Kabaddi is raiding distant corners of foreign fields as an eclectic bunch has gathered in Ahmedabad for the ongoing World Cup. Shahid Judge rummages through backstories of international players, and finds a few moonlighting in India as kabaddi players when not at their day jobs .
Jakub Szymczyna (36) – Poland (Actor)
Walk-on part to lead role in the cage
A searing pain stung his nose. It was broken. Jakub Szymczyna (pronounced ‘Shim Chi Nah’) sat on the grass of an American Football field in Poland, clutching his face as a medical team sprinted across the park to assess the damage. Yet within that time, a dangerous thought occurred to him. What if the injury left a scar that would hamper his acting career? “They just twisted the nose and put it back in the socket. There was no more fear,” he says.
That same fear briefly struck him when he first started playing kabaddi two years ago – along with the rest of Poles. Now it’s only his wife Martina who often advises him words of caution – particularly before he travelled for the World Cup. “She told me not to let them kill me,” he says, laughing.
It’s a journey he took despite his wife expecting their first child sometime during the Ahmedabad event. Yet it wasn’t a decision that he had many thoughts against making. After all, kabaddi is the only line of occupation that has been working positively for the 36-year-old.
For the past 13 years, Kuba – as he is called by his teammates – has been a struggling actor, shuffling between roles in television serials, theatre and even music videos. So far his list of roles includes a journalist, romantic lead, and even a Viking warrior. His more renowned project has been a monologue on the life of legendary ballet dancer and choreographer Vatslav Nijinsky. Still, he is waiting for a breakthrough project. “It’s very difficult because you need to enjoy the type of project you’re getting. So far I haven’t had that one role that I’ve been especially proud of,” he laments.
Outside the reel life too, he’s juggled between roles, from being a kindergarten teacher in Ireland, to returning to Poland to work as a chef and postman. One constant that remained was his participation in capoeira — a martial art that soon gave way to American football and then Kabaddi.
Along with a handful of players, Kuba has been in the national team since Poland first started playing the sport. Since then, he’s been consumed by it. So much so that he was willing to miss the birth of his first child to compete. “My wife too was very supportive of it. And she’s said not to worry, provided I don’t get killed here,” he adds.
Takamitsu Kono (23) – Japan (Buddhist priest)
The Bulletproof Monk
As a bonafide Buddhist priest, Takamitsu Kono’s responsibilities involve compulsory prayer routines twice a day. On kabaddi match days though, the evening session includes a special set of prayers. “No injuries, and a win for Japan,” he says, smiling.
Hours later, the 23-year-old is sizing up an American raider from his favoured right-corner position.
The defender floats into his opponent’s blind spot and then makes his move. With blistering pace he sprints across the mat and unleashes a powerful dash into the hapless opponent — striking the waist region with his shoulder blade. It’s a technique for which the bulletproof monk credits his four years-worth of experience of playing as a scrum-half in rugby during his college days.
The enthusiastic celebration soon makes way for the realisation that his opponent is hurt. And so, switching roles back to becoming the practitioner of peace from the brawny snarling kabaddi player, Kono helps his crushed opponent back to his feet, joins his hands and bows his head. “The spirit is still gentle,” he says.
Kono has been a part of the Japanese kabaddi set-up for over two years, even playing for his country at the 2014 Asian Games after he featured in the inaugural Pro Kabaddi League season. Yet his primary calling has always been one towards the calmer path of priesthood. “My father is also a priest, and I used to accompany him for prayers since I was a little boy. I knew quite early that this was what I wanted to do,” he mentions.
A minor distraction in the form of rugby did come in the way, and with his father’s permission Kono learnt the sport and excelled in it. But while he was studying Buddhism at college, he came across kabaddi, and it stuck.
A qualified monk for over a year now, Kono often pays visits to the families of the recently departed to offer prayers. Invariably, the topic falls to kabaddi. “Sometimes after praying, they look up videos of kabaddi and I explain it to them.”
Even among his holy peers — who are rarely seen without being dressed in their traditional robes, the Saitama resident brought in a fascination. “They asked me to bring them the Japan jersey when I come back,” he laughs.
David Ritchey (27) – USA (Rapper/tattoo artist)
From marching to Obama’s drum beat
The weight of the tuba used to cause David Ritchey some trouble early on. The massive 15-20 kg brass instrument needed to be strapped to his skinny frame before he could march with it. But it’s a feat he championed, and soon enough, he got the call-up to feature in the marching band that was to play at US President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Still, he looks more at that experience eight years ago as a benefit to his recent tryst with kabaddi. “Playing the tuba takes a lot of breath. So I was well equipped for it when I came to kabaddi,” says the 27-year-old, who is a part of the American team at the Kabaddi World Cup.
The squad was assembled just a month ago, and subsequently, Ritchey made arrangements for leave from his predominant jobs as a tattoo artist and professional rapper — KIP, or ‘Knowledge is Power’ being his stage name. “I can freestyle in a moment, kabaddi is my opponent…” he demonstrates. Additionally, he is a skilled artist as well, with the wood-burning sculpting technique being his latest endeavor.
At an art festival — Fuzzy Pineapple Festival — where Ritchey was playing the bass guitar in his band — The Few G’s — he overheard a friend talking about the kabaddi World Cup and decided to inquire further. A day later, he was in the team. “It was surreal to play in a World Cup straightaway. Sometimes you don’t believe it, because we went from babies to a World Cup,” he mentions.
In the coming few weeks, Ritchey is looking to using his musical background to come up with a theme song for US kabaddi. Over the years, he’s held the likes of Michael Jackson, legendary bassist Abraham Laboriel, and even Bob Marley as his musical inspirations – he has a tattoo of Marley’s face on his right arm.
Meanwhile, he’s been dealing with his fans back home constantly asking about the game ever since he first made it to the team. “I say it is like professional tag, and a bit like rugby,” he says.
England – Someshwar Kalia (26), Nikesh Farmah (24), Keshav Gupta (23), Joshua Enson (22)
Doctor Hu tu tu
The banter never ceases. “He’s just a dentist. That’s not even a doctor,” Keshav Gupta says to Nikesh Farmah. “Well, he isn’t even a doctor yet,” is the reply. It’s an endless episode of ribbing that originated from a rivalry the two England kabaddi players shared across the mat during college. At the same time though, there is much more that connects the pair together, along with Joshua Enson and national captain Someshwar Kalia.
For starters, each of the four England players has an Indian background. Furthermore, all come from a medical stream in terms of vocation. While Farmah is a qualified and practising dentist, Gupta and Enson are doctors in training while Kalia is a professional pharmacist. “We’re always saying that we can fix each other up should injuries happen, no problem,” jokes Kalia, whose grandparents had moved to England before his parents were born.
The quartet first met each other during inter-college kabaddi matches — a level which holds a strong culture for the sport with the likes of elite institutions such as London School of Economics and Imperial College competing. Having graduated from the University of Manchester last year, 24-year-old Farmah has his own clinic, while 26-year-old Kalia works in London. Gupta (23) and Enson (22), meanwhile, are in their last and penultimate years, respectively, at Imperial College. Practice sessions normally take place on a judo mat which doesn’t allow for shoes. “It’s softer so we have to play barefoot, else we’ll get blisters,” Kalia says. Ironically, the kabaddi mat and shoes were introduced to make the sport popular among Europeans.
But when news broke of the World Cup, the quartet recall watching their families go down memory lane. Given their Indian ancestry — Kalia, Farmah and Gupta boasting of roots from Punjab while Enson hails from Kerala — ‘kabaddi’ wasn’t an unfamiliar sport. “I used to play it back in the day when I was in my village,” Kalia imitates his grandfather saying.
Enson, meanwhile, gets calls from his father before each match. “He starts explaining the rules to me,” he says, incredulously. “I say, ‘I know Dad, I’m at the World Cup,’” he adds.
Mariano Pascual (22) – Argentina (Rodeo)
Rodeo to Raider
Life for Mariano Pascual has been all about showmanship. After all, when he isn’t studying for his physical education degree at college, the Junin, Argentina resident is among the star performers at weekend Rodeo shows. “Gaucho Mariano,” he asserts is his proper title.
To the 22-year-old gaucho, or cowboy, the world of sport had mostly been about the rodeo. Finding himself on the saddle of a wild horse, he would wait for the holding doors to open while trying to find a soft grip on the reins to avoid friction burns on the fingers from the ordeal ahead. And once the doors would open, he had the straightforward task of holding on for the 20 second target as the powerful steed would do its best to throw him off.
A star on the circuit, Mariano has grown used to the idea of seeing his face on posters pinned up in the mud arenas of Junin ahead of a gala event. What he isn’t yet used to though, is seeing his photograph on a passport. It’s a document he had to attain in September when he was added to the roster of the Argentina national team that is playing the Kabaddi World Cup in Ahmedabad. And just two months before the selection, he was introduced to the game.
At a seminar on ‘alternative sports’ — essentially non-Olympic events — held at his college, Mariano met the Argentine coach Riccardo Acuna. “I was scared when the coach said I have to go to India. But then he said it’s a World Cup and I’m to play for Argentina. So I agreed,” he says.
In turn, Acuna asserts Mariano’s speed and footwork were what he found most attractive. “His rodeo work has given him strong legs for speed. And all Argentinians have good footwork because of football,” he mentions.
Hailing from the town of O’Brien, 50 km from Junin, Mariano grew up on his parents’ stud farm, learning how to ride and tame horses as a 12-year-old.
Kabaddi has been a different phenomenon for him, yet one his gaucho days have prepared him for.
“I have fallen off horses so many times and it’s been much more dangerous. This game looks safer,” he says smiling.