Q Describe your childhood.
A It wasn’t an easy one. You see, I was a frail kid. I was a premature baby and weighed only 210 gms at birth. The doctor said that I won’t survive, but it appears I was a fighter even as a baby. When I was three and half years old I was stricken with gathiya (rheumatoid arthritis) which almost paralysed me. I wasn’t even able to do my daily chores. My joints were so weak that I kept falling. My worried family took me to various desi vaids who gave many medicines and even injections but nothing worked. Even at the AIIMS in New Delhi the doctors did not hold out much hope that I’d ever be cured. Finally I was given a wheel chair and that was the only way I could get around.
Miraculously the condition disappeared when I entered my teens. I did a lot of yoga and strengthening exercises, took ayurvedic herbs, amla, kali mirch, tulsi (basil leaves). My hard work paid off and I was finally able to stand on my own two feet.
It has been 16 years now since I gave up the wheel chair.
Q How did you get into wrestling?
A I belong to Madina village, which is located in Rohtak district in Haryana. People here are crazier about wrestling than cricket. As a child I grew up watching wrestling tournaments in our village since the ticket price was very affordable (cricket was beyond my reach financially). When I was 8 years old I persuaded a friend to take me to the akhada where the match was taking place. A trainer spotted me on my wheel chair and demanded to know what I was doing there. I told him I wanted to be a wrestler and had come to see the fight. He started laughing and remarked “if you can be a wrestler then anyone can aspire to be a wrestler.” He advised me to give up my dream as “you have zero chance of ever entering a wrestling ring. If you just become fit that would be your biggest achievement.”
Years later when I became wrestler and was chosen to represent India in the world championships I went back to the trainer who snubbed me. I told him “You were wrong. But your words worked like a tonic. Whenever I got tired while training or during a match, your words would come back to my mind and that helped me to keep going and keep working harder.”
I always believed that if god has given me a new life, there must surely be some reason behind it and I wanted to make the most out of it. But there came a point whern even I started losing hope. Indeed I would have given up my dreams had it not been for Pandit Satveer Maharaj who told me “nothing is impossible; you can overcome your disabilities!”
Q Describe your early days in the wrestling arena.
A My elder brother Sanjay Kumar used to be a wrestler. He gave up wrestling after hurting his lower back which left him with a slip disc and a pinched nerve that affected leg movement too. Unfortunately on my very first day at the akhada, I too suffered an injury. A fellow wrester pushed me so hard that my shoulder was fractured. So my family was very angry -- first my elder brother, now me! The sport was wreaking havoc. It took a long time for them to come around. But my mother Ramo Devi went to great lengths to support my passion and made many sacrifices so that I could have atleast 3 rotis and a glass of milk every day to stay fit. Our financial circumstances were so dire that I didn’t even own sports shoes. I used to practice in the scorching sand bare foot and cool my feet in water.
Q So how did you become a pro?
A Winning at the district level helped me graduate to pro wrestling. On borrowed money I trained in the Greco–Roman style (120-pound category). In one fight my jaw was fractured. I cried a lot -- less from the pain and more because I did not know how I was going to I clear my loan! Now before I enter the ring I have to sign my own death certificate; if I am injured or something happens to me I am responsible for myself.
Q What’s is your favourite move in the ring?
A The dhobi pachad, also known as Power Slam. I attempt this move very often. If I get it right, it’s a winner.
Q Describe your diet.
A I am wrestler so I have to stay fit, fine and strong. I follow a disciplined routine and have food only after I work out. Even if I am travelling I make it a point to work out first. I believe in eating less and working more.
Being a pure vegetarian, I opt only for natural foods like milk (loads of it), yogurt, chawanprash, ashwagandha, honey. I start my day with amla, aloe vera, pomegranate, or sweet lime juice seasoned with tulsi and kali mirch. I always have milk, papaya, watermelon in my fridge. I eat homemade ghee; generally it is believed that ghee is unhealthy but homemade ghee works for me. But when I have to cut down my weight to stay in my wrestling category I avoid ghee, and have simple dal, roti, salad and lassi to keep myself going. Dry fruits give me energy.
I avoid tea, coffee, cold drinks, and spicy food as much as I can. Even at parties and functions I make it a point not to have outside food. This has been my diet pattern for the past 16 years.
Q What are your weaknesses?
A Sweets, chocolates, cakes, pastries. They have to be hiddenfrom me. Otherwise, if no one is around, I end up eating a whole box of the stuff!
Q Do you take any supplements?
A I am against taking any kind of supplement – it is a complete no –no for me. I advice young people to stay away from them and instead tell them to work harder and eat natural foods.
Q What is your workout routine like today?
A During tournaments I practice wrestling for about 8-10 hours. If I am not playing I work out thrice a week, do speed workouts, skipping, running (15K) for stamina building, and power yoga for mental discipline. I sleep just 4-5 hours.
Q Any injuries?
A Lots! A jaw fracture, a shoulder injury in a qualifier, a leg muscle pull; I even hurt an ear! The jaw fracture depressed me most as my opponent got qualified. I kept telling myself – No means next opportunity. I worked hard and bounced back. My never-say-die attitude always keeps me going. I believe in myself.
Q How do you cope with stress?
A By working out. I don’t smoke or drink alcohol.
Q What mental strategies do you adopt to win in the ring?
A I try to give my best. I approach each fight with a fresh plan, a new strategy, worked from scratch. I practice a lot, I push myself very hard. Actually it’s my coaches – I have three – who work on strategies and train me so that I can give my 100 per cent to every fight. It’s a mix of tough talk and motivational spiel. They tell me “You are very strong; you are capable of enormous feats.” They remind me that I can take the fight in the direction I want – “It’s up to you”. One guy slaps my cheeks to get me all charged up. Before entering the ring I am restless, nervous. My mouth is so dry that I have to keep spitting to get my salivary glands functioning. But once I’m in the arena I believe that no one can beat me and no one is stronger than me.
My coaches have been very instrumental in shaping me.
Q How do you keep yourself going when you lose?
A I don’t get depressed. I just try not to repeat those mistakes which I have committed. If I am lacking somewhere I work on those areas. I watch the video repeatedly so that I get to know what I’ve done wrong.
Q Has your childhood arthritis symptoms ever resurfaced?
A On cold mornings when I get up early to train, my joints tend to get all jammed up and hurt badly. But I keep working out and once my body is all warmed up, I feel okay.
Q Is there room for relationships when all your energies are focused on wrestling?
A Payal (Rohatgi) and I are dating, she is a wonderful girl. But I haven’t thought about marriage.
Q What are your future plans?
A In India people crave only two things – cricket and entertainment. I have come to Mumbai with one ambition -- to start a wrestling league along the lines of the IPL. I want to train young under privileged children in wrestling. I will consider myself enough lucky if I can achieve something in this area. There is no dearth of wrestling talent in our country. Someone has to take an initiative, why not me; I am working hard so that I can give back to the game which gave me recognition.
AISHWARYA P. VAIDYA