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The Handover

An unwritten rule of the akhadas where wrestlers bond passing on knowledge.

Written by Vinayak Padmadeo | Published: September 22, 2013 1:31:26 am

Vinayak Padmadeo explores Indian wrestling’s trusted tradition of handwaal that has seen stars like Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt shepherd youngsters such as Amit Kumar and Bajrang through myriad akhada challenges and onto success at the world level

The buzz about ‘Phitle’,the sensational move used by Yogeshwar Dutt to flip his North Korean opponent Ri Jong Myon like a well done omelette,had rung through the Excel Arena — the rustic Haryanvi intonations of the remarkable manoeuvre bringing some desi glee to the dull British air of the London Olympics. As India picked two medals in two days — Sushil Kumar’s silver came next evening — akhada jargon like Haathi Chinghaadh,Dasti Khichna and Khmeda picked decibel in TV studios and drawing rooms well beyond the mud-pits of rural India where wrestlers chattered.

But the most quaint,and operative of these akhada argots is the handwaal — a charming tradition amongst India’s wrestlers that defines the thick bonding they share with their peers and seniors.

An unwritten rule of the akhadas where wrestlers bond passing on knowledge that will never be found in the sport’s training manuals,while sharing and contributing daily consumables like badam,ghee and milk to sustain each other’s daily needs. Handwaal is a little like — but perhaps much more than — how a car-pool works for a dweller in the city.

It starts with reverential introductions of aspirants to seasoned pehelwaans by relatives or acquaintances from the same village,and as the bonding is forged and a group formed,comes the unspoken oath to stick by each other through thick and thin.

Handwaal is India’s unique tradition,passed through generations,which helps the top established wrestlers groom youngsters. For a sport that is unabashedly combat,it can also end up pitting the master against his disciple,should they be fighting in the same weight category at a later stage.

But loyalties — penned in sparring sweat,occasionally the gash of blood — are never forgotten and obeisance takes over as soon as the two step out of the mat,though in most cases the protege steps back to make way for the senior.

While London brought two medals to the nation,handwaal has ensured that the tally is maintained at the World Championships a year after the 2012 Games. Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt’s understudies — Amit Kumar and Bajrang respectively,groomed by their ustaads — have carried the baton forward as India finished with its best performance at the Worlds,mirroring the Olympics with a silver and bronze medal.

This clique,in fact,is one of the most important reasons why wrestlers like Bajrang and Amit Kumar can thrive despite coming from low-income backgrounds.

Brothers in arm

Bajrang’s family owns 5 acres of farm land. But the size of the family — three sisters,two brothers,besides an alcoholic father,Balwant Singh and a doting mother — meant that there was next to nothing to feed his training needs and the wrestler’s naturally ravenous appetite.

Enter Narendra Poonia and Yogeshwar Dutt. Poonia,who hails from the same Khudan village in Jhajjar where Bajrang,the recent Wrestling World Championship bronze medallist comes from,brought the eager beaver into the Chhatrasal Stadium fold. What really helped Bajrang’s case was the fact that Poonia and Dutt were the best of buddies. Between the two mentors,all of Bajrang’s needs were taken care of— be it badam,ghee,and milk. Getting into Dutt’s handwaal opened up a whole set of perks.

Apart from the occasional runs to the mess kitchen to fetch freshly cooked rotis,or to serve ghee dripping sabzi and the daily routine to ground badaam,Bajrang wasn’t asked to bring anything more to the table. And the perks were immense.

During the Senior Asian Wrestling Championship in New Delhi in April this year,Yogeshwar cranked out and turned on the heater of his Ford Endeavor — used as a substitute for a sauna bath — after they discovered the room packed with Bajrang still needing to drop 400grams before the weigh-ins.

It is these small but thoughtful acts of generosity that ensure that Bajrang has no qualms in dedicating his medal to his mentor,and he thinks nothing of serving Yogeshwar dinner on the day when he should be out strutting his medal and enjoying his time in the spotlight.

“Yogeshwar bhai ke liye kuch bhi,” Bajrang says,as his junior akhada mates make a beeline to take his blessings. “I will not mind if I am asked to serve him food right now because he treats me like his younger brother and has guided me ever since I joined this akhada. Besides he is and will always remain my senior,” Bajrang says on his return from the big bronze medal in Budapest.

Give and take

These sentiments get repeated by Pradeep Kumar and Amit Kumar,both from Sushil’s coterie. Pradeep is the double Olympic medallist’s long-time heir-apparent,his roommate and a loyal friend. But in response to the question of whether he will fight Sushil if needed,he explains just how the handwaal works in everyone’s favours.

“First of all,it is an impossible scenario that a fight will happen between us. But if it does,there is no chance that I will end up beating him,” says the 26-year-old 66kg grappler. The only time these two were close to a face-off was during the 2008 wrestling nationals held in Gonda,Uttar Pradesh — which was also the last time Sushil competed at the Nationals. “Sushil won the gold and I bagged silver,” Pradeep says. Nudge him further,and the truth spills out. “Actually I withdrew from the fight. There is no way I would have fought him.” That act was reciprocated. Being the No.1 replacement,Pradeep was sent to international meets when Sushil chose not to fight. “Ye ek tarah ka give-and-take hai,” explains Yashvir Singh,former coach of Indian free style team. “If a wrestler backs out,he may get a chance in some of the smaller tournaments like the Commonwealth Championships or the Asian meets. You can call it anything,but this is how it works,” he adds.

The other benefits coming the way of the favourites,by way of their association with the big lads,is the psychological edge,a cloak of borrowed strength that falls over them and wades off competitors in the national scenario.

“Once you get into the inner coterie and get to practice with the likes of Sushil and Yogeshwar you get marked. ‘Arre,he practices with Sushil,Yogeshwar,he must be good,’ it is believed. Many at the Nationals lose even before a bout starts,reeling from this fear. No doubt that Pradeep and others have the talent,but the benefits are immense for them,” the coach adds.

Putting in a word

There is another route to getting an entry to Sushil’s and Yogeshwar’s largesse. Talent. Harful Singh is a prime example of that. Harful won the 2009 Youth Commonwealth Games and was immediately taken under Sushil’s wings. But a bad injury in 2010 derailed his fast-tracking onto the seniors national scene. His left knee-cap was shattered and needed two surgeries to fix. Sushil footed the bill for the surgery,which was around Rs 1.60 lakh. Currently on his way back to full strength after staying out in rehab post injury for close to two years,Harful says he is grateful to his mentor,for life.

Another of the Chhatrasal trainees to have immensely benefited from his association with Sushil is Amit Kumar,the second big winner — silver medal — from the Budapest Wrestling World Championships. Amit had just completed his rehab from a hand injury but missed out on joining the camp for the junior Asian championship that was being held in Pune because he couldn’t participate in the junior nationals. But a representation in front of the champion wrestler and then national coach Yashvir got him a ticket for the trials. Yashvir spoke to the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) officials and convinced them to give Amit a chance.

Not only did he win the trials in Pune,Amit also went on to win the Asian Junior gold medal and,three months later,on the back of securing the top-five spot at the senior Nationals,made his way to the senior national camp in Sonepat. 2012 was another big year for the Narhi resident as he became the youngest Indian wrestler to bag a spot at the Olympics.

“Sushil had long told me that Amit will become a big name in wrestling. Sushil loves the way Amit attacks,which somewhat resembles his ways. But he was very happy that one small act from us was reciprocated by big performances by Amit,” Yashvir says.

From that day,Sushil has been his guiding light. The double Olympic medallist has on a couple of occasions gone out of his way to help Amit get a job. Right after the Olympics high,the Haryana government had organised a welcoming ceremony in Gohana for both Sushil and Yogeshwar for their medal wins.

There,Sushil requested Deepinder Hooda,Congress MP from Rohtak and son of Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda to give Amit a job. Within minutes,an announcement was made that the Haryana government would hand him the post of an inspector. It is another matter that the protege chose ONGC instead.

“We are thankful to God that today we are in a position to help our juniors. I help whoever I can help. I am not like this only for Chhatrasal trainees. You can ask any trainees from Capt Chand Roopji Akhada or Guru Hanuman Akhada; I am like this with everyone,even Narsingh (who trains in Mumbai). I think it is very important to help juniors and this is the only reason why we have returned with two World Championship medals,” Sushil avers. There’s clearly more to India’s wrestling success than passing down the akhada heirlooms like Phitle and Haathi Chinghaadh,as yet another chapter gets added to the famed handwaal custom.

I ensure Bajrang has to only worry about training: Yogeshwar

Within minutes of winning the bronze at the Worlds,Bajrang spoke about the role his senior,Yogeshwar Dutt,played in his journey to the podium. Though,the London Olympic bronze winner Dutt played down his role in grooming Bajrang,he did speak at length about the akhada tradition of passing the tricks of the trade to juniors. Excerpts from an interaction with the senior Dutt:

You are known to help young pehelwans,Bajrang is only one of them …

These wrestlers are from a rural background and most don’t get financial support from their homes. We seniors have the resources now,so we should share. This is the system at our akhada. For example,in case I can take care of the dietary needs of a few talented upcoming wrestlers,it will be a big help for them.

Apart from Bajrang,you also keep Rajneesh,another of your proteges in your 60 kg weight division,under your wings …

It is good to have competition. Previously,whenever I was sitting out,Rajneesh would take my place by defeating others and that including Bajrang. Now,Bajrang has stepped it up. Both are like my younger brothers; I ensure that they only have to worry about their training and nothing else.

What about backing,like the one you got from Mittal Champions Trust.

I got my first sponsor in 2008. So I know how important it is to be a part of a professional set up. So the first thing I did was to recommend a few talented wrestlers like Bajrang and Rajneesh to the Mittals. Now that they have been signed,life is easy for them.

How satisfying is it to help these youngsters?

They are our future. Both me and Sushil are on our last legs and at the most we can extend it till the Rio Olympics. So we are helping out because we don’t want a situation to occur where India’s wrestling record suffers once we are gone.

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