|An iron will: Evicted wrestling guru Bisamber's akhada thrives despite government apathy |
Photos: Trilochan S. Kalra
THOUSAND DAYS to go for Delhi Commonwealth Games 2010,’ say the hoardings. The capital is counting down to its biggest event in recent times. But not everyone is sharing in the excitement. There are many in the city for whom the event marks an uncertain future, who are counting down to the day their houses will be demolished and their livelihoods destroyed. And to understand their concerns fully, one must go back to 1982, when Delhi played host to another big sporting event, the ninth Asian Games.
November 19, 1982: the day the Games started in Delhi. Jagmohan Malhotra, the controversial Lieutenant Governor of Delhi in the early 80s, reminisces: “We were barely given two years to prepare. We had only one facility, the National Stadium near India Gate and even that was awaiting renovation.” Malhotra played a pivotal role in making the Games a success. Prior to assuming the Governor’s office, he also served as the Vice Chairman of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) during the years of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi.
the Emergency could be felt on the streets as slum clusters all over the city were demolished and some 1.75 lakh families were resettled on the outskirts over the next couple of years. Each family then was supposed to be assigned a plot of land, usually 25 square yards. “These slums were encroaching on the streets. Their residents were in the grip of local MPs and MLAs, with proliferating slums enhancing their vote banks. The idea was to release these people from their control, give them some land to invest in a house for themselves,’ is how Malhotra explains the demolitions. As the city was being readied for the Games in the early 80s, he remembers Indira Gandhi commenting that work on the sites could proceed unhindered thanks to the slums being removed in 1975.
Not every one agrees with Malhotra’s version of the events. Dunu Roy, Director of the Delhi-based Hazards Centre and an authority on issues surrounding the Games, says that India had bid for the Games in 1974 and therefore the sprucing up of the city for this purpose effectively began then. Sports historian Boria Majumdar, in his forthcoming book, Olympics: The India Story, writes, “The Asian Games Federation awarded New Delhi the ninth Asian Games in 1976.” Majumdar says the groundwork for the games could possibly have been carried out earlier than 1976. Though this would only be conjecture, it’s one with some serious implications.
While that debate might remain unresolved, there are many in the city, like Surat Ram and Guru Bisamber of the Dakshinpuri Jhuggi-Jhopri Colony of south Delhi, who paid for the Games early on. Born in Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh, Bisamber had been living in the jhuggis of Talkatora Garden for more than a decade when the DDA knocked on his doors. Bisamber, already a well-known wrestling guru then, and earning his living as a driver, has painful memories from the time when the DDA trucks dumped him and his family in their assigned plot in Dakshinpuri.
“In this area where tall grasses (bajra) stretched for miles, we found ourselves in knee-deep water. It kept raining for over a fortnight. We had to leave our kids with our relatives,” recalls Bisamber. For the first few years before the bus services connected his colony to the city, he had to cycle nearly two hours to get to work. “It was not very safe here. People from the surrounding villages used to rob us of what little we earned. New and fewer in number, we were not in a position to fight them.” It took Bisamber and his peers over a decade to have a roof over their heads. Until then they lived in tents.
Bisamber was made to part with his home but not his passion: wrestling. At Talkatora, where later an indoor stadium proudly stood as one of the venues of the Games, Bisamber used to run his own akhada (wrestling school). Earlier, he had been a student of the famous late Guru Munni Lal at his now 175-year-old akhada in Panchkuian road. Six months into his stay in Dakshinpuri, the authorities did provide a plot of land for an akhada for the colony — what was to be the only semblance of government patronage over the next three decades.
WHEN THE Games finally came, Bisamber watched from the stands as the Soviets thrashed Indian wrestlers. He was not really surprised; he knew only too well that wrestlers here spend more time wrestling with the government than with fellow wrestlers. While Malhotra sought to free the slum dwellers from the grip of the local politicians, Bisamber found himself at the mercy of just another politician. The local MLA Chaudhari Prem Singh has not lost his seat for decades. Prem Singh looked the other way, probably celebrated the Asiad coming to Delhi, while Bisamber scrounged to maintain the ring, purchase equipment and sought to provide his 50-odd boys with the ‘wrestling diet’. Yet, he’s proud of the fact that, fighting all odds, great wrestlers were born here, and several made it to the Nationals.
The Dakshinpuri akhada does not lack for the one thing that has kept it alive all these years — Bisamber’s passion for the sport. “A lot of time went into training the boys as they started pouring in, some even from outside the city, who had to be housed in the two rooms I had built inside the akhada. I had more than 90-absentee days at work and was fired,” remembers Bisamber. Then the battle just got tougher. His wife started working as domestic help to sustain the household. His sons, who hardly ever stepped onto the akhada, joined the treadmill of life, assisting their mother in her work even before they had finished school. Bisamber ran a dairy outlet for sometime, married off his daughters. Now 76 years old, with his sons having taken over the reins of the family, he continues to wrestle in and for the ring. Every evening, he is at his run-down akhada to oversee his boys train.