Photographs by Tarun Sehrawat
This is something you should know. On September 23, 2009, Indian sport – the mirror we don’t like to look at – produced a hero. At the 2009 Wrestling World Championships in Denmark, Ramesh Kumar from Haryana broke India’s 42-year-old banishment from the podium to win a bronze. With thirty seconds to go in the final round of the bout, Ramesh was trailing his Moldovian opponent by four points. In a sport where it’s often difficult to score a single point in a whole bout, Ramesh scored five – in the last 30 seconds. If you were heartened by Sushil Kumar’s Olypic bronze in Beijing, here’s something else you should know – Ramesh’s achievement in the 74-kg freestyle category at the wrestling world championships in 2009, is every gram equal to Sushil’s.
What makes a champion ? According to the Samakhya school of philosophy that informs Pehlwani (Indian traditional wrestling), everything in the universe – people, activities, food – can be categorised into three gunas or qualities – Sattva (the calm and the good), Rajas (the passionate and the dynamic) and Tamas ( the dull and the lethargic). Ramesh Kumar’s story – a life dedicated to a sport in India – is the story of the three gunas come together in a single narrative.
Ramesh, 28, was born in Purkhas in Sonipat district of Haryana. Only son of a mill manager, Ramesh’s future trajectory was determined by his temparament and the circumstances of his birth. Sonipat and equally Haryana, Punjab, UP and Maharashtra are the cradles of Indian wrestling. This is the land of the Pehlwan, where wrestling enjoys an elevated status that goes beyond mere recreation and sport – its fused in with self-image, honour, myth and credo. The literal breeding ground is the akhada – village gymnasia, built on public land and donations, its an ad hoc institution both in terms of membership and management. Men ranging in age from 16-60 take tutelage in the art of wrestling from the resident guruji who’s word is law. Says Ramesh, “In Haryana, every village has an akhada. The pehlwan is considered part of Hanuman’s army and is respected. A village will put its collective might behind developing a promising young wrestler because they want to share in his success and they want to feel a part of his achievements when he wins competitions and bouts.” The major expense for a wrestler is his food and diet and so the village contributes to its commonwealth in kind – someone sends ghee, another badam and still another fresh milk – the three pillars of the traditional indian wrestler’s diet.
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As a kid, Ramesh keenly observed the respect his maternal grandfather and star wrestler got wherever he went in Haryana. When Ramesh got into trouble repeatedly in school, his gradfather sent him away in 1994 to Delhi – to Capt Chand Roop’s Akhada – to discipline his restless spirit.
Visiting the Delhi akhada today one is struck by its squalor and the little grimy claustrophobic living quarters the wrestlers share for years while training. The legendary 83 year old Captain Chand Roop, the maker of champion wrestlers, has kept this akhada going for 30 years out of his army pension and family earnings. Not one of the 150 boys who train there now or the multitude others who have trained there in the past, including four Arjuna awardees and the several Olympians, have ever been charged a single rupee.
Sub-junior, FILA Wrestling World Championship
Junior, FILA Wrestling World Championship
Commonwealth Games, Manchester
Senior, FILA Wrestling World Championship
It was here, in this small ramshackle training ground behind the Azadpur vegetable market, that Ramesh’s skills were honed, his energy directed and his mind introduced to Satva – the calmness and discipline of thought which in conjunction with passionate striving is the key to becoming a champion.
The most important resource available to the sportsman has remained the same since the ancients. Its his heart and his brain. The one to pump the blood of his dreams and the other to do the cold calculation of combat. Rajas and Sattva in balance.
Ramesh seems a quiet and intense sort. He doesn’t offer opinions freely and speaks only when spoken to. The reserve doesn’t seem cynical or indifferent but humble. His explanations are earnest and have the matter-of-factness of a schoolboy. He presents a conventionaly handsome profile, and you can tell he attends to his hair and clothes. The overall effect is that of a man plugged into some silent inward reservoir of feeling.
Anil Joon, gym owner and Ramesh’s friend of 13 years observes how he,” has time only for wrestling. He eats and drinks and sleeps it. Even in the akhada days. He didn’t talk much or spend time with the boys because that was time away from wrestling. He made up his own mind about things .Wrestling was the only thing he wanted in life and he has known nothing of the world outside that ambition and hunger.”
Ramesh was using video recordings of his matches as far as 12 years back using a handycam that Anil had bought him – at a time when a mat to wrestle on was the extent of modern practice in Indian wrestling. Anil once woke up at two in the morning to find Ramesh watching a recording of a recent match he had lost, “He had been watching that match for three hours and he couldn’t figure out what he had done wrong and this worried him. He was obsessed with never repeating a mistake. He never stops thinking about the game.” Others also point to Ramesh’s intelligence in the arena, which means having the creative intelligence to seize openings. Ramesh’s one-time coach Rohtas Dahia – who also trained under Chand Roop and came fourth at the 1980 Moscow Olympics – says, “Ramesh’s main weapon is his tremendous speed with his technical mastery and intelligence. He can find a way out of any hold.”
India’s wrestlers attending the Sonipat national camp for the Commonwealth Games travel to Delhi every week to practice in better facilities. In the Delhi training session where everyone is confident of a good showing in the games, Ramesh’s bouts seem distinctive than the others. His bouts are faster, more intense – seemingly intractable arm locks punctuated with tremendous bursts of speed and agility at times overwhelming his younger opponents.
The Indian wrestler straddles two worlds throughout his career. The two worlds are defined by the surface on which wrestling is done. All international competitions are held on mats while the traditional wrestling of the akhada’s happens on mud. The two surfaces represent two different worlds of skills and opportunities – mat has much less traction and grip, hence requiring tremendous stamina to survive just three rounds of two minute duration each, while bouts on mud can be hour-long affairs that often end in draws. The two worlds are different in yet another regard. Mats are a route to an international medal and a government job and hence a retirement plan. But while your career lasts and before an international medal can yield a modest paying government job, the expenses of training and life, cannot be borne except by the earnings from traditional mud-bouts held all year round in India’s wrestling belt. “These are huge events,” says Rohtas. “The local panchayat or patron organises a well advertised bout between famous wrestlers and thousands of people from villages all over sit in a circle around the mud ring and cheer their wrestlers on. A wrestler can earn upto 3 lakh rupees from these bouts.”
Ramesh is a veteran of 500 such mud wrestling matches. He has defeated wrestlers twice his size and weight, wrestlers lighter, faster and more agile than him, veterans and upstarts. How did he win five points in 30 seconds ? An inherent creativity informed by a street intelligence and a hungry heart fashioned in the mud arenas of Haryana, Punjab and Kolhapur.
But the story of an Indian sportsman is never just Rajas and Sattva alone. Its Rajas and Sattva despite Tamas. Sooner or later the neglect, the indifference and the callousness of the sporting establishment rankles. After achieving the highest accolade of his career in the 2009 world championship bronze medal, Ramesh found himself contemplating leaving the sport altogether. Ramesh says MS Gill met him only to congratulate him and to tell him to get a Gold next time. A life time of effort got him Rs 12 lakhs from the railways and a promotion from Haryana Police, where Ramesh is on the rolls. ”The Haryana government which handed out 20 lakh cash awards to olympic participants, couldn’t find anything in its coffers for me,” says Ramesh.
Wrestling, compared to other sports like tennis or swimming does not actually need too much investment to make good. Good food and a wrestling hall with air conditioning so that the wrestlers can practice without getting a heat stroke is more or less the investment required. The wrestling centre in Sonipat where Ramesh and other wrestlers are training for the commonwealth games and which MS Gill declared last year will be made world class is still awaiting an air conditioned training hall with less than two months to go before the games. The same though is functioning and ready for the wrestlers who will be visiting delhi for the games and will need a venue to practice in. Hence the weekly trip to Delhi to have the opportunity to train with air conditioning and on bigger mats.
Ramesh Kumar says that he has applied for a Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award but has very little hope of getting it despite having done enough to deserve it. He hasn’t pulled the necessary strings he says. Asked why not he says, “What should I do ? Go and sit at a minister’s house ? If i do that my game, my skill is lost. And frankly i don’t have the time.”
Elsewhere, in Azadpur, Capt Chand Roop wonders what more he has to do to get some recognition from the government,” I have produced four arjuna awardees. This time Ramesh has submitted an affidavit in support of my claim to a Dronacharya award, let’s see.”
As the training for the day comes to an end, Ramesh just about lifts himself from the mat. He’s spent everything he had in training today.
Having missed out on the 2008 olympics because of a back injury, Ramesh Kumar has his sights set on the 2012 London Olympics before he calls it a day.
No. Retirement is not a thought. He knows that a lifetime can be lived in the 30 seconds that it takes to breach the impossible – thats what he lives for. That is all he has known. The world be dammed.
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