At 104, Manohar Aich finally surrendered to time. On Sunday afternoon, the first Indian to win the Mr Universe title breathed his last at his Dum Dum residence, near Baguihati on the northern fringes of Kolkata. “He was on a liquid diet for the last 10-15 days. He succumbed to age-related complications,” said Manoj, Aich’s son. Aich is survived by his two sons and two daughters.
Aich, who turned 104 on March 17, became Mr Universe in 1952, long before Bollywood actors started wooing fans with their sculpted frames. That was also the year when the late Jyoti Basu made his first appearance in the West Bengal Assembly.
From a coconut vendor at Sealdah station to world acclaim, it had been a long journey for the little big man. A journey with a dramatic beginning — in a military prison.
Recounting the story, when The Indian Express met him on the eve of his 100th birthday, Aich had said: “It was 1942 and the Quit India movement had gathered considerable momentum. I had been working as a physical instructor in the Royal Indian Air Force, when I protested against the British oppression at the camp. I slapped a British officer, who made an offensive remark against the Indians during the interrogation.
A court-martial and jail time ensued but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The jailor had been very kind and allowed me to train. In fact, he encouraged it. Then, I was shifted to the Alipore Presidency Jail but release followed as India won her freedom. I decided to settle in Kolkata.”
Jogeshwar Paul’s akhara became his next destination, where he would drop in everyday before going to Sealdah station to work as a coconut vendor. As the 1951 Mr Universe contest approached, Aich started to do private bodybuilding shows to raise money for his passage to England.
“I had a failed attempt in 1951 but decided to stay back in London, for I was determined to win it next term. Thankfully, I got a job in the British Rail which helped me live my dream. I returned home only after winning the 1952 competition,” Aich had said.
That was the beginning of the legend. Aich, at 4ft 11in, towered over the rest to earn the sobriquet ‘Pocket Hercules’. He went on to win the Asian Body Building Championships. “He (Aich) was an inspiration to everyone, young and old. Death is inevitable but Manohar Aich will be remembered by all, across every sporting discipline,” legendary footballer Chuni Goswami told The Indian Express.
“Our body is a temple that we must worship. Exercise is the only way to stay healthy,” Aich always maintained. This was the reason why the boy from Comilla, now in Bangladesh, became passionate about bodybuilding. Four years ago, on that sunny March afternoon, he took pride in flexing his wrinkled and rippling muscles but lamented that he could no longer hit the gym. He had suffered a stroke a year before which restricted his movement.
Aich briefly flirted with politics as well, when BJP came calling during the 1997 general elections. He lost that contest. Four years later, he lost his wife Jyotika, whose silent contributions behind the scenes had been immense.
Today, Aich’s legacy lives through his students, eight-time national bodybuilding champion Satya Paul and former Mr Universe Premchand Dogra, and hundreds of others who flock to Bishnu Manohar Aich’s Fitness Centre & Multigym to follow in the footsteps of their idol.