I was in an elevator in Moscow when I realised that Indians, collectively, can’t really lay claim to a lot of athletic pride. I was struck then by this sudden epiphany when, as the doors opened, in walked two pairs of legs, reminding me of a ‘dippy’ song about mile long legs. I craned my neck toward the display screen and saw two smiling faces looking down at me. I managed a weak privet!. In the light-years that it took for their voices to reach me, they managed to explain that they were part of a Dutch school group on holiday. Hoping to sound a mite charming, I asked them if every ninth grader in Holland happened to be as tall? Just at that moment, the doors opened on to the lobby and in walked a forest of knees and shins. A walk through the Californian redwoods wouldn’t have made me feel any smaller than I did that day, as I made my way past waist lines and hem lines and a gaggle of consonants. At just about an inch (ok, maybe a little more...) shy off six feet, I would’ve assumed that I wouldn’t feel short anywhere, least of all, next to a bunch of school girls. But there I was, in a hotel in Europe, feeling like a Lilliputian in Brobdingnag. If I was a little East-African, I could’ve told myself that they might be tall but they sure can’t run like us. if I was a little oriental, I could’ve told myself that they could be 7 feet tall in the cradle, but they sure can’t break boards or punch and kick like us. But what does an Indian do? The only thing we seem to have been consistently good at is poking around a leather-bound sphere with a willow-blade, and that isn’t a very reassuring thought in a world where, for the majority, cricket happens to be an irritating little insect that often gets crushed underfoot. But despair not, fellow Indians, for a short chat with a senior citizen from any part India will reveal that there was a time, not all too long ago, when politicians were revered within, and Indian muscle was revered without.
In 1888, in Amritsar, Punjab was born a boy who went on to become a legend. The little boy, Ghulam Mohammed, showed early promise when at the age of 10, he competed successfully against many champion wrestlers in a ‘strongman’ competition in Jodhpur. Within a decade from then, he had become a champion wrestler who would take on all comers and defeat them with ease. His only real opponent was Raheem Buksh Sultani Wala, a 6’9” tall giant who he finally defeated after their first match had ended in a draw. Having attained the title of ‘Rustam-e-Hind’, Champion of India, Ghulam Mohammed, who now went by the name of Gama pahelwan, went looking for challenges beyond our shores and defeated the greatest and the strongest from all over the world including Polish-American World Champion Stanislaus Zbysko.
So fearsome was his reputation that some of the greatest wrestlers and fighters of all time, World Champion Frank Gotch, the ‘Russian Lion’ – George Hackenschmidt and Japanese Judo Champion – Taro Miyake refused to fight him even when Gama challenged them and offered a substantial sum as prize money if they could beat him. And he did it all while standing no taller than, Allah be praised, a well muscled, 5’7”. Gama, the darling of undivided India retired undefeated and moved to Lahore, Pakistan. And there he died in 1963, a forgotten man. His mantle was picked up by his nephews and a strapping young man from Punjab called Dara Singh, who became a star in the wrestling ring who too would’ve been forgotten if not for his stint in films and his portrayal of ‘Hanuman’ in Ramanand Sagar’s television epic – Ramayan.
In the 50s and 60s, Indian wrestlers were ruling the roost in Asian and Commonwealth games. Khashaba D. Jadhav won a bantamweight bronze in 1952 Helsinki Olympics. But predictably enough, Jadhav too died a poor, broken man. Wrestling at the time was perhaps the most popular sport in the country. Dangals (wrestling tournaments), the backbone of the sport have been popular for centuries and yet the sport languishes. I really believe that each sport should build its own roads into the future and the onus lies on the athletes and administrators to ensure a future for themselves and their sport instead of blaming cricket for hogging the limelight. In a baseball and K-1 mad country like Japan, Sumo wrestling still survives not only as a traditional relic on life-support but a celebrated athletic and cultural phenomenon which attracts international participation. It might require creative effort to follow suit but it’ll be worth it, for the next time you walk amongst those steeples on two legs in a quaint European town, the spirit of the Great Gama will walk ahead of you…..