A race of weaklings? Effeminate aesthetes more likely to be writing poetry than lifting weights? Sandip Roy delves into a surprising history of musclemen, barefoot footballers and Tagore the wrestler
I was in San Francisco when Manohar Aich died in Kolkata this year.
It did not surprise me. After all, he was almost 104. But it saddened me because he had seemed indestructible somehow. All 4’11” of him.
When I met him he had already crossed 100. A bald toothless gnome of a man, he was sitting on the verandah of his house in the morning sun in a white dhoti and red sleeveless vest, the Anandabazar Patrika newspaper folded across his lap. He seemed neither pleased nor displeased to see me. He didn’t look like a man who had once slapped an Englishman and gone to jail for it.
When I asked him something about that time he won the Mr Universe title, he said shortly, “What do I remember? That was a long time ago.”
He had won the title in 1952. It was not yet the age of the multi-gym, protein supplements and John Abraham. His victory garnered him no product deals, no mega endorsement contracts. He made a living as a circus strongman, his son told me. He would lift 600-pound weights and bend six-inch nails into the shapes of letters of the English alphabet. A disciple and fellow body-builder, Kshitish Chatterjee, told me he went to Aich’s house and saw his wife frying up naari-bhuri (offal) that she had gotten for two annas for him. That was all the high-protein diet he could afford. “We were natural bodybuilders,” said Chatterjee. “Our guru was Manohar Aich. Now the guru is the druggist.”
“I never thought of gyms as a business,” said Manohar Aich. “I did it because I had the ichche (the desire).”
I never had that ichche. Physical exercise was the bane of my existence growing up in Kolkata. Physical education was the only class I dreaded. When we played cricket in school during recess, I was one of the last to be chosen on the team and usually banished to some remote frontier where the ball rarely ventured. On wet monsoon days, as my schoolmates splashed eagerly in the mud and rain with a football, I flinched every time the ball came too near. On mellow winter afternoons, when the neighbourhood boys set up “street cricket” in the middle of our intersection with a pile of bricks serving as the wicket, I always found other things to do.
I tried to compensate for my lack of interest in sports in other ways.
I learned to be good with words. I learned to debate. I got on the school quiz team. I was the class elocutionist. It was all part of the armour of the good upper-middle-class Bengali boy with the side parting in his hair and no sporting skills (and worse, no real interest in sports either). You had to be good at something so that you would not get teased in school. I didn’t want to be like A, that nambypamby boy who had no friends. I knew what they said about him. Nyeka. It was the ultimate put-down, a word that defied translation into English. Simpering. Coquettish. Affected. Girly. No one wanted to be nyeka. While nyeka crossed gender lines, it stung particularly to be dubbed a nyeka boy.
My parents enrolled me for tennis lessons. I made excuses to get out of them. His wrist is too weak, the trainer told my parents with some exasperation. I was signed up for swimming class. I scoured the sky every summer afternoon, hoping for a reprieve via a thunderstorm. “It’s your fault,” I told my parents angrily. “You told me to study, study, study. And now my head is too big and I just sink in the pool.” I secretly sent off for a kit guaranteed to make me taller from some post box in Karol Bagh in Delhi. It arrived. It was a rip-off, a photocopied booklet of dubious exercises that demanded I dangle from all kinds of things.
Joshurey koi, a great aunt dubbed me, fondly patting my head. The koi fish of Jessore was renowned for its large head. The appellation made everyone smile but it did not help. I could just blame it on my cultural inheritance. I do not know if the meek will inherit the earth, but the nyeka had already inherited Bengal.
Bengalis, despite all their derring-do during the fight for Independence, have always been dismissed as a race of weaklings. Orientalist William Jones called us a “placid and submissive people”. Lord Macaulay pinpointed the reason for our weakness. Like a true Englishman, he blamed the weather. The Bengali, he said, was weak because he spent his days submerged in a “constant vapour bath”. In the 19th century Horatio Smith wrote in The Calcutta Review that the Bengali’s maxim was “walking is better than running, standing than walking, sitting than standing, and lying down best of all”. “His pursuits are sedentary, his limbs delicate, his movements languid,” wrote Macaulay, apparently struggling to explain the concept of nyeka in the Queen’s English.
We were earmarked for desk jobs as babus and clerks for the East India Company. It was the perfect justification for colonisation, writes Mrinalini Sinha in her book Colonial Masculinity. In an age where women did not have the vote, the “effeminate” Bengali was deemed unfit for political enfranchisement by the “manly” English. Every now and then a rare creature like Subhas Bose burst onto our firmament, a pucca Bengali martial hero. No wonder Bengalis of all political stripes still cling to him, determined not to accept any proof of Netaji’s death, in a plane crash or otherwise. After all, the Bengali stalwarts who came after him, the likes of Jyoti Basu and Pranab Mukherjee, were great survivors and cunning strategists but more scuttling hobbit than daring action hero. (Netaji in his Azad Hind Fauj uniform was our last great martial hero.)
In his book Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India, Ronojoy Sen writes, “Bengalis quickly took to heart these criticisms about physical inadequacy and started believing them. Thus the novelist Bankim Chandra Chattapadhyay could say, without any doubt, that Bengalis always lacked ‘physical valour’, even though he had no tangible evidence of that.” Long before I was ordering kits from Karol Bagh, Bengalis were flexing their muscles and trying to buck their own stereotype.
Rabindranath Tagore might be charged with making sure that lilting Rabindra Sangeet replaced hot blood in Bengali veins but in 1867 it was the Tagore family that sponsored a Hindu mela to promote wrestling, gymnastics, stick fighting and other sports to reclaim manliness. Tagore himself learned to wrestle. Swami Vivekananda beams down beatifically in flowing orange robes from calendars in Bengali homes these days, but he once won first prize in gymnastics and mastered lathi play and fencing and boxing. He asked, “How will you struggle with the mind unless the physique be strong?” He exhorted his countrymen to “understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles”.
And then there was wrestling. Great Gama was the Lion of Punjab, a legendary figure. Our neighbour in Kolkata named his Alsatian Gama in tribute. When the dog died he was buried in his driveway under a tree and as children we feared walking there after dark, convinced that the ghost of Gama lay in wait. But Bengal had its Gamas too. In an essay titled “Cultures of the Body in Colonial Bengal”, Abhijit Gupta tells the story of Jatindra Chandra Guha or Gobor Guha.
Gobor Guha came from generations of wrestlers, but he was rather overweight, and saddled with the nickname Gobor or cow dung. Gobor started training under his uncle, writes Gupta. He did 2,500 baithaks or push-ups. He wore a stone collar around his neck weighing 160 pounds. His history teacher at Calcutta’s Metropolitan School beat him practically every day. That apparently added to his endurance. He went to England and defeated the great Estonian wrestler, the “Scotch Giant” George Hackenschmidt. He won a purse of 1,500 pounds, 70 per cent of the ticket sales and the title “British Empire Heavyweight Wrestling Champion”. And then, in 1921, he went to San Francisco and defeated Adolf Santel, the world light heavyweight wrestling champion, to wrest that title.
But even a wrestling champion could not quite escape the Bengali intellectual stereotype. Gobor Guha appeared in the San Francisco Call and was described as a “wrestler, poet, philosopher, critic” who could discuss not just wrestling but George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen and Charlie Chaplin.
I did not know about Gobor Guha while growing up, or that Tagore had been a wrestler. We were told about the illustrious history of Presidency College but not that it had made gymnastic classes mandatory from 1897. We knew about the great rivalry between the football clubs of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan but not enough about 1911, when 80,000 people cheered the barefoot players of Mohun Bagan as they took on the East Yorkshire Regiment in the IFA Shield final. That day the East Indian Railway ran a special train and additional steamer services were introduced to Kolkata. Mohun Bagan won that game 2-1 and became the first Indian team to win the shield, a triumph that Gupta writes “can only be compared to the impact which the victory of Joe Louis over Max Schmelling had over African Americans in the United States”.
The media of the time read two things into that victory, according to Ronojoy Sen: “first, clear evidence that Bengalis did not lack physical prowess and, second, the nationalistic implications of the victory”. The Bengalee decreed that its namesake was “no longer the timid and weak-kneed representative of the race whom Macaulay so foully bullied”. And The Nayak said that the match filled “every Indian with joy and pride to know that rice-eating, malaria-ridden, barefooted Bengalis have got the better of beef-eating, Herculean, booted John Bull in the peculiarly English sport”.
Sadly, the flush of victory did not last very long. The players were mostly soon forgotten, as were the job offers made to them. Somewhere along the way we lost track of most of those stories. We embraced the poet Rabindranath but forgot that his niece Sarala Devi opened an academy of martial arts in her home in Calcutta in 1902. We did not talk about the old school gymnasiums or akharas and Anushilam Samitis that mushroomed all over North Kolkata, part gym, part training club for nationalists.
I wish now I had known about this other Bengal—this strange colourful world of strongmen and iron-benders. Shyamakanta Mukherjee wrestled tigers and ultimately became a monk. Bhim Bhabani Saha could balance two elephants on his chest and pull vehicles with his teeth. Suresh Chandra Biswas ran away to join a circus in London at the age of 17 and then became a colonel in the Brazilian army. Priyanath Bose set up the Great Bengal Circus.
Priyanath Bose had his own akhara in Simulia and coached in many other gymnasia where he had strict rules for his pupils. No paan, no smoking, no snuff. And no fancy haircuts. Even the Viceroy Lord Dufferin was impressed by his gymnastic feats and called him Professor Bose. But when Bose had a dream of setting up an all-Bengali circus, his father was aghast. Manmohan Bose was a poet, playwright and fiery orator. He refused to give his son any money to set up his circus. He wanted him to be a drawing instructor instead.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of the Bengali’s conflicted relationship with his physique. The gentleman amateur was acceptable but the professional athlete was viewed with suspicion, writes John Rosselli in The Self-Image of Effeteness. “The Hindu Mela,” he writes, wanted each akhara leader to be a “man of education and a gentleman” and a professional athlete but somehow the two felt “incompatible”. It was class, plain and simple. Gobor Guha fought to rescue wrestling from the idea that if they “wrestle in a loincloth they will be mistaken for durwans”.
Don’t go to the gym so much, my mother tells her grandson. “What do you want to be? A pehlwan?” The good Bengali boy does not flaunt his muscles. The good Bengali boy keeps his shirt buttoned. The good Bengali boy might know all his sports statistics but he does not aspire to be a pehlwan.
Then, in 2002, Sourav Ganguly, quintessential good Bengali boy, product of a respectable missionary school, whipped off his shirt on the Lord’s balcony as India defeated England in a stunning victory. Nowadays when Ganguly appears on television in his new avatar as quizmaster and is asked about that moment, he blinks a little embarrassedly, eager to leave the unusually exuberant machismo behind him.
But even a non-cricket fanatic like me knew this was a moment going down in cultural history. Ganguly was whirling not just his shirt but the very self-image of Bengali effeteness and that too in the Lord’s balcony. The Empire had just struck back and shown not its fangs, but its chest hair.
Ganguly never did it again but I like to think that somewhere the inhibition of the upper-middle-class Bengali cracked at that moment. Now in the newly liberalised India, everyone has embraced the gym.
I remember the first few gyms springing up in Kolkata. They promised full body workouts and no machine workouts. There were even gyms with jiggling machines to redistribute fat. And there were gyms in people’s garages and living rooms where the attendant turned on the fan and pulled plastic covers off machines with a sigh when you showed up in the middle of the afternoon.
Now the gyms are professional and air-conditioned with Bollywood songs ricocheting off the walls and more uniformed personal trainers than machines. They have signs everywhere: “Outside shoes not permitted.”
But there’s still an endearing core of Bengali-ness lurking somewhere.
The first time I got on a cardio machine in Kolkata a trainer came rushing up to me.
“Sir, are you sure you want to use that machine?”
I looked at him quizzically.
He asked to see my chart. At my gym in Kolkata, everyone has a chart. I handed it over as if I was some shady immigrant asked to show his documents.
“Ah,” he said, stabbing at it triumphantly with his finger. “See. You are in the Weight Gain Programme.”
I’ve always been mystified by that. Not muscle gain. But weight gain. I smiled weakly and said, “Well, I don’t want all my weight gain to come from fat.”
The trainer was not amused.
“Sir, surely there will be some fat gain with muscle gain,” he explained patiently. “But first you gain weight. Then we can work on losing the fat.”
Eventually we came to a compromise. I would be allowed to do cardio but I was not to let my heart rate go over 127 and I would only do the running track and the stationary bike, not the machine I had selected.
“That one will cause heavy calorie loss,” said the trainer. I had a vision of all my weight gain disappearing into a puddle of sweat on the machine itself. Then my trainer abandoned me mid-routine. “Biswajit, can you show sir the rest of the routine?” he said. “I need to go get something to eat.”
I’ve learned to recognise the clientele. There are the chubby housewives who come mid-morning. There are the marriageable girls coming for that quick pre-wedding tune up. There are the wannabe muscle boys who spend all their time checking themselves out in the mirror and comparing supplement prices in the locker room.
But it’s the trainers who are the most interesting. Young men and women from the outer suburbs of the city—this is suddenly their ticket into a new world. The worlds of these men and women would ordinarily have crossed the worlds of their clients fleetingly in a departmental store or supermarket. But in the gym their role changes.
They might call you “sir” but they are still the trainer. They get to tell you what you are doing wrong. They get to banter with you about your day. They get to scold you into lifting that weight one more time and no whining. For an hour or so, as you work out, they get to order you around.
Something is being flexed at these gyms. And it’s not just muscle.
Manohar Aich lived to see his lonely passion—the worship of the body—go mainstream. There’s even a gym that bears his name right across from his modest house. The Bishnu Manohar Aich’s Multigym and Fitness Centre is run by his son. But his son admits his father did not care for its regimen. He only liked big muscles and the old iron gym with its faded poster of Conan the Barbarian.
The age of Manohar Aich has ended. The air-conditioned age of the Manohar Aich Multigym and Fitness Centre has begun. And even I, still the most unsporty of Bengalis, can finally belong for the price of a gym membership.
This article is part of Oct-Dec issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme for the issue is “The Body”.
In this issue, vascular surgeon Ambarish Satwik writes on his days as a student of anatomy, Paromita Vohra traces the journey of gym-sculpted hairless bodies in Bollywood, Manjula Padmanabhan draws and describes her childhood pains, dancer Leela Samson writes on challenges faced by an Indian classical dancer, Shougat Dasgupta laments soullessness in sports, Sandip Roy delves into the story of India’s first Mr Universe who died at 104 and Jannatul Mawa reveals a lot in her award winning series where she clicks employers and their maids seated together. Elsewhere, Prashant Panjiar’s quixotic photo essay captures the “we-are-like-this-only” aspect of Indians. Kishore Singh explores the connection, if any, between where an artist lives and his work. We also have the last poem by the celebrated French poet, Yves Bonnefoy, written shortly before he died this year in our Fiction and Poetry section.
Feature image illustration: Boris Séméniako