He has such a busy schedule, meeting dozens of dignitaries, attending functions, and answering many media requests that, with trepidation, photographer T. Narayan and I drive to our rendezvous—the Sat Pal Akhara in the Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi’s Model Town. We wonder, "would Olympic Games bronze medalist Sushil Kumar be there so early in the day?" We are in for a pleasant surprise. Sushil Kumar, mud all over his sculptured frame and oil greasing his hair, is about to complete his training for the day.
The 25-year-old breaks into a warm half-smile when we approach him in the akhara and quickly explains its role. "We mix turmeric power, mustard oil, and many other things in the soil. These work as tonics and antiseptics," he says, not so much to tell us why he was covered with mud all over but to introduce us to some nuances of wrestling. "I would train in the akhara once a week, but I would not change the style, using the same techniques as on the mat, and that helped me improve my speed."
Dressed in traditional training gear—a langot—he is ready for us, with the Olympic Games bronze medal within reach so he can pose. I squat barefoot beside the champion, not wanting to sit in a chair while he was in the akhara, and walk him through many moments in his life. After spending a good hour or more with him, I come away convinced that he is humility personified.
The 66-kg wrestler has come back to a resounding reception, and yet he does not hesitate to return to the monastic life he embraced more than a decade ago when he sought guru Sat Pal—after listening to a programme on All India Radio—and submitted to the rigours of training. Many years later, after he won the bronze in Beijing, he could have chosen to sit in his parental home in Baprola village in Najafgarh on the outskirts of Delhi, but he is back where his heart is—on the akhara.
"I have done that, too," he says, pointing to a young aspirant dragging a heavy block of wood by ropes to level an area. "That block is called a fatta. This exercise provides an excellent workout for the shoulders and thighs." He has also climbed the rope that dangles from a tall tree and that helped him develop upper body strength. "And I cannot remember how many of those push ups I have done," he says, pointing to some younger wrestlers who are performing on the little gallery nearby. Some of these lads nurse dreams of going on to do well for India. For others, learning the craft will allow them to earn some cash for themselves and their families by fighting in the dangals (wrestling competitions).
Sushil smiles a knowing smile when I suggest he and his fellow wrestlers defy the lazy stereotype legend heartlessly builds around the natives of these rural parts. "We may be lazy in many walks of life, but one can’t be lazy about something that is a passion," he says. "The balance of a bout can change in a matter of seconds, and there cannot be any room for laziness in my life. We train to develop attributes like thinking, speed, power, stamina, flexibility, and durability."
His guru Sat Pal, a Padma Shree award-winner after his Asian Games gold in 1982, walks by and pauses to join the conversation. "When Sushil came to me first, he was 11 or 12 and weighed about 35 kg. We trained him, and as he first won the Delhi schools championship, we knew he had a strong character that is rare even for wrestlers," he says. "He would follow all that we would tell him, uncomplainingly. If I told him he had to do 500 push ups, he would go way beyond that. If we told him to complete 20 sprint repeats, he would do 30. Only such a player can become a champion. There is a great joy in shaping such a diamond, and words can never do justice to that process."
My mind goes back to a conversation I had some days earlier with Roshan Lal Sethi, who has been watching dangals since the 1960s. He believes that there are about 200 akharas, big and small, reputed and fledgling, in Delhi. "They are spread all over Delhi, including in the rural belt, and are as far flung as the Yamuna’s bank and Mehrauli, North Delhi, and Najafgarh. Why, even now, the dangal every Sunday near Jama Masjid is popular. You must see it to believe it. In fact, Sushil had fought in those dangals before he came under Sat Pal’s tutelage."
But before I can ask Sat Pal about that, the guru goes to others needing his attention and to some new kids who have come to Chhatrashal Sta-dium in the hope of joining his akhara. Clearly, Sushil Kumar has won more than an Olympic medal; he has won a huge battle for his sport—wresting the media’s focus towards wrestling.
Cut to August 20, China Agriculture University Gymnasium in Beijing.
Having got a bye in the first round, he was not prepared for defeat at the hands of Ukraine’s Andriy Stadnik in the quarterfinal. He spent the next hour and a half alternately agonizing and praying for Stadnik to make it to the final.
"When I lost to him—and I was not able to do anything right in my bout—I stayed in the stadium, rested, and was only watching him, hoping that he went into the final," recalls Sushil. "I had my heart in my mouth and a prayer on my lips when he was fighting the Kazakh in the semifinal. It was a close contest. There were four or five pehelwans of more or less equal calibre and could win against one another. I did not want to return the Games Village."
Prodded to linger just that bit longer on that memorable day, Sushil says he thanked God—Hanuman, to be precise—and told himself not to make any more mistakes and give the bronze medal his best shot. "I was perhaps more fit in 2004 and would have brought home a medal from the Athens Games, but repechage had not been introduced then. I had to fight three bouts in the span of 75 minutes, and I was glad we had trained for such a schedule."
Lingering is something Sushil normally does not like to do. "The bronze medal is done and behind me," he says. It is clear that this is not false modesty, but a philosophy of life that is ingrained in true gladiators. "I have to focus on the present and the future." I ask him if doing that is easy because we don’t let him forget it in a hurry, inviting him to a series of functions or asking him to fulfil media commitments. "Look, we are sitting and talking about it, so it’s okay to relive some of those moments for you. But I cannot let it overtake me or my character that is rooted in the present. Wrestling as a sport demands continuity. If you give up training for a day, you are set back by three or four days, and I cannot afford that."
Ask him about the time he was kept off the Indian team for the Common-wealth Games, despite defeating Shokinder Singh, and you get a simple response that packs much erudition. "I believe in looking ahead. I can’t linger on anything. On a defeat, on non-selection, or even on an Olympic medal," he says, ending my search for any disappointment or frustration that might lie beneath his calm countenance.
But he minces no words when talking about some issues. For example, ask him about the Baghpat-based Shokinder’s decision to auction his international medals in a bid to raise funds for a good akhara in his home town. "Such acts do not benefit anyone. He has a job in the railways and has got promoted twice. Such behaviour can only harm wrestling as a sport, leaving a poor imprint in the minds of the young wrestlers."
Indeed, Sushil does not mind speaking his heart against the system that allows one wrestler to choose the grip he would employ at the start of a bout. They should go back to the spin of the coin. "I had to think on my feet and find a way to turn the tables on my opponent in the bronze medal match. I used the kachchi daav (a special move) and was able to clinch the win," he says of the biggest bout of his life.
He speaks candidly about his win-some-lose-some attitude when I ask him if he misses life outside the akhara. "We have to make sacrifices in some areas of life to be able to achieve in our chosen areas," he says. "The other day, I met someone who studies for 16, 17 hours a day. He is probably missing out on the joy of playing sport, isn’t he? But he may not view it that way. I don’t think I have been wrong in choosing to be a wrestler."
More honest words surface from his heart. "We love the attention the sport is getting, but honestly, we would feel more encouraged if the dignitaries met us even before we set out for competitions," he says. "I believe all our athletes will deliver better results if they know that the country cares for them." For all that, he has yet to meet Minster for Railways Lalu Prasad Yadav, given that the latter has focussed on the floods ravaging north Bihar. "He was ecstatic when he called me in Beijing after I won the bronze medal bout, but I was unable to take his call then," he says.
Take his attention away to Khali—the heavy-weight ‘wrestler’ who had a whole nation eating out of his hands on his return from the US after a spell in WWE—and Sushil gets as candid as he can ever be. "Khali’s is a different kind of wrestling. In fact, it is not wrestling, but a form of entertainment," he says, quite dismissively. Sushil has a very strong opinions on doping as well. "First, let me tell you that you will not find a wrestler doping because of the akhara system in India," he says. "The thought of taking recourse to such aids never crossed my mind. It is wrong to indulge in doping. A player’s life gets spoilt by such a thing. In fact, our coaches and senior pehelwans and my guru, Sat Pal, will never allow such things to happen." Mention of Sat Pal brings a twinkle to his eyes. "I share an indescribable relationship with my guru."
Almost as if on cue, having completed another round of his akhara, encouraging, chiding, cajoling, and scolding his trainees, Sat Pal returns. "He had all but lost his bronze medal bout to semifinalist Leonid Spiridonov of Kazakhstan in Beijing. Our eyes met, and I urged him to give it all he had and with speed," recalls Sat Pal. "He had lost the first round bout to Andriy Stadnik of Ukraine in similar circumstances. I am so glad he understood what I was telling him." It was just as well that Sat Pal ended his self-imposed exile from international competitions after he retired in 1984. "I went on my own, and I would like to believe that my presence helped him."
"When he lost his first bout, we were quite flabbergasted and didn’t know what had struck us. He was not able to fight as well as he could. He seemed too keen and under pressure to win. We then stayed in the stadium, praying for Stadnik to keep winning his way to the final so Sushil would get a chance to make amends. I told him to be himself and to shed the fear of failure. Then, he beat the American Doug Schwab (world no. 3), Belerus’ Albert Batyrov, and Kazakhstan’s Leonid Spiridonov (world no. 4). He is a sharp kid and fought each of his bouts intelligently to find Olympic success."
There has been talk about living conditions and some unromantic stories about the wrestlers being packed in rooms. But the truth is that these lads know no other way. "I could have bought a flat with the money I got from the Arjuna Award and other winnings, but I would not have been able to discipline myself," he says.
I ask him about the new motorcycle gifted to him by a TV channel. "It is a lovely piece of machinery, but I don’t know how to ride it. Praveen knows a thing or two about such bikes, and I will be his pillion," says Sushil, getting up to leave because he has an appointment. He heads to the shower, washes off the mud, towels himself dry, and walks into the room that has been his home away from the Baprola home for a good part of the last decade. "My childhood has been spent here. I was in the sixth or seventh class when I came here. Nothing has changed for me."
Yes, at this point in time, he does not know what life is like beyond guru Sat Pal’s akhara.