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May 16, 2010

Sons of Soil Wrestle to Glory

MUMBAI: The nondescript cattlesheds along S V Road in Jogeshwari have reasons to cheer an old community hand. Even as an elderly cyclist passes by with milk cans, the neighbourhood buzzes with news of his son Narsing Yadav having won a gold medal at the 23rd Senior Asian Wrestling Championships underway in New Delhi.

Yadav had cut his teeth at an 'akhada' or wrestling pit near the 'tabelas' that were started nearly 100 years ago in 1913. In the age of modern gymnasia, which promise quick-fix body-shaping solutions for a king's ransom, the 'akhada' is a country cousin, where poor boys work out for a nominal fee. "Our youngest recruit is 10 years old," says 'pehelwan' Bharat Yadav, guruji to his students, who trained Narsing many years ago.

Homegrown Indian wrestling has had to fight for its place in the sun. The passing of venerated trainer Guru Hanuman left a void that many swear will never be filled. Yet, every decade has thrown up one champion who did the native sport proud. Dara Singh and his brother Randhawa became movie stars given their achievements in the sand pit. Of late, the exploits of Sushil Kumar have brought a welcome revival and wrestlers hope the coming Commonwealth Games will focus the sport in public consciousness.

Indeed, 'akhadas' in Parel, Matunga, Kandivli and Jogeshwari have spawned national champions, who have gone on to beat international wrestlers on several occasions.

At Jogeshwari, 20-odd boys wearing red or yellow loincloths and caked in mud are buffering at various stages of muscular buildup. Unlike individualistic workstations in a gym, the 'akhada' has a mud pit, which strengthens friendships in a strange way. When two 'pehelwans' are done landing audible blows, they briskly pick up fistfuls of mud and smear them over their opponent. "The soil allows better grip on a sweaty body, but apart from that, it has been treated with oil and turmeric to prevent wounds from festering," said wrestler Mahendra Yadav.

It turns out that this deceptively small pit greedily soaked up oil worth Rs 25,000. "Yes, we were surprised to see it drink up that much," laughs sponsor and Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam. For 12 years, the MP has been conducting an all-India wrestling championship.

Were it not for public sector companies like the Indian Railways, which employs wrestlers and makes them work for just three hours so that they may return to sport, most would find it difficult to sustain their passion.

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