The Silent King of the Dangal

It’s a quiet evening, and quieter outside the Bal Vyayamshala I am about to enter. It could pass off as any typical Delhi 6 tenement: a concrete ring hugging a young peepal tree in the verandah, a cycle and a scooter leaning into each other, and a hand-pump à la Gadar in one corner. A mud patch on the other side is perfect for hopscotch, except it’s not. The sight of two, very ripped men, in barely-there brown langots, slamming themselves on that mud patch is an indication that I am now inside Chandi Chowk’s Teliwada Akhada.

My contact, Ramvir Singh greets me in the courtyard, and invites me up for tea. Light from two low-watt bulbs hides nothing: not the clothes piled on wall hooks and not the fraying bedsheets that cover the four single beds in the room. It is a humbling thought that this could be any hardworking man’s accommodation, let alone that of one who is arguably India’s greatest wrestlers.

Virender Singh Yadav aka Goonga Pehelwan is a child prodigy. He grew up on the mud arena of Sasroli, watching dangals across Haryana’s Jhajjar district, and later winning nearly all of them. Once he went to Delhi, he won a medal in every international competition he took part in since he started in 2005 and then went on to win two golds for India at the Deaflympics. This year, he was conferred the Arjuna Award by President Pranab Mukherjee.

However, as I sit for tea with this much-decorated athlete, there is a sense of defeat in his otherwise happy, rugged face. Virender, it turns out, has had to bear many a knock in real life and his story is anything but victorious.

Virender, meanwhile, won a silver at the World Deaf Wrestling Championship in 2008, a bronze in 2009 Deaflympics, and another bronze at WDWC in 2012.

Virender’s interpreter and close friend Ramvir sits on the khatiya beside him and tells me, “In 2002, when we started off, Virender wanted to compete with ‘able-bodied’ wrestlers, but the Wrestling Federation of India didn’t allow it.” Because Virender is deaf, they argued, he would be unable to follow the referee’s whistle cues. “The federation didn’t have time for him.”

Virender, who grew up wrestling “normal” contestants – including his friend and now Olympian medallist, Sushil Kumar – was unable to understand this distinction. Even as he continued to wrestle for the tricolour in the international arena, his most difficult bout was proving to be on home soil: To be seen as a “normal” wrestler despite his hearing and speech impediment, and to be given an equal opportunity.

“We spent 8-10 years trying to get the permission. Many countries provide their deaf and mute wrestlers with special referees, but not India. We were heartbroken, but not out,” says Ramvir.

India celebrated Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s solitary bronze in Athens 2004 and waited for Abhinav Bindra to turn up and deliver our first-ever individual gold at the 2008 summer games.

Virender, meanwhile, won a silver at the World Deaf Wrestling Championship in 2008, a bronze in 2009 Deaflympics, and another bronze at WDWC in 2012.

Our sports bodies, however, failed to recognise Virender’s efforts and as a result none of the remuneration he deserved as India’s best wrestler came his way. “Bhupinder Singh Hooda, then Haryana chief minister, had promised Virender a reward of five crore rupees if he brought home the gold in the 2013 Deaflympics, under the state government’s policy of rewarding successful athletes,” Ramvir added.

Virender kept his side of the bargain and won the gold. Hooda, like most politicians, forgot to keep his. Virender even had to sponsor his own ticket to the games.

The change in Haryana’s sports ministry made Virender hopeful that some reward money may now come his way. After medal winners at the Paralympics were awarded four crore each, he met Anil Vij, Haryana Sports Minister who said that if Virender wins another gold in 2017, he’ll be awarded six crore.

All this while, as Ramvir talks to me, I see Virender glued to his new iPhone 7. He had wanted a smartphone for a long time, and finally got himself one from the five lakh rupees that came with his Arjuna Award. He’d rather spend his time on Facebook and Mr Bean videos than go through this disheartening story again. He looks like a man who has given up.

“They want medals from him,” Ramvir says. “They give him nothing but a pat on his back at the airport when he returns with medals. ‘Aaghe badho Virender. Aur aage badho Virender,’ they say. Kitna aage jaayega akela Virender?”

It’s a question that rang out loud in the corridors of sports bureaucracy after a documentary on Virender’s life and struggle was shot by three young filmmakers from Ahmedabad. Before Vivek Chaudhary, Mit Jani, and Prateek Gupta made the award-winning Goonga Pehelwan, there wasn’t even a stub on the internet about Virender. The trio also campaigned with the WFI and various ministers for his case, but the wrestler’s achievements remain unrecognised.

To earn a living and support his training costs, Virender now coaches the kids in his village, Sasroli. He still sometimes participates in dangals for money. When I want to know more about this monetary crisis, I finally have Virender’s attention. “I want to get married,” he signs. “I want to help my father repair our ancestral home. Everyone gets crores. I’m no less than anyone. I’ve fought and beaten most ‘normal’ wrestlers.”

For the first time, I sense an old anger flare within. This must have been what Virender was like at the peak of his fight against the institution. But the tempest passes and Virender shrugs and returns to his phone.

The 33-year-old is past his peak now, and that means he has to train harder for the 2017 Deaflympics. He also knows that there are more chances of him bringing home that gold, than the government keeping its promise of the reward of six crore rupees.

My meeting with Virender, however, ends on a positive note. He tells me that two years ago, he discovered another promising deaf and mute wrestler at a dangal in his village. “Now I want to fight for my people,” he signs. “I hope other deaf and mute wrestlers learn from my struggle. I want to inspire them to try to be even better.”

As I walk out of Teliwala Akhada, into a boisterous Chandi Chowk lane, I wonder what it must be like for Virender to think in all the silence… waiting and waiting in this youth hostel for his place under the sun.

Virender might be deaf, but how can we be so blind

This article was published earlier on December 28th, 2016