Even his so-far celebrated traits will now get re-evaluated, questions asked about his conduct and character.
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With Sushil Kumar, you didn’t see this coming. Never an enfant terrible, he wasn’t known to be a ticking time-bomb. He didn’t show ambitions to be a Mike Tyson, the self-proclaimed baddest, meanest man on the planet. He seemed too clever to land up in the company of trouble-makers, get involved in a deadly brawl and be on the run to evade arrest.
Cops and courts will probe the brutal death of a young wrestler at the Chhatrasal Stadium basement, but the alleged presence of Sushil at the crime scene has changed the public perception of India’s best-ever Olympian for good. “Who he really was” and “what he was so far perceived as” were now mere assumptions in conflict with each other.
Tiger Woods, O J Simpson, shock, shame — there was one more potential sporting betrayal to process for the overburdened pandemic-time mind. The night of May 4 changed it all for the man who always seemed in control, both on the mat and away from it.
Over the years, Sushil had a carefully crafted image. He wore his greatness lightly. He selected his words carefully during the interview and wore a sly grin that signalled his alertness to tricky questions. He didn’t take the bait, his foot never reached his mouth. The boy from Najafgarh didn’t need a lesson from a PR professional in media-handling. He would touch the feet of senior journalists and his lockdown-time morning ritual was about sending folded hands emojis and “Ram, Ram” to the beat reporters.
India’s Olympics flag bearer’s popularity cut across disciplines. He would banter with old friend Mary Kom, mimic Anju Bobby’s swaggering walk and be inquisitive about archer Deepika Kumari’s medal miss. His body of work, rustic charm and the endearing coarseness of his Haryanvi Hindi made him an affable elder of the Indian contingent at global games.
Easily India’s most articulate wrestler, his well-received TedTalk about “rising, falling and rising again” had a mix of native wisdom and pop psychology. He has also been a judge on MTV Roadies, a JEE of sorts for the nation’s “cool crowd”. With that famous grin in place, the reputed pehalwanji from an all-boys akhada didn’t look out of place. He played along, met the demands of the show but remained himself. Unperturbed by the cameras, he ensured that his Chhatrasal-nurtured wicked sense of humour shone through the profane argots of the reality show.
Sushil also has a YouTube channel that gives a glimpse into his world. It’s mostly shot at his home for close to 25 years — the Chhatrasal Stadium. It has training clips and an interview with his brightest understudy, a world-class wrestler who looks overwhelmed to be in the same frame as his mentor. For most of the interaction, the shishya can’t stop thanking the guru for the things he has done for him.
There’s also a Bollywood-inspired family video celebrating Sushil’s decade-long marital association with wife Savi — the daughter of his coach, the ’82 Asiad gold winner Mahabali Satpal. It is a professionally choreographed five-minute montage in soft-focus where the unending train of Savi’s red gown sweeps Chhatrashal’s synthetic track. Sushil, in a Men in Black tuxedo avatar, leans back elegantly on the stadium railing. Towards the end, the couple’s twin sons run towards them with radiant smiles.
With the sun shining brightly, these look like the family frames that are used to sell expensive real estate. With Sushil’s Tokyo Games hopes all but over and him approaching his 40s, you wonder why he’s still punishing his body. He didn’t have South Delhi aspirations, he was comfortable in his own skin. It looked like he was content, he had it all — the people and the place to sit back and bathe in the glow of adoration for the rest of life.
But scratch the Chhatrasal surface and you reach the basement that hides the truth about the real Sushil Kumar. It sullies the rose-tinted happy home video. The champion wrestler has insisted that he is innocent but the FIR, the account of the public prosecutor, the departed wrestler’s family and off-the-record briefing of the investigators tell a different story. During the bail hearing, the public prosecutor spoke about “electronic evidence that shows Sushil hitting with a danda”. At a later date, the court was informed that the victims were “beaten like wild animals”. This version of the event points to a flip side.
Media reports about Sushil’s involvement with North India’s infamous ganglords, many of whom are former wrestlers, surface every morning. They chip away at the legacy of the country’s one-of-a-kind champion. Sushil had qualities that were rarely seen in Indian sports.
Watch his bouts closely to appreciate the wrestler who never froze at the crunch or got weighed down by a billion expectations. Despite his dangal background, he didn’t show the ingrained lethargy of a sandpit grappler. He was all muscles, his movements similar to a feline circling a kill. The world might be watching, a major medal would be at stake, trailing by points, the clock ticking; but Sushil never got conscious or panicked. He wasn’t some dime-a-dozen Nervous 90s cricketer.
As a wrestler, Sushil was a known risk-taker, but he didn’t believe in mindless aggression. A precise calculation of risk and reward ruled his decision making. During the bout that got him his first Olympic medal in 2008, with the scores tied, a toss decided that the Kazak wrestler would get an advantage. Sushil had to “gift” a clinch — leg hold — to his rival. The rules say that the wrestler who scores the first point is to be the winner. It’s generally seen as a hopeless situation for the one who loses the toss. But Sushil turned the tide. In a slick move, he unlocked himself and pinned his rival down. Had he not, it might have been curtains for him as this would have been his second straight medal-less Olympics.
Another of Sushil’s exemplary wrestling virtues is his ability to cut the noise around him. Exhibit B: His 2010 World Championship gold in Russia. In front of a vocal and unruly crowd that almost spilt onto the playing arena, the Indian defeated a reputed local. Once again, the low-scoring bout went to the wire. As usual, Sushil left it late but won in the nick of time. Deaf to the din around him, he marched to the top of the podium.
Britain’s five-time Olympic medalist rower Steve Redgrave once said, “When I was in that boat, the world could have ended all around me and I wouldn’t have noticed. I’d just have kept on rowing while the world burnt all around.” Sushil in a singlet on the mat was no different. Sushil’s searing will to win and his uncontainable passion while training helped him develop the requisite nerve to rise from the brink. It programmed him to move into the zone when the going got tough. His mind would never contemplate defeat, it would search for that glimmer of hope that promises triumph.
But this late twist to Sushil’s tale has suddenly changed the narrative. Now, even his so-far celebrated traits will get re-evaluated. There will be questions about his conduct and character. Did he push the envelope too far this time? Did that famous aggression become irrepressible? Was the sterling 2012 silver medal discoloured a tad red when his teeth lingered too long over the opponent’s ear which gushed blood? Was he clever or was he cunning?
Every fall from grace is accompanied by a smudgy rewrite of the legacy, and disillusionment. It all looked fine watching Sushil play the champion wrestler, the family man, and the selfless mentor in his glass house. But then there was that basement and its dingy dark corridors.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 27, 2021 under the title ‘The hero in a glass house’. [email protected]
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