11. The Individual Re-Formed
Having ended the previous chapter on a note of utopian rhetoric, I feel compelled to remind the reader that the world of wrestling is not nearly what it aspires to be. Relative to factories, temples, mosques, police stations and government offices—to say nothing of cinema halls and cloth mills—there are only a few akharas in modern India.
Along these lines of relative perspective, I heard an interesting folktale about a two-ton wrestler. It went something like this:
The tale, which is constructed as a riddle, or paradox, ends with the question: who was the biggest? Was it the two-ton wrestler, his three-ton adversary, the disgruntled old woman, the black vulture, the hapless princess, or the fisherman? Ultimately, as I think the tale/riddle demonstrates, scale is not as important—or as clearly defined, and therefore as constitutive of reality—as is the nature of the universe within which the seemingly out-of-perspective events take place. In her study of the Yogavasistha, O’Flaherty discusses the dimensions of such a universe, which she characterizes as mobius in nature: finite, but unbounded; bigger inside than outside; where inside is outside; where things get bigger as they get smaller; and where the dreamer is dreamed (1984: 240–241). The two seemingly gigantic wrestlers grapple their way through just such a paradoxical universe; and it is in this mobius sense, I think, that we can understand how the akhara becomes the world and the wrestler’s body expands to realign the coordinates of psychosomatic existence.
A two-ton wrestler, who was unbeaten in his own land, went in search of a three-ton wrestler who he had heard lived not far away. The two wrestlers met and they began to wrestle in a farmer’s field. In the process they crushed six or seven goats which were part of a herd of forty or fifty which belonged to an old woman. The woman came upon the wrestlers and, seeing her goats crushed, quickly gathered up the remaining animals, put them in a bag, and slung this across her shoulder. She then picked up the two-ton wrestler and put him on one shoulder and picked up the three-ton wrestler and put him on the other. The wrestlers continued to grapple as she made her way toward home.
Along the way, however, a black vulture smelled the dead goats and swooped down, grabbed the old woman, the two wrestlers and the bag of goats, and flew off into the sky. As the vulture flew over a king’s palace, the old woman, the goats and the two wrestlers fell and landed in the eye of a princess who was sitting on the palace roof.
The princess called out to her courtiers and servants, asking them to look into her eye to see what it was that caused her so much discomfort. However, no one, not even the court doctor, was able to find anything in the princess’s eye. The king called a council and asked his advisors what ought to be done. One of them suggested that a local fisherman be called in to cast his net in the princess’s eye and thereby extract whatever it was that caused her such pain.
The local fisherman was called, and taking his best net he cast it into the princess’s eye. He and his relatives all began to pull and pull until they were so tired that they could hardly stand. Finally, however, they pulled the net all the way through and out of the princess’s eye, and there in the net was the old woman, the bag of goats, and the two wrestlers still grappling on her back as though nothing had happened.
My argument throughout this study has been that wrestling casts the body in a particular light. Various regimens, in conjunction with certain symbolic structures, have the effect of building the body up to larger-than-life proportions. The regimentation to which the wrestler’s body is subject does not produce a wholly disembodied pugilist such as might be the product of Western forms of discipline where body is radically dissociated from mind, and where the rank-and-file individual is regarded as a mere machine. Because Hindu philosophy and practice does not make the same distinction between mind and body, the individual is not objectified in the same way when subject to various forms of discipline. As Narayan Singh pointed out, and I think many other wrestlers would concur, the first step of any exercise begins with the question: Who am I, and what am I put on this earth for? It proceeds along a direct path of regimentation to a subjective experience of self as whole and healthy. Far from being clones in the growing ranks of the merely physically fit, wrestlers develop their ability to translate a bethak, a dand, a glass of milk into self-realization, and this into the subjective reform of moral problems. Such a fit person, as described by Atreya, is “free from egoism, desire, anger, vanity and attachment. Everything is under his control—the body, mind and speech. All his selfish interests get merged with the social interest. He is engaged in bringing about social welfare without any selfishness. He is really a model of ideal and pure behavior. He is not governed by anybody, but his very nature is ethical. Right actions are performed naturally by him” (1973d: 41–42).
In other words, in Hindu India—which is otherwise a world of much larger and more mutable proportions—the somatic discipline of wrestling creates an icon of the individual self. On this subject K. P. Singh provides the following observation:
One of the consequences of building an iconic body charged with the power of human magnetism is that it is slightly out of step with the more protean rank and file who march to the beat of a different drum. The rhythm of everyday life gets confused in the process, as when the wrestler suggests that the health of his body is contingent not only on an ideological denunciation of caste values but also on a physical enactment of what is normally anathema. A positive interpretation of mingling sweat, among other things, is but a logical extension of what is otherwise encoded in the precise mechanics of all akhara life.
When you seek to develop your character, develop it in such a way that it becomes a treasure trove of magnetic power. Do not expect that the riches of life will fall at your feet. You must search for the true meaning of life. Whether through enterprise or through the rigid practice of vyayam, the goal is to plant the seed of human magnetism in this flesh and bone body. When milk is boiled, cream develops, and when gold is fired it shines (1972b: 23).
But to a large extent the Banaras wrestlers wrestle their way toward a utopian future in much the same way as the two- and three-ton wrestlers grapple their way through the mobius universe. They are oblivious to the cold, hard logic of proportion and pragmatism. They do not always know what the consequences of their actions are. Certainly the close physical proximity of dangal competition, jor, ban, and massage raises the whole issue of purity and pollution. Sometimes, as I have noted, the question is addressed directly. But for the most part the whole issue of caste propriety is analogous to the old woman’s goats in the mobius riddle: a fact of life which is somewhat out of place in the arena of wrestling and which accidentally gets crushed by the larger dynamics of an epic struggle. In setting their sights on the utopian future, wrestlers scale down and then abandon the logic of a more familiar moral environment. The iconic individuality of the sannyasi-like citizen wrestler accidentally undermines the integrity of caste holism.
When I first began to talk with wrestlers I was often told that wrestling is “a world apart.” As the research continued I began to understand how it is that wrestling is apart, and what it is apart from. It skews one’s vision of the social whole. As does a glimpse of the mobius universe, a wrestling way of life shakes up the perspective and thereby suggests a different way of seeing commonplace social relations—even if it is just a mote in a princess’s eye.