Inside one of Mumbai’s oldest ‘akhara’, a young runaway finds his destiny as a Kushti wrestler — an ancient and religious sport passed down from the Mughal conquerors of the 16th Century. 15 years later, on the brink of becoming a champion, he must give up his sport and his life as Kushti to honor a sacred obligation.
His older brothers and his sister are all teachers, but Ashoka could never manage to concentrate in school. All through primary school and then into secondary school, Ashoka was scolded daily for looking out the window. His mind was always outside on the playing fields and never on his books. His parents, Suman and Rajan, could not fathom the problem. Education was the mainstay of the Bohra family and every member other than Ashoka gravitated easily and comfortably towards life as an academic. Ashoka was more physical and simply did not have a life of the mind.
When Ashoka turned 14 he knew he had completed the compulsory education mandated by the state and was itching to break loose from the bonds of school. He did not know what he wanted to do, but he knew he did not want to spend another day in school.
The hard part was going to be explaining this to his parents. So he did what countless young men had done before him, rather than face his parents with the tragic news of his wanderlust, he told his sister, who was at least sympathetic to him and begged her not to say anything for a full day so that he could get away from their grasp. He promised to keep in touch with her. He had saved up enough money to feel he could survive for a while and he knew enough to know that he was not the only young man in India who would have to work for a living to survive.
What was very different about Ashoka was that he was not a lower caste young man like most of the other runaways and street children. He was a Brahmin. He had grown up in a strict Vedic Hindu home.
When Ashoka was eight years old he was admitted to his religion through the Ceremony of the Sacred Thread, which is an ancient rite of passage into adolescence entered into only by Hindu boys in the upper castes.
He had been trained by his guru to accept the sacred obligations and to renounce his material possessions. Ashoka was strangely drawn to the ritual despite its school-like studies. He liked the purity of forsaking material things. He actually memorized his obligations, called Rin, with great focus (even surprising his parents and teacher). His sacred thread or Janoi was his most prized possession.
So as all sadhus do after their rite of passage, Ashoka began his journey on foot and became one of the millions of pedestrians one sees on the streets of India moving in a direction, but not necessarily with apparent conviction. He decided for some reason to head west.
Within a month, he found his way to Mumbai, where there is a small but pleasant temple in the north end of the city set in a large lawn. He went there ostensibly to find shade from the Arabian Sea heat of midday. But what he found was a wizened priest who gruffly asked him where he lived. The hesitation was an obvious tell and the priest nodded knowingly. He reached over and took Ashoka’s upper arm in his old hand and squeezed. Ashoka was a young, strong, athletic man and he had the muscles to back it up. The priest felt the strength in his arm and saw the determination in his eye and made an immediate decision, as he had to daily with all the wandering children who came to his temple for shade.
Mumbai was not a center for Kushti like those you find in the northern provinces. But the wrestlers of Mumbai were especially dedicated due to a very strict and religious guru who ran the akhara. The gym was one of the oldest in town and looked to be an original from the 16th Century, including the red clay mud of the floor.
This particular gym was as recently as forty years ago home to over three hundred wrestlers, however numbers have dwindled to about thirty as other more modern sports have become popular in India. It all intrigued Ashoka as he had never even heard of Kushti, much less seen it in action.
What he did have from his days of religious training was a great deal of respect for the priest and the guru, so when the priest handed him over to the guru, Ashoka went willingly. The truth was that he had nowhere in particular to go anyway and sports were his passion. He had never wrestled in an organized manner (brotherly wrestling notwithstanding), but the sheer physicality of it and the highly trained bodies of the wrestlers all around him intrigued him to the point where he would have stayed even had he not been commanded to stay by the priest.
The guru threw Ashoka a kowpeenam, or loincloth, and motioned him to put it on. There was clearly no room for modesty in this gym and Ashoka stripped down on the spot and put on the cloth that he would wear exclusively for years to come. The guru yelled to one of the younger boys to come over and mix it up with Ashoka just to see what would happen. This is the Kushti version of throwing the newcomer into the deep end of the pool to see if he would sink or swim. The priest sat with his back to the wall, clearly recognizing this as Ashoka’s induction test.
Ashoka simply did what came natural to him and tried to avoid being grabbed in one defensive move after another. The guru was very intense in watching the match. Defensive moves were somewhat driven by the cerebral cortex much like the traditional knee-jerk, but Ashoka had a fluidity to his movement that was noticeable to the guru.
He spun around unexpectedly, grabbing his opponent’s ankle to sweep him off his feet. He seemed to almost surprise himself and did not seize the initiative by jumping immediately on the wrestler seeking the pin. The opponent quickly and embarrassedly jumped to his feet and immediately charged Ashoka. Ashoka spun quickly in the other direction and the boy lunged down into the clay with a thud.
Ashoka was as surprised as every other wrestler in the gym, who had mostly stopped their training to watch this newcomer’s technique. The guru immediately stopped the match and shouted to his wrestlers to get back to their training. He turned to the priest and nodded. The priest left and patted Ashoka on the shoulder as he walked past.
The guru walked with Ashoka to the back of the gym to where the wrestlers lived when they were not on the gym floor, which was almost never. He showed him to a mat on the hard floor and told him he was welcome to stay and train with the akhara as long as he wished. He only had to commit to being pious and dedicated.
It was the guru’s standard first day speech and it all sounded fine to Ashoka. But as the guru turned to leave he turned back to Ashoka and asked, “where did you learn to spin in both directions like that?”
Ashoka was a man of few words, so he just shrugged and said, “Nowhere, I just did it...” This was the answer the guru was hoping to hear and he smiled as he walked back into the gym.
And so Ashoka came to live the life of the Kushti. In poorer towns the akhara did not have the space or resources to house and feed its wrestlers, but in Mumbai the Kushti fans and, indeed, the insistence of the guru demanded it. This was a blessing and a curse for the wrestlers.
No need to work, but full time exhausting training. Exercices used little equipment other than the wrestler’s own bodyweight. There was a dilapidated weight room with bits and pieces of equipment which were purchased in the sixties, but the wrestlers only used it to stay warm in between bouts. From 3am to 8pm it was constant training and sparring, with an occasional massage to keep their muscles from seizing up altogether. Breakfast was served at 7am, with lunch at 1pm, followed by an hour and a half rest period from 2pm.
On Ashoka’s thirtieth birthday he was given a gift of an extra piece of Nan bread by the guru at breakfast and was acknowledged by the guru. Praise and recognition were not part of the program at the akhara and the guru, who was so old now as to be almost non-ambulatory, was not an easy-going manager. Tough discipline with an abundance of “stick versus carrot” were his modus operandi. But all the wrestlers at the akhara knew that Ashoka was easily first among all the equals at the gym, even though he managed to never use it or even acknowledge his position. He had never lost a match since the first day he had arrived at the akhara.
The guru, who had toiled in the arena his whole life had never even met any of the Indian champions in person, so this was a remarkable situation, especially for his modest akhara in Mumbai. In fact, the success of the akhara was bringing spectators from all over the region to see the champion wrestler of Mumbai.
He was never bored by the harsh training regimen of the Kushti. He never complained and he truly never looked for more. He had only been out of the akhara a handful of times other than for away matches. He had no needs. He had renounced most material things. And the food of the Kushti with its milk, almonds and fresh fruit was as agreeable to him as anything he had ever eaten in his life. In short he was happy, accomplished, respected and had a lifelong future as a wrestler and then a coach and perhaps even some day as a guru himself.
And then one day everything changed.
He had honored his promise to his sister and written to her with his whereabouts. She would send him the occasional letter, but now that she was married (no surprise, to another teacher), she was busy with her children and her work life. So it was with great surprise that Ashoka got an urgent letter from his sister one day. She explained that their father and mother were no longer able to care for themselves. Both of his brothers were doing missionary teaching in Africa and she was unable to spare time or money to care for their parents. She begged Ashoka to come home to help to care for them.
He did not go into the gym the next morning and even skipped breakfast. The guru came in to see him and asked what was the matter. When Ashoka told the story of his sister’s letter and his parents’ need, he also reached under his mat and took out a small pouch that was the only personal possession he owned other than his loincloth. It was his Janoi.
At first the guru was shocked. He had never had a wrestler from one of the upper castes. And then Ashoka explained that he was Brahmin. To the guru’s knowledge, no Brahmin had ever been a Kushti wrestler, much less a Rustam-i-Hind. He looked into the eyes of his guru and the guru immediately understood. When a young Hindu takes his sacred oath, one of the three Rins, or debts he assumes, is to his parents. It is his Pitri Rin, a very sacred and specific obligation to care for one’s parents, especially in their old age.
The guru went into town that day and bought Ashoka a pair of pants, a shirt and some proper shoes. He told Ashoka to put them on and to wear his Janoi under his shirt as he was supposed to. He then gave Ashoka a train ticket to Kolkata and told him he must go care for his mother.
Ashoka had never disobeyed his guru his whole life and it never occurred to do so at this time. He loved Kushti. But his strength and determination are a derivative of his faith, and there is nothing more sacred than Yagyopaveet with its roots in the fundamental Dharma of life.
So Ashoka went to Kolkata. He took a job at the local secondary school that he had hated so much, but at least his job was to be an assistant athletics coach. His physique won him the job and secretly the head coach was a Kushti fan and had read the story in the sports pages of the champion Kushti wrestler who had quit on the verge of being named Rustam-i-Hind to fulfil a sacred obligation of his Hinduism.
As for the guru, he wrote Ashoka a letter that he kept under his bed for the rest of his life. It said quite simply that he was more proud of Ashoka for not becoming a champion than anything he had ever done during his life as a Kushti wrestler.