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Friday, September 17, 2021

Bajrang Punia’s wrestle mania

Right from childhood, his life has revolved around wrestling, and encouraged by his father and brother, both ex-wrestlers, Bajrang embarked on a medal-bagging spree which has culminated in an Olympic bronze medal.

Written by Nihal Koshie |
Updated: August 7, 2021 10:30:55 pm
India's Bajrang Bajrang, left, competes against Kazakhstan's Daulet Niyazbekov during their men's freestyle 65kg wrestling bronze medal match. (AP)

It is a story that dates back to when wrestler Bajrang Punia was about 13-years-old. Balwan Singh, his father, still narrates it with pride. At a dangal near Khudan village, where the family is from, Bajrang grappled with a heavier wrestler and defeated him.

“The other pehelwan was about 15 kilograms heavier. Bajrang didn’t hesitate. He outmuscled his opponent. I think it was an exhibition bout. There are no videos of it. But I remember he got the better of his opponent,” Balwan says, chuckling with joy.

Medals his son won in Asian Games, Commonwealth, World Championship, and now the Olympics are close to his heart, but there is a reason Balwan remembers this particular day. The little-known win convinced Balwan his boy was meant to be a wrestler. He was to put the family’s name back in the wrestling spotlight. In telling fashion too, by out-manoeuvring Kazakistan’s Daulet Niyazbekov 8-0.

Strong, fearless

A pehelwan himself, Balwan realised that a young Bajrang had two qualities that the akharas across the region could not teach– natural strength and fearlessness. Now 27, Bajrang’s comebacks when trailing in the final minute is the stuff of legends. He fought back from the brink during the gold medal match of the Asian Championship and the bronze medal bout at the World Championships two years ago.

Bajrang Punia Bajrang’s father Balwan Singh (second from right), mother Om Pyari (right) and older brother Harinder (centre) at their home in Sonipat (Express photo)

His father is amused when asked how he remains confident though the clock is running down. “Even as a teenager, he won bouts after staring at defeat. He is mentally strong but equally important is his smartness. He is quick to spot a window of opportunity and backs himself. I was like this in my younger days.”

Balwan is at home in Sonipat. Six years ago, the family moved from Khudan and closer to the Sports Authority of India centre where Bajrang trains. There is signage fixed across the boundary wall with pictures of Bajrang at felicitations. The Olympic rings painted at the top of the building reflect the house owner’s status. In the evening Balwan sits on the porch, passersby nod in acknowledgment.

Unfulfilled career

Balwan wrestled in dangals for a good part of his youth. A promising university-level wrestler, he dropped out because he had to tend to the three-acre land the family owned. Times were tough back, Balwan says. “I don’t want to make it sound like it was a burden, but I had three daughters and two sons. You have to think of the future too when you have a big family. When the time comes, people will ask what the father does or how much land he owns,” Balwan adds.

Through all his troubles, his one dream was to get his sons into wrestling.Harinder, the older son, followed in his father’s footsteps and joined an akhada. But like his father, he had to give it up and work in the fields. Bajrang was the last big hope. “Bajrang was not mischievous and he towed the line at home. The only time we had to be strict with him was when his obsession for wrestling went overboard. But nobody really complained. We wanted a pehelwan in our family.”

Bajrang’s mother Om Pyari enforced discipline in the house. However, seeing Bajrang’s passion for the sport she admits to sparing the rod a few times. She too has a treasure trove of stories about a young Bajrang. But this one cracks her up even today.

Bajrang Punia Six years ago, Bajrang’s family moved from Khudan and closer to the Sports Authority of India centre where Bajrang trains. (Express photo)

It was a Sunday morning and Bajrang hadn’t woken up till 9 am. She went towards his bed to jolt him awake only to step back surprised. Bajrang had placed pillows and sheets in such a way to give an impression that he was in the bed. He was nowhere to be seen.

“He had left home at 3 am. We knew if he was not at home or in the immediate surroundings he would be at the akhada. That day he went to the akhada and didn’t return till noon. I scolded him for trying to fool us but in my heart, I was happy to see his drive,” Om Pyari says.

Bajrang first followed his brother Harinder to an akhada in Khudan. This was a practice most youngsters followed in the area. “Almost every second or third house in and around our village has someone who has been a wrestler,” Harinder says.

Soon it was obvious who was the more talented of the two.

Prodigy on tractor

A special day on the dangal calendar is Shivaratri. If a wrestler chooses to, he can compete in at least a dozen bouts. Bajrang was always eager. “My father, Bajrang and I would go on a tractor from one village to another. Bajrang would finish one competition at one place, hop onto the tractor and we would go to the next. He must have been around 10 but everyone could see he was talented,” Harinder says looking back.

Bajrang Punia Bajrang first followed his brother Harinder to an akhada in Khudan (File photo)

The little joys of being on the wrestling circuit made Bajrang determined to work harder. “Sometimes he would win Rs 10, on other days it was a box of ladoos, or a bag of oranges and some churma. In winter, the prize was kilo of rewari or groundnuts. We had a tough life back then. Little things were precious. Bajrang and I discuss those days fondly,” Harinder says.

On Friday, as his younger brother began his quest for an Olympic medal, Harinder went on a pilgrimage of 15 temples in his village. “I have been doing this since Bajrang’s cadet days. On days he is competing, I am praying for him. I don’t check my phone nor do I ask anyone about the result. Only when I get back home do I get to know the result. Prayers ensure Bajrang never disappoints.”

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