He stands 4’11” tall and the sinewy physique of his heyday—captured in the photographs that adorn his Calcutta home—has given way to a mass of sagging muscles and wrinkled skin. But even at 101, when Manohar Aich walks into the room, he does so with all the majesty befitting his former international bodybuilding title, Mr Universe. Aich won the title in 1952, a year after he came second in the same competition and two years after he was honoured with the Mr Hercules title.
Breaking into a toothless grin as he struts his old stuff for our camera, he flashes the same smile, shrugs his frail shoulders and whispers softly, “As it is,” when you ask him the secret of his long life. The phrase, which can mean just about anything, recurs time and again in Aich’s answers. In fact, he looks more a Buddhist monk today than a master bodybuilder. Born in a poor family in Comilla (now in Bangladesh), Aich was jailed during India’s freedom struggle when he slapped a British RAF official where he was working. He used the time in jail well, perfecting the art of weight training. He was freed on the day India achieved Independence and a former British officer, who had been impressed by his physique and dedication, helped him take part in a number of international weightlifting and bodybuilding competitions. “He rejected many lucrative offers abroad because he wanted to breathe the air of his beloved country,” says younger son Khokon Aich. “But how has his country treated him? Not a single national award, not even state recognition.”
But ask the former Mr Universe himself, he shrugs it off. “As it is,” he says. So is it this ability to stay unperturbed, come what may, that is the secret of his longevity? Well, his family vouches for the fact that nothing troubles him. “He eats normal food. These days, he doesn’t even exercise regularly,” says his son. Manohar Aich can at best be described as ascetic when it comes to words. When we asked him about tips for our century-countdown nonagenarians, this is how the interview went:
Your advice to nonagenarians?
Be as you are. If you made it this far, keep going the same way.
Any special diet?
I eat everything.
I don’t follow any strict routines.
I am not sick. Avoid them as much as you can.
So what’s the secret?
As it is.