THE BIG STICK

Guru Hanuman is 94 years old, celibate, and stands for no nonsense in the wrestling ring. TIM McGIRK meets an old master who trains champions - and saves souls. Photographs by STEPHEN DUPONT
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Guru Hanuman's gym is in Old Delhi, and I was lost. Behind a clock tower is a cinema, and I stopped for directions. The watchman knew Guru Hanuman well and feared him: one day, when some boys sneaked out of the gym to watch a film, the old, bull-necked wrestler charged into the darkened cinema, laying into them and half the audience with his stout walking stick.

In his ferocity, as he tore through the theatre, the guru resembled his namesake, Hanuman, the wild monkey-god of Hindu legend. Yes, the watchman said nervously, he knew where to find Guru Hanuman - down the lane across from the blue mosque.

I found the doorway and went in. It was like a religious order of warriors. The winter air in Delhi is chill, but these muscular youths wore nothing but loincloths, and they were smeared in mud, like a tribe of menacing cavemen zapped into 20th-century India and none too pleased about it. There were wrestlers fiercely concentrating on sets of 100 jumping push-ups, and others shimmying up 40-foot ropes dangling from a sacred peepul tree, using only their arms. But the focus of activity was a mud pit, where pairs of wrestlers leapt, locked and slithered. Not only does the mud soften the impact of pile-driven bodies, but it is also the element in which most of these neophyte wrestlers will spend their careers doing battle in the muddy arenas of village fairs.

In the midst of all this flying mud, Guru Hanuman was easy to spot. He was resplendent in a white cotton dhoti, the loose-fitting sarong traditionally worn by Indian men. But you notice his ears first. They are big and misshapen, as if they had been stretched and chewed by opponents in the ring. He is 94 years old. His mind is sharp, and he still has the strength to split his wooden cane over the backside of any unruly wrestling student. He is proud of the shattered cane, thicker than a broomstick, and shows it to visitors. "Being weak is a sin," says Guru Hanuman.

"Guru" in Hindi means teacher, in both the spiritual and practical sense. But in India, no matter whether a pupil is learning the filigree fingering of a sitar or how to slam his adversary's face in the mud, the pupil's devotion to his guru rarely wavers. Before starting their exercises, a queue of novice wrestlers, some as young as five, touched Guru Hanuman's feet in respect. With a snort of acknowledgement, he sent them off to the arena. "Remember," he called, "never be angry when you're fighting. The cold iron can always cut the hot iron. Only if you stay calm can you win."

What Guru Hanuman has accomplished is extraordinary. India may be a nation of 900 million people, but its sporting authorities are so corrupt and bureaucratic that the country consistently fails to produce top athletes. Thwarted, Indians tend to devote their energies to impressive, but often peculiar, superhuman feats: they hold an unusually high number of Guinness records for such things as cycling hundreds of miles blindfolded or rolling up a Himalayan peak. Yet among the 100,000 boys who have passed through the guru's gym since it opened in 1928 have been India's finest wrestlers, winners of many gold and silver medals in the Asian and Commonwealth and Olympic games. Guru Hanuman is famed and fted in wrestling circles from Osaka to Chicago. His latest protg, a panther-like 16-year-old called Sujit Mann, recently won a gold medal at the junior world wrestling championships, held in the United States, even though he was unfamiliar with modern mat wrestling and its rules. "My grandfather, my father and my brother were all taught by the guru," says Sujit, who commutes 20 miles daily from his father's farm to reach the gym by 4.30 in the morning, when training begins.

For me, though, Guru Hanuman's greatest accomplishment is not the trophies his pupils have won, but the number of children he has saved from starvation and neglect. Many of his 150 students are orphans. He feeds them, schools them and keeps them away from street gangs. "A boy's character is most important. I could never make a good wrestler out of a boy who throws stones at buses or who teases girls," the guru says. Through his political connections, Guru Hanuman finds them jobs in the police, the army or on the railways, all of which have wrestling teams. "I even arrange their marriages. Sometimes with PhD girls, very smart. A wrestler makes a good husband," he declares. "But I'm not going to tell you any more unless you eat something. Come."

And so I sit in Guru Hanuman's room, drinking his favourite brew: warm milk and crushed almonds. His table is covered with oranges, melons and boxes of Bengali sweets, all balanced on the tiny spaces not occupied by trophies, silver statuettes of the monkey-god, and clocks, none of which tells the right time. Garlands of money hang from the ceiling, and on the walls are clusters of dusty, be-ribboned medals, yellowed newspaper clippings and photographs of the guru receiving prizes from such famous people as Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi. When the guru offers to use his political influence to secure me another telephone line (usually a five-year wait), I honestly believe he can.

None the less, Guru Hanuman is a master of the art of embroidering his own life into legend. "My real name was Vijay Pal," he says. "My parents died when I was very young, and I was angry at everything. I wanted to fight God."

The trouble was finding Him. Young Vijay went searching for God in India's holy places, armed, he says, "with a very big stick". At the age of 13, he ended up in Hardwar, a Hindu pilgrimage town where the river Ganges, jade-green and pure, pours out of the Himalayas and begins its long, meandering journey across India's northern plains. Hardwar is full of sadhus - holy men - living in caves and in hundreds of temples as outlandishly coloured as anything in Disneyland. The Ganges at Hardwar is so powerful that Hindus performing ritual ablutions must hold on to great iron chains in the water so as not to be swept away.

"I met one sadhu and asked him where I could find God. He told me to go to a place at a certain time. So I went, carrying my club. But when I reached this place beside the Ganges, only the sadhu was there. `Where is God?' I cried. I wanted to fight him. The sadhu pointed to the river. `God is the Ganges and he is also the turtles, fishes and snakes swimming in the water. God is everywhere. You cannot fight him any more than you can fight your own shadow.' Then the sadhu put a scrap of paper on top of a stone. The wind quickly blew away the paper. `The weak person is quickly blown away, but the strong man, like the stone, remains,' the sadhu told me."

To earn a few rupees for food, the boy began wrestling all comers, his prowess attracting crowds of pilgrims who bet on his bouts. Soon the sadhus gave him a nickname - Hanuman - after the valiant monkey-god. "I went to Hardwar searching for God and, instead, I found my name." He became a devotee of the monkey-god, as are many wrestlers and, oddly enough, lorry-drivers. He fought in village fairs, and soon his fame spread throughout the north Indian states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. He gained wealthy patrons, such as the maharajahs of Bharatpur and Patiala, who catered to his gargantuan appetite: a strict vegetarian, Guru Hanuman devours a pound of clarified butter and 40 rotis every day. "The maharajahs used to give us wrestlers scoops of silver coins," he recalls wistfully. For many Indian princes, having a wrestler around the palace was a status symbol akin to keeping a pet elephant.

The sporting princes may have disappeared, but there's no shortage of patrons; in the Seventies, Indira Gandhi's Green Revolution began producing a class of wealthy, tractor- driving farmers in Punjab and Haryana who a re willing to offer prizes of hundreds of thousands of rupees to wrestlers. These contests are gladiatorial, with the wrestlers grappling for more than an hour-and- a-half without a break, while thousands of spectators place huge wagers on the outcome.

Less scrupulous wrestlers can also earn good money at election time. The akhara or wrestl-ing grounds turn into recruitment centres for heavies who are sent into the slums and villages to bully the poor into voting for a particular candidate. "If I found out that one of my boys was using his combat skills for something bad," says Guru Hanuman, "I'd kill him. My boys go on to become police inspectors and army officers - never goondahs or thugs." As he lumbers around the yard, banging his walking stick, telling his young wrestlers to pounce more swiftly, Guru Hanuman's face turns gloomy. "I'm getting on in years, I know,'' he confides, ``and I still haven't found anyone to replace me. It takes sacrifice. Discipline. I'm still searching for someone."

Guru Hanuman, like other followers of the monkey-god, believes that celibacy adds to a man's strength, but now he jokes that it might be time for him to take a wife. "I'll wait until my 95th birthday - and then I'll marry a woman of 90. I want her to be learned, a university graduate. And the only dowry she'll need to bring me is a set of false teeth."

Comments