February 15, 2020
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The Path Of The Rikishi

She’s an oddity. Her craft, a mystery. What is it about her that feels ‘real’ somehow?

The Path Of The Rikishi
Apoorva Salkade
The Path Of The Rikishi

It’s a breezy April evening at the Oval Maidan. This whole participatory journalism thing’s starting to sink in as I stand across from a determined-looking Hetal Dave, crouched in mid-sumo squat, waiting to attack. Who? Me! I’ll try anything once, be it wrestling a sumo wrestler or marriage. The fact that the first is happening prior to the latter is indicative of how unpredictable my life choices have been. But I’m cautious. She weighs seventy kilos, I weigh more and am taller, the odds seemed stacked in my favour. I like to think I pick my battles well. Besides, this experience is going to rank right up there with babysitting a python and that one time with... never mind. Before the credits finishing rolling in my head, she’s off, heading right for me. Me with my Mary Janes sliding easily along the once firm, now damp muddy patch I stood on, the sprinkler system having plied the ground into a mushy consistency. And all I can think of are my shoes. Sudhir Dave, Hetal’s dad, isn’t impressed. It’s in the mind, he tells me, it’s all in the mind, size doesn’t matter. And we are ready for the next bout.

This time she grips me, holding me in place. There is no sliding now. I’m rooted to the ground, unable to move, but at least my shoes are alright. It makes perfect sense that a sumo bout doesn’t last longer than three minutes. That’d be far too long, this is a mindgame first and then one of strength. It’s very zen and meditative—a sport marked by the languid, almost disinterested, gait of opponents facing off. But this, as I learn, is all deception, sumo is a sport of willpower.
While the training may be perceived as gluttonous—with professional male sumos spending their days eating lunches washed down with beer and followed by long afternoon siestas—the rules of the game are rigorous. No part of the body other than the feet must touch the ground. Hence, a skilled wrestler must have a flair for acrobatic balance. Balance and the sumo wrestler? It is only when experienced firsthand that this paradox makes sense. I’m thinking about it when I find myself slumped on the ground.

There is a celebrated wit on the sidelines. He’s walking his dog. Actually, he’s sitting on a chair now watching us and his dog is strolling on his own. I can see myself featuring in his next stand-up routine. I am what they call “material”. Why am I doing this again? Because I will do anything once. I’ve almost convinced myself that the numbness in my arms where Hetal gripped me will pass.

Sumo wrestling isn’t “sexy”, it isn’t a sport of short skirts and bodies of athletic angularity. But Hetal is far from the sumo wrestlers of popular imagination. Again, she’s only seventy kilos, and that is discounting the mawashi which, once worn, adds another seven kilos to her frame. She is pretty and smiles easily, especially when she shows me a profile of hers in a fashion magazine. She’d had a makeover, was wearing pearl earrings and an A-line dress that stopped short of her knees. And yet, she is self-conscious of the publicity. In Japan, sumos don’t self-promote so, it’s considered vulgar. In fact, there are no female Japanese sumo wrestlers. The professionals are all men, who live in stables and have demi-god status. But Heetal has no option than to pose for the camera in the sumo squat, one fist resting on the ground, with encouragements from eager photographers to “look fierce”. The fashion magazine has her outfitted like ‘today’s girl’. Each a distinct and disparate reality offering little succour. But it must be done, to attract sponsors. The cacophony of Bora Bazaar’s street is nothing compared to the noisy jostling for sponsorships in the sporting world. Only the loudest have a chance of being heard. Sudhir Dave tells me that sports in this country are only for the rich, not the passionate. That is a message to be shared. These two, though, have come too far to turn back now.

Fending Advaita’s height advantage mattered little. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)

There are a few things that you ought to know about Hetal Dave. She has spent the majority of her 23 years cloistered in a radius of three kilometres. She has been schooled at the end of the street on which she lives, Bora Bazaar. The room that she shares with her parents and brother is all of 100 square feet, it is the same size as the sumo ring in which she competes. And the Mahadeva temple a few minutes away is the temple where her great grandfather first took up residence as a priest from Rajasthan. Kishan Lal Dave never intended to make Bombay his home, determined to leave the same way he’d come; travelling light. His son Champak Lal Dave, an attorney, had other plans though. Neither did he embrace priesthood nor would he leave Bombay, taking up residence in Bora Bazaar and making his home on the third floor of the Gautam Niwas building, best known for its proximity to the famous Hari Om Bhelpuri shop. The Daves have watched the rise of the bhelpuriwallah with some interest, noting his progress from a stall to a small shop that has the luxury of opening its doors at 2 pm and is patronised by people in “big cars”. It is no wonder that Hari Om Bhelpuri is considered the most famous resident of Bora Bazaar street, a title that Hetal stakes no claim to. When I arrive at her home, a neighbour is waving a Gujarati daily at her parents. Hetal has made it onto a list of an international newsmagazine as one of the most powerful women in the world. The newspaper is two weeks old, the list even older. Hetal had not an idea. What does this mean, she asks me. I have no answer, what indeed does this mean to a girl who has managed to live a small-town existence in a throbbing metropolis. And it is precisely this fact that makes Hetal’s journey as India’s only female sumo wrestler all the more fascinating.

As a 14-year-old, Hetal once made the mistake of stepping off the footpath to make way for a man who was heading her way from the opposite direction. “You know how it is,” she tells me, “it was a crowded street. I didn’t want him to brush up against me.” It was this small gesture of accommodation that invited the ire of her father, who pulled her back up on the footpath and told her that she must never make way for anyone out of fear. People must make way for her. We are sitting in the room that is their living quarters, the whole family in attendance, their curiosity about me as unstated as mine about them. It is an awkward beginning. The dimensions of the room necessitate an intimacy that can best be described as interrogative for a first meeting.

What does attention mean to a girl who manages a small-town existence in a metropolis? That is what makes her fascinating.

The silence is broken by an incessant drilling from across the road. A temple is being rebuilt, squeezed into a space between two old buildings, it looks awkward, like it belongs elsewhere. It was a heritage site, but the Jains decided to rebuild it. They are the only ones with the money to do such things. It is clear that the Daves have little appreciation for this renovation. After all, in this residential section of Fort, there are seven temples and three mosques shared between three streets, Bora Bazaar, Pari Nariman Street and Modi Street. Each street characterised by its residents—Bora Bazaar, despite its name, is home to mostly Maharashtrians. The Daves’ building was renovated by MHDA in the seventies (this is said with some pride and acknowledgment of the good fortune that is theirs alone in a row of buildings that seem the worse for wear). A calendar gifted by the Shiv Sena flaps in the wind, the myriad gods and goddesses puckering in approval. The building is rent-controlled at the rate of `1 per square foot, making the rent `220 a month. It is a fine place to live, very central. It is a rule in the Dave home to only walk unless the distance is greater than five kilometres.

When I spoke to Hetal from New Delhi to fix our meeting, I asked if I could meet some of her friends. I have none, she’d told me. And as incredible as it sounded at the time, as I sit across from her family, I realise that the simple insularity of their existence makes it entirely plausible. Here is a family that has for the last 10 years lived a dream that has been unshared and unstated in the dissonant reality of the street that generations of their family has called home. There is no social network, not even cable television except for the free-to-air channels. Conversations with neighbours are limited to hollering across the street to the opposite building with identical barred windows that permit voyeuristic glimpses of lives lived in tandem. “You see those kids on the second floor,” Hetal points them out to me. I see two toddlers wrestling on a mat. “I used to give them judo lessons.”

Relatives worry that she may cause harm to herself, making matrimony difficult. Her father is dismissive. Her mum frowns.

And that is what she does. She teaches physical education at a local school to earn a living, sometimes even taking up private tuitions for pocket money. Her paycheck goes to her father, who has long since given up on a career in order to support his daughter’s passion. Sudhir Dave used to work in a video cassette shop. He now works at a store, he does not wish to elaborate; it is the one question he avoids, by saying his job is meant only to make ends meet. There is a glimpse of sacrifice, a silent subjugation of the self for the greater service of the next generation, but it’s a flicker. There is little room for self-pity in the Dave home even when the list of competitions missed because of a lack of funds is greater than the ones participated in. But Sudhir is a religious man. Sweeping three fingers across his forehead, he says, “It’s all kismet, destiny—there is no preparation, nothing that can stand up to destiny, if it is meant to be, it will.” If his daughter is meant to succeed, she will and she has had good fortune. There has also been the kindness from strangers. Once, she’d waylaid her mawashi en route to a tournament. Not only did the Japanese give her one, they also helped her tie it on.

Her relatives are afraid that she may cause herself physical harm, which will make matrimony an impossibility. That can happen without sumo, Sudhir Dave dismisses. It’s possibly also a reason he stays away from the extended family—to avoid the multitude of “shubhchintaks” doled out as only the Indian family can. Her mother’s brow furrows every now and then, particularly when the discussion turns to marriage. “Ladki maar peet toh nahin karti?” is the oft-repeated query. It amuses the rest of the family, but she is concerned. Insistent that things must happen at the right time—in that, she is not very different from my mother or any mother for that matter. She insists we eat on time. It’s vegetarian Marwari fare and everyone sits on the floor. As a courtesy, the pull-down writing table—till now concealed in the wall—is opened and a chair placed in front of it for me. It would mean that I would have to eat with my back turned to the others. I decline. But its cleverness still fascinates me. This idea of compact living, where everything has a place. Sudhir Dave takes me into the kitchen and pulls down a cabinet door, which transforms into a dining table. He had designed it himself, thinking the family might enjoy eating at it. That did not quite work out, they still prefer sitting on the floor and eating.

The art of the grapple Hetal, who doubles as a physical education instructor at a local school, gives Advaita a hands-on demonstration of the different holds employed by sumo wrestlers. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)

And that’s when I see the magic. This wonderland the Daves have built for themselves, filled with dreams and hopes, tables that seem to materialise from walls and lofts that skirt the ceiling—and anxieties that fly out the window because there is a God. Where the day is a routine of practice, work and then practice again—all amid the bustle of Bora Bazaar that prompted Hetal to learn what’s now her greatest strength: her ability to blank out all else and focus on the task at hand.

Later in the day, we go to my favourite bookstore in Mumbai. It’s within the five-km radius, so we walk. It’s a hot afternoon. Hetal tells me she used to come here during her college years—for the air-conditioning. She isn’t a reader. Everything is on sale at the bookstore. I worry if it’s being shut down—it’s a new fear of mine: the demise of the traditional bookstore. She has a smoothie, while I drink water and tell her about a famous author I could have met here but was too shy to say hello to. Or maybe I don’t tell her, we seem to enjoy each other’s silences now. She doesn’t talk too much, so I don’t either. It’s time to say goodbye and she pulls out something from her pocket. At some point during our time at the bookstore, she has taken advantage of my distracted ways and bought me a present. A pen. It leaves me overwhelmed, not only the gesture, but the gratitude I feel for needing so little to practice my passion. We part and she tells me to message her when I get home, I think she understands me well and knows I am likely to wander. But she needn’t have worried. I think only of her on my journey back and can’t help but wonder if she will be all that she can be or remain a curiosity.

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