  She had married a Sikh, had a family, and was settled. She enquired about my parents. Her historical research specialized in India and she was active in all things Indian in Belgrade.  She was a mother, a wife, a family lady, a professor.

Then, towards the end of our conversation, when conclusionary statements begin making appearances in the dialogue, she segued suddenly—and-- with hope and anticipation in her voice asked whether I had any news of Anil. Her disappointment at my answer was obvious in the ensuing pause.  “He was my first love”, she explained.  “And I have always wondered what happened to him”. Even though decades had passed and she was now the mother of adult children, I did not have the heart to tell her about my mother’s 1970 meeting with Anil in the public bus.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A most wonderful marriage

Decades ago, a hastily written American paperback memoir provided good company on a train from Kokrajhar in Assam to Howrah. I had picked it up in a dusty bookshop near the train station and the author was a mid-tier Providence hoodlum by the name of Vincent Teresa.  In my “Life in the Mafia”, Vinnie espoused the theory that—in a case of life imitating art—all the wiseguys in the mob began speaking like Brando did in his role as Don Corleone, after seeing the movie The Godfather.  Decades later one can make a similar argument about Indian marriages.  They have changed in style, across the country, to conform to their representation in Bollywood movies.  At some point, as the evening wears on, these ceremonies end up with groups of men and women dancing indiscriminately to non-descript Hindi film music wearing the sort of uni-culturally Indian formal clothing that takes its gaudy colors straight from celluloid.   Yet, striking differences remain in the philosophy with which different cultures approach a marriage, and I saw no better example of this than in a recent marriage between a Bengali and a Punjabi family that I attended.

In the early evening of the reception, hosted by the Bengalis, the entire Bengali contingent waited (I being part of it) in the portico of a stately hotel for the Punjabi groom’s party to arrive.  It was a handsome Federal style building that looked onto a circular brick driveway with manicured grounds beyond. And arrive they did. A large BMW swooshed by.  Two large buses drew up.  A horse materialized in the distance.  Guests poured out of the buses and the groom alighted and mounted the waiting horse.  Under skies that had darkened to a thunderous gray, the empty courtyard now filled with men in ceremonial turbans, women in bedecked splendour, and a groom who stood ready for action poised upon a horse.  As the party began its fifty-meter walk to the hotel, on cue, the air cracked with the rhythm of a Punjabi beat belted out by a tall drummer in a virile lungi. A troupe of Americans in headdress struck up baraat music with their wind instruments.  A couple of young dancing women in green led the convoy like whirling dervishes and the men and women followed, shoulders snapping to the rhythm, a bubbly, joyous, precious stone laden mass ebbing and flowing like a viscous melt as they made their progress to the lobby. Photographers swarmed and in a sign of the times a drone took to the air angling for camera position.  In the meantime, the gathered Bengalis--themselves representative of a culture whose celebration of even the most joyful of events will strike melancholia into the heart of any normal human being--waited by the entrance, three deep in rows, largely silent, taking in the ebullience of the Punjabis with wide-eyed bewilderment.  And what instruments of sadness they offer for such a celebration!  Slow, delicate, lilting songs that will have you close your eyes in concentration, the heart wrenching note of the conch, the eyes of a bride who you know will cry as she leaves the house.  All this for a marriage.  Imagine their activities during a funeral. And so as the joyous, swaying Punjabi morass met the gathered Bengalis, the two fronts of these poles-apart cultures merged at the seam between the portico and the brick driveway like two muddy rivers, each carrying the fine sand of their differently colored lands. They had two things in common today—no shortage of jewelry and no shortage of warmth.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Delhi + Super Bowl + Lipstick + Kajal

Around 5 am I wake up at a hotel in the Aerocity region near the Delhi International Airport. I am back in this city after exactly a month. Outside, the dust and fog creates a dim early morning haze and the road leading into the hotels complex, with its obstacle course barriers laid out to deter would-be saboteurs, lies empty. There are a few cars in the main thoroughfare beyond and the lights of Radisson Plaza glimmer in the distance.

I am headed out for a quick one night trip to Guwahati. As I get ready to get to the airport, the Super Bowl has begun in the US. I cannot find it shown live on TV here, but I track its progress on the web. By the time I have washed up and am having my morning coffee, the Patriots are up 7-0. Around 6 a.m. I check out of the Holiday Inn and take the short ride to Domestic Terminal 1. I am rooting for the Seahawks and against the Patriots, if only because the Seahawks are coached by Pete Carroll who had brought USC back to its glory days in College Football in his previous job. I had attended USC.

Delhi domestic terminal 1 is a mess on Monday mornings, as business travelers get busy after the weekend. When the traffic is sparse, Delhi airport with its megaplex underpinnings, is a paragon of sleek efficiency. When the passenger count approaches a critical number, like it did this Monday morning, the place takes a different face and appears to be on the brink of collapse. I try to check in at the crowded automated kiosk machines, but I am flagged as being under a “watch list” because I had used a credit card. So I have to then go to the line for people who are checked in but need to do a baggage drop, and they fix it up for me quickly there. Nobody tells me this: I have to ask around, and things do get sorted out in the end. But this type of setup, where in the midst of an apparently smooth and efficient process, an additional and unnecessary twist ends up threatening your stumps is fairly common. The night before, I had disembarked from the United non-stop from Newark, and the staff did not have the customary immigration cards to give out to passengers, because the government did not get it to them on time and would not allow United to print them out either. So while the immigration lines were moving briskly once you were able to join the line, there was a helter-skelter mess prior to it as people ran around looking for forms that were in short supply.

With my luggage checked in and boarding card in hand, I check the web and the Seahawks are now tied at 17-17. While America watches the Super Bowl, I stand in a long, serpentine security line that folds back and forth about seven times, with the sinking feeling that I will miss my flight. I monitor the time on an overhead screen. It is 6:42 am and my flight is at 7:45 am. It takes me about 8 minutes to cover one fold of the serpentine line. I am worried. But things pick up shortly and the line speeds up. Moreover there is an accelerated bypass mechanism. When a flight’ sdeparture time is perilously close, a young representative in a smart thigh length jacket comes by in a loud voice: “Hyderabad Indigo xxx”. People way back in the line who are headed to Hyderabad raise their hands and press forward. They are allowed to go through.

I go through security by 7:10 a.m. and check the scores. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks are beating the Patriots 24-14. There is an undercurrent to this game. Carroll was coach of the Patriots at one time. But he was booted out after a miserable win record that was attributed in part to his persona being too “bubbly”. He then brought over his effusive nature to the college game as USC’s coach and—over the course of the next several seasons—turned USC’s, and his fortunes around, ending up as one of the greatest college coaches of all time. When USC teetered at the brink of a scandal regarding rules violations, Carroll jumped ship and went back to the pros, this time as the Seahawk’s coach.

We are bussed to the aircraft, and standing opposite me on the bus is a dapper European businessman--Italian perhaps--travelling to Guwahati with an Indian associate. The man is smartly dressed in a grey suit, a navy blue shirt, a deep blue tie with white dots, and a wristwatch with a black leather strap with white stitching along its borders. His suit has a check pattern and one of the interwoven threads defining the checks is blue, stylishly picking up a color from his shirt. A blue and grey folded silk kerchief projects from his coat pocket. His hair is gelled and he has an old world mustache straight out a Cary Grant film. If a man can be described as being “put together”, then here certainly was the defining example. Seeing him and the other passengers I realize there is a different kind of traveler to Guwahati today. Ten years ago this same flight from Delhi to Guwahati to Imphal would have had people carrying coconuts (or something similar) in industrial bags made of thick inter-woven nylon strands. There was a hardy type of traveler to the North-East who were the last bastions to the connection to the past at urban airports and they too, were now changing.

On the flight the Italian businessman is sitting in the seat behind me. As I return from a trip to the washroom, I catch a glimpse of his laptop screen upon which he is working at a powerpoint presentation, presumably for potential clients in Guwahati. Against a blue background the chart reads:
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for you.
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for customer 1
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for customer 2
Savings Rs. 1.75
Such are the ways of European fashion in Guwahati.