The wards of Goabagan, tucked away in an apologetic corner of Kolkata are mildly depressing. Old, once stately mansions with peeling paint, walls wet grey and green and windows with rotting wooden shutters give way to shacks and street corner hand pumps. It was going to be a long wait.
Here, the ‘officially embarrassing’ hand-pulled rickshaws pull everything from housewives returning with groceries to cardboard cartons full of clinking bottles. And in the hot afternoons, they line the pavements, where our rickshaw puller sleeps away the mid-day sun curled up in his rickshaw, a coarse cotton gamucha wrapped around the head and pulled over the eyes and their cotton vests rolled above their half-full bellies. Under the rickshaw, sleep dirty yellow and brown pariah dogs, one eye half-open, long tongues lolling, panting away the heat.
The hours pass and I’m waiting still… Shanties and hovels with tiny grilled windows line the streets of this part of Goabagan. From one, an old face, creased and thin, stares listlessly onto the street below where two girls amuse themselves with badminton rackets. Amused too are a bunch of young men lounging across the street, warming up to the early evening’s entertainment and adda, with tiny glasses of sweet over-boiled tea and some greasy munchies wrapped in oil soaked paper.
Time, in Goabagan, except for the scrap merchant weighing his paper stacks and the rickshaws that had found patrons, seemed to move slowly, almost reluctantly. And time was moving just as slowly for me. I had been staring at the red brick building in front of me for the last two hours but the fat old lock on that rusty green gate was still doing duty. It was almost five in the evening.
The lad at the local tea-stall said that the gates should have opened by now. But they hadn’t and so for the umpteenth time, I reread the proud little words on the tin plate nailed to the brick wall that declared that this indeed was hallowed ground. It seemed a little incongruous that a monument as venerable could lie in a corner so forgettable and yet, so it was. For beyond these walls lay Gobar Goho’s gymnasium/akhada. And who is Gobar Goho? Like the tin plate so proudly asserts to this day, he was the “First Asian to win the Light Heavyweight (wrestling) Championship” of the world.
This happened way back in 1921 in the United States. And for a nation still shackled to the imperial will of Great Britain, it was a moment that fortified her faith in the vigour of her people, and emboldened into a flame the shouldering embers of downtrodden pride.
Gobar Goho is a name I would come upon oft en while researching about India’s wrestling tradition. Along with ubiquitous references to the Great Gama, there would be this name that would spring up, infrequently, but assertively. Not as well known but about as respected and so on a day when deadlines weren’t as constrictive, I wiki-wandered in search of Gobar Goho. I was stunned with what I found.
My parents have been proud Bengalis, and I have been brought up on bed-time stories recounting the glorious achievements of those illustrious souls that I happen to share my mother-tongue with. Tagore and Bankim, Boses Jagdish Chandra and Subhash, poets and freedom fighters squeezed in cheek and jowl with Mr. and Miss Universes and film-makers like Ray and Sen. While basking in all that reflected glory might have been important for middle-class India without access to post liberal opportunities, I wonder how my parents missed out filling me in on the man my father recently remembered as “ Ah yes, Gobar Babu!”
Jatindra Charan Goho or Guha was his real name. As I waded through his tales of taking down the biggest names of his time, Ad Santel, the Scotch giant Jimmy Esson and perhaps the greatest of them all, Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis with his famous move, the radda, what struck me even more than his achievements on the mat were the social values and circumstances that created this hero of Olympian proportions.
More than six feet tall and weighing in at a well muscled 130 kilograms, Gobar Goho was a giant of his times. Fortunate to be born in a time in Bengal when wrestling was considered as important an art for the scions of the well heeled to master as poetry and music, Gobor went to learn the moves of the mud and mat from Ambu Babu (Ambika Charan Guha).
Wrestling, though a sport with rural roots in most of India, entered Bengal with famous pehelwans from the northern Gangetic plains like Kallicharan Chaubey and Khosla Chaubey. And here it was adopted by the educated upper class of Bengal as a scalpel that sculpted both body and spirit.
Ambu Babu’s family was amongst the first to embrace and establish this art in Bengal and he also established the state’s fi rst akhada.
And what an akhada it must have been for in its mud had rolled and wrestled the youthful bodies of Swami Vivekananda, Swami Brahmananda, Jatindranath Mukherjee aka Bagha Jatin, one of India’s brightest and most luminous lights of the freedom struggle (who had been described by Gandhi as “a divine personality”), and of course our man of the moment, Jatindra Charan ‘Gobar’ Goho.
What a pilgrimage for every Indian this akhada in Masjidbari street would have been. This akhada was the fi rst of many such akhadas that became popular in Bengal in the early 1900s. And what was nurtured here wasn’t just strength in body and mind but a passion for nationalism and revolutionary ideals that fuelled the freedom movement in the region.
But alas the Masjidbari street akhada could not last through the hard times that wracked India in the last decade before independence. And so in 1936, Gobar Goho took the fl ame that his forefathers had instituted on Masjidbari street and lit up this little corner in Goabagan, rebuilding the akhada here as it stands today.
I do not know how it must have been then but today the akhada is just a sad forgotten relic of a once glorious and noble past.
Abandoned by all but a faithful few, the kid manning the tea stall mentioned that a handful of wrestlers - ageing octogenarian disciples of the long dead master as well as some strapping young converts - still wrestled in its mud pit. But decay and impending death seemed to be crawling along the crumbling walls of this socio-archeological pariah.
Is it doomed to disappear, taking with it its forgotten tales of victories and valour? Or will it survive and inspire yet another generation of heroes? Th e answer perhaps lay behind that locked door and ah, someone’s at the gate… Maybe he has the key. But then that is a story for another day…