When Virender Singh touched down on Indian soil on his return from Bulgaria last month, he felt certain that the Indian government finally knew his name. When news crews, fans and athletes gathered around him, lifted him up and kissed his medal — the moment illuminated by the garish light of flashing cameras — Singh felt even surer. There was no way the Sports Authority of India could miss all this noise.
It wasn’t the first time Singh was bringing home a medal. At 28, he has the enviable distinction of being the only Indian wrestler to win two gold medals at the Deaflympics — in 2005 at Melbourne, and in Sofia in August. He has also won a silver medal at the World Deaf Wrestling Championship in 2008 in Yerevan, Armenia, and a bronze at the 2009 Deaflympics in Taipei. Yet, in all his years of wrestling, Singh has never received any cash reward for his victories, from either state or central governments. Sushil Kumar, his favourite training partner from the akhara back in Baprola, near the Delhi-Haryana border, has received Rs 2 crore from the Delhi government, Rs 75 lakh from the Indian Railways, Rs 10 lakh from Oil and Natural Gas Corporation along with land and another Rs 1.5 crore from the Haryana Government for his silver at the London Olympics last year.
The Deaflympics, which operate under the International Olympic Committee (IOC), differ from the Olympics, Paralympics and Special Olympics only in that participating athletes cannot be guided in respective events through sound. Instead of bullhorns, whistles and claps, referees in the Deaflympics use light and hand signals to communicate with athletes. Although the IOC has decreed that hearing impaired wrestlers can participate in able-bodied matches provided they come with a specially-trained referee, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) has typically continued to pay little heed. “The IOA knows he is the best athlete we have,” says 19-year-old Mahinder, who learnt wrestling and sign language watching his cousin in the akhara. “It is their misfortune that they cannot look past his disability. Bhaiyya is never sad about it,” he interprets now for Singh, who sits smiling shyly behind his cousin.
In the ‘mitti’ of the Chhatrasal Stadium, there is no sign of the reticence from moments ago. Singh’s muscular body speaks a language of its own. He has the balletic grace of a predator on the hunt. In a way, he was born for this. His father Amit Singh was a wrestler too and Singh spent his childhood watching bouts all day long. It is difficult to imagine this man anywhere else, especially as a clerk in the corridors of the Haryana Power Generation Corporation where he works when he is not grinding an opponent into the dirt.
It was during one of the 20-25 ‘dangals’ (local matches) Singh wrestles in — and usually wins — every year that documentary filmmakers Mit Jani, Vivek Chaudhary and Prateek Gupta first realised there was more to him than just his disability. “What makes him special is that he couldn’t care less about being ‘differently abled’ in any way. He is able to do more than most already,” Jani says. The trio’s documentary on Singh, Goonga Pehelwan, is currently in post-production, soon to be sent around the festival circuit for review. Meanwhile, they have lodged a PIL against the Indian government for failing to reward hearing impaired athletes, and against the IOA for not letting Singh participate in able-bodied wrestling matches as per international regulations.
In some ways, the ‘goonga pehelwan’ can still count himself lucky. Through his training and travel across international sporting events, he is fluent in both international and Indian sign language, while most hearing-impaired people in the country struggle to communicate. According to a who report from 2007, India has the largest share of the world’s 300 million hearing-impaired individuals, most of whom were diagnosed between ages three and four. By this time, as a National Association of the Deaf’s study from India shows, a ‘critical period’ of the child’s ability to sign has already passed. Most hearing-impaired children find themselves in ordinary classrooms with teachers and peers who don’t use sign language, where they are unable to assimilate. Trapped in a system of knowledge that emphasises oral communication above all else, these children are even more likely than Singh to disappear into white noise.