Deepika Chowdhury’s mornings are as unremarkable as those of any married woman. She wakes up at 5.30 in the morning, and gets down to preparing breakfast for her in-laws and husband Tanujeet, with whom she lives in Pune. She flips eggs, pops the toast and sets the breakfast table. But while the toaster is warming up, she furtively rustles up a parallel breakfast on the sideboard. The omelettes for the rest of the family are stacked up neatly on a plate; for her, four eggs are being hard-boiled.
The rest of the morning goes in packing her husband’s tiffin, haggling with the maid and then surreptitiously packing her own lunch before she heads off for her job as a molecular biologist at the National Institute of Virology in Pune. On her way to work, the 29-year-old polishes off a container of oats and a portion of boiled spinach. At lunch, while most of her colleagues pick at their chapatis and vegetables, Chowdhury tears into a hunk of boiled chicken. During the day, as she compiles reports on changes in strains of measles and Rubella viruses, she runs through another mini meal of cucumbers, paprikas and boiled cabbage.
The mystery of this voracious eater is solved only at six in the evening. At the neighbourhood gym, amid grunting men and chattering women, Chowdhury reveals herself at the free-weight section. Men gasp, and women stare at her perfectly-defined 12-inch biceps. Her deltoid caps bulge with definition and she loads up a bar with a cool 150 kg and proceeds to fire out 10 perfect squats. That’s just for warm-up.
On March 29, Chowdhury became the first Indian to win an International Federation of BodyBuilding and Fitness (IFBB) title. She was crowned the champion in the Figure Novice category at the Battle on the Beach, one of America’s premier fitness competition for women held at Daytona Beach, Florida. This was Chowdhury’s first competitive appearance, and she was pitted against 15 professional fitness athletes from the US and Puerto Rico. Back from that win, she says she still cannot believe how fast her life has changed, considering she went to the gym only to let her frustration out.
Chowdhury, a Maharashtrian, married Tanujeet, a Bengali, five years ago. Her husband’s family were not pleased with their son’s choice of bride and they made their displeasure evident to their daughter-in-law. “My in-laws were not very happy with me. There was a lot of tension at home,” she says. As temperatures rose, Chowdhury started withdrawing into a shell. That’s when her husband, Tanujeet, whom she knows for more than 15 years now, came to her aid. “I suggested that she should come to the gym with me. It would take her mind off things,” he says.
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Chowdhury, thought, got bored soon. It was not until she enrolled for a comprehensive course in fitness and exercise physiology at the K11 Fitness Academy in Pune that she went back to the gym. The molecular biologist, who spends a large chunk of her time in research, says she needed to understand what exercise was, the processes involved and the best way to derive the maximum benefit from it. The knowledge of how a particular exercise would change her body acted like a drug. “There were times when I was shot to pieces in the lab but the thought of that one hour in the gym pepped me up. Even after working for nine hours in a lab, completing my everyday household chores, I wanted to hit the gym and work towards changing my body,” she says.
Chowdhury, who is preparing for the holy grail of fitness competitions, the Arnold Classic, named after legendary bodybuilder and Hollywood actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, points out that she is not into bodybuilding. “I am not huge, I don’t have huge chunks of muscle on my body. You don’t need to do that when you are competing in the figure category. Just the way my body is defined now, it makes me more confident and keeps pushing me to do a little more,” she says.
Tanujeet says that once he saw that his wife was enjoying herself, he just had to egg her on. “Right from the beginning, she was lifting really good weights. She was strong and her body adapted to the gym naturally. A few months later, I suggested that we should go to the Sheru Classic in Delhi, and Deepika jumped at that chance,” he says.
The Sheru Classic, one of the top three bodybuilding events in the world, was held in Delhi in 2011. There, Chowdhury met Shannon Dey, the American CEO of Bombshell Fitness and a former fitness athlete herself. Chowdhury attended a seminar on female fitness athletes conducted by Dey, and the moment she saw Dey pose and preen, like athletes are required to, she was sold. “I spoke to Shannon for an hour that day, and asked her to coach me,” she says.
Dey agreed. Chowdhury was given a customised diet plan and assigned a personal coach, Gennifer Strobo, an active competitor and an Olympian. Last year, Chowdhury attended a fitness camp at Daytona Beach, and at its end, Strobo told her she was ready. “Once my coach had made that decision, I just wanted to perform to the best of my abilities. Winning was something I had never thought of,” she says.
Her schedule was punishing. Chowdhury says, more than the time spent
in the gym, she had to pay minute attention to what exactly was it that her body needed. “This sport is 70 per cent of what you eat.
I knew that my diet had to be perfect, but in India, with all our festivals, and the restrictions at home, it wasn’t always easy,” she says.
Apart from her intake of whey protein, Chowdhury and Tanujeet raided the neighborhood supermarket every weekend. “We used to come back with a couple of kilos of chicken, loads of loads of fish, red meat, vegetables, oats and a lot of other things. My mother has often asked me, with disbelief clearly visible on her face, whether Deepika alone is going to eat all this,” chuckles Tanujeet.
Amazingly enough, Chowdhury’s in-laws have absolutely no clue that their daughter-in-law has an international win to her name. “I don’t think my husband’s parents are going to understand the sport that I practise. Honestly, I don’t expect them to. But sometimes, keeping things from them becomes quite difficult. I was so scared when I told them I was going to the US on work,” she giggles. Tanujeet says he dreads the day they see her on TV dressed in a bikini, flaunting the body she has worked so hard to hone.