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August 22, 2016

Book Review: Enter The Dangal

Text by Ranjabati Das

Rudraneil Sengupta’s book shines a light on the past and present of the ancient sport of wrestling

About the book: From the Mughals and the Great Gama to Sushil Kumar…the past and the present of the ancient sport of wrestling make for a gripping read. History and mythology provide the perfect foil to interviews and research, melting together in a narrative that makes this fluid account revealing and relevant. (Did you know that Krishna — likened to Herakles, a Greek demigod incidentally credited with refounding the Olympic Games in ancient Greece — was the patron deity of our wrestlers before he was replaced by Hanuman? And a low-caste fighter could ‘upgrade’ himself to a Kshatriya, through the practice of kushti, bypassing even the caste system!) A grievous lack of infrastructure in India, despite the lease of life given by the recent Olympic triumphs, means that although many an akhara is being revived, for both men and women, it’s still a fight to shine a light on the sport, once ‘a way of life’ in villages. So much so that even international-level players in our country are forced to grapple with the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, badam dudh versus state-of-the-art tech and protein shakes.

Fave character: Sushil Kumar. Because the boy from Baprola, Haryana persisted and achieved a seemingly impossible dream of becoming an Olympic champ (and a  millionaire). For winning his second medal in London after puking his guts out, and on three hours of sleep. Because he single-handedly rescued a sport with blood, toil and the sweat of his brow. For his anyone-can-do-it attitude, and an education in humility. Even if he didn’t sound as confident, cool and calm as he does, we’d be swooning.

An epic tale: If legend is to be believed, Bhooteshwar akhara in Mathura, established by Krishna after he defeated Kamsa, is still up and running today. He himself is said to have gotten the mitti for the pit here. There are real-life tales of epic proportions too — one of my favourites is about the heroic Geeta Phogat, the first female Indian to qualify for the Olympics in 2012; her father Mahavir Singh Phogat trained his six daughters, who have all won medals at world championships, in Balali, a village in Haryana.  

What we loved: How eloquently the author weaves in many nuggets of facts without making the book heavy. It’s informative, and it’s also eye-opening. Sengupta captures the diverse faces and facets with polish: old teachers, young hopefuls, the plight of the sport, champions who have seen better days, the infuriating politics, the apathy of the politicians, the unpolished villagers. We also love the title, and the timeliness of the work right before Rio.

Update from Rio: India got its first medal, a bronze, when 23-year-old Sakshi Malik from the village of Mokhra, again in Haryana, made history by becoming the first Indian female wrestler to win at the Olympics. She is the only other wrestler to have won at the Games apart from Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt in recent years. Vinesh Phogat, Geeta’s sister and Sakshi’s peer, had to retire early into the semi-finals after a promising start, due to an injury.

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