Long before Arnold Schwarznegger, there was Dara Singh. And the pehelwan from Amritsar was not a mere governor of a province, instead he was Bajrangbali. He was both Samson and Hanuman. He was ‘Rustom-i-Hind’, a national cult figure whose name became a generic term for any youth blessed with thunder in his forearms. Shooting for a tele-serial in Chandigarh, Singh is preparing for his first term as Rajya Sabha MP which begins early next month. Is he looking forward to it? ‘‘I will take the name of Hanuman and enter the akhara!’’ he beams.
He was born an illiterate peasant in Dharmuchak village outside Amritsar, his father was a factory labourer in Singapore, he was married off at the age of ten, left Punjab for Singapore at the age of 18, started life as a mud wrestler, was best buddies with the legendary American wrestler Lou Thesz, became Indian wrestling champion in ’53 and world champion in ’68. Now he’s 75, has no health problems (he lives on milk, dry fruits, chicken and ghee) and is as gentle, unassuming and determinedly rustic as any Punjabi giant ought to be.
What plans for Indian development? ‘‘A strong digestive system for all,’’ he smiles. ‘‘Every child should be tandurust. You know how pehlwans assess good health? If you can drink a jug of ghee and not get the sh**s, then you will be as great a wrestler as Bheem.’’ In addition to excellent bowels, no child, he believes, should be as uneducated as he was. ‘‘I only learnt English after I began signing international contracts. I asked myself, now what is it that I am signing? I mastered English in a year,’’ he smiles proudly.
WWF, Hulk Hogan, Terminator et al, he believes is all ‘‘show baazi’’. Nor does he believe in gyms. The best exercise is available in an akhara. ‘‘These gyms charge money. But an akhara is free for anyone and the ustad treats everyone well.’’ Best tonic of all? Mother’s milk, of course. Secret of his strength? ‘‘I had a double dose of my mother’s milk,’’ he smiles broadly, ‘‘I drank it until I was almost three or four.’’ Wrestlers like Tiger Joginder, the American George Godeonco, Mighty Mongol, Vasant Singh Sucha Singh, most either dead or back in their villages, could teach politicians a thing or two. ‘‘Pehelwans are very straight simple people. They don’t tell lies like politicians do.’’
He says he was offered a ticket many times by many parties but has chosen this particular moment to join because he believes it’s important that India stays liberal. ‘‘Vajpayee doesn’t listen to the VHP and others. We should all be ‘Indian’ and not fight. The Atma is with God.’’ But the economy? ‘‘That’s with the country. If only there were more jobs, there would be no maar kaat. The big question for everyone is, kaise zindagi chalegi?’’
Enlightenment must come to all. ‘‘Until today I am upset with my family for marrying me at the age of ten to a girl older than me. I remember when I went for the wedding, I used to still wet my bed. My mother had warned me not to drink milk because of my bed-wetting problem, but it didn’t work. The marriage also didn’t work out and ended in divorce.’’ Too many young people are forced into marriage at an early age. ‘‘People in the village are so unknowing. They know nothing except their own customs.’’ His own five children are all educated and married, one of them runs a TV studio, another tried a career in films but failed.
His own film career, he says, suffered because no heroine would agree to work with a pehelwan. The lucky break came with Mumtaz who agreed to act with him in the film Samson. Hanuman, he says, remains his most popular role, and films like Mera Desh Mera Dharam were hits. He became an actor because he realised that after a certain age there would be no livelihood from wrestling. Although he didn’t know any Hindi and his early dialogue was dubbed, today he says he speaks it fluently.
Sitting on the vast tasteless sets of the Chandigarh tele-serial, Singh makes his huge hands into mammoth fists. ‘‘Grip,’’ he says, ‘‘is the most important indicator of strength. For how long can you hold on to something?’’ As a new Parliament session rolls around, perhaps the next time the honorable MPs lose hold on themselves, they might remember that Dara Singh is watching.