Age and Education
Of 123 wrestlers interviewed from eight akharas, fifteen were under age fifteen, fifty-five were between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three, twenty-eight were between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-five, and twenty-five were over thirty-five years old. This indicates not only the obvious—that most wrestlers are teenagers or young men in their early twenties—but also that men in their mid- to late twenties and early thirties are not very involved in akhara activities. Once men marry and take on the responsibility of raising a family they tend to come to the akhara less frequently. When they have established an occupation of some sort and have children of their own, these men return to the akhara as senior members. On account of this there is a sharp generational break in the membership of most akharas. Senior members are to junior members as fathers are to sons or uncles to nephews. Respect, however, is tempered with a good deal of joking and informality. True respect is reserved for the guru.
It is also important to note that wrestlers who are between twenty-three and thirty-five years old are usually the ones who have made a name for themselves. Though numerically in the minority, as individuals they represent an ideal and have great prestige. These members are regarded as quintessential wrestlers and virtually define the quality of the akhara by their presence. Shamu Pahalwan of Akhara Ram Singh is one such wrestler, and Ashok Kumar, who has taken part in national and international competitions, is another. Krishna Kumar Singh of Bara Ganesh has won national recognition as a wrestler for the northern railway team, and Ram ji, of Jhalani Akhara, has won titles in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh state tournaments.
Educational experience corresponds to the generational split in akhara membership. Older members are not educated to the same level as younger members. Of those over thirty-five, only two had the equivalent of a high-school degree. Most were educated up to a sixth-grade level. All were literate but four had gone to school for less than two years.
In sharp contrast are the data on the educational background of the ninety-nine wrestlers interviewed who were under the age of thirty-five: as of 1987, two had M.A. degrees, fourteen had B.A. degrees, thirty had the equivalent of a high-school diploma, and one had left school in tenth grade, thirteen in the ninth, eighteen in the eighth, four in the seventh, and nineteen in the fifth. Even though these data are biased by the fact that Banaras is a cultural and intellectual center, the fact remains that a significant percentage of young wrestlers are well educated compared to their senior fellows.
Having said this, it must be pointed out that education, like wealth, is not a very significant factor in the scheme of akhara activities. Education is valuable in its own right but does not figure in the wrestling rubric as a particularly important virtue. Learning and wisdom are of great importance in the construction of a wrestler’s identity, but education is not regarded as the source of these skills. Where it is seen as valuable is as a prerequisite for modern life and as a vehicle for gaining employment, but this is more by default than by design. As it is institutionalized in modern India, formal education is regarded by cynical wrestlers as a somewhat benign manifestation of modern moral decay. It does not inspire; it creates an irreverent attitude and a general lack of respect. The value of education is not in its innate virtue but in its practical utility. For instance, while generally decrying modern materialist preoccupations with status and upward mobility, one wrestler spent a hot summer day networking so that his nephew and niece would gain admission into a well-regarded elementary school.
By way of contrast, Atma Ram’s father places no stock in a formal education. Instead he sent his son to the akhara, saying that there he will learn all that he needs to know. Atma Ram is illiterate, but at age twenty-two he is known in Banaras as a good wrestler. Friends have been networking to get him employment with the railway.
Anand Rai’s father, a schoolteacher in Kotdwar and well-to-do land owner in Banaras district, appreciates the value of a good education but recognizes the virtue of akhara training. Anand bicycles the fifteen kilometers to Akhara Ram Singh every morning and then goes from the akhara to school. When Anand was about twenty-three, after three failed attempts, he finally passed his matriculation exams and his father invited members of the akhara and village neighbors to a banquet celebration. At the banquet Anand was admonished to keep up with his physical training and to develop himself as a good wrestler.
The following amalgam describes the typical Banaras wrestler with the least synoptic violence. He is a boy in his late teens who is nearing the end of his intermediate education. Some members of his family live in Banaras city proper while others live in a village not too far away. In the city he lives in a small, modestly appointed cement building. One or two of this typical wrestler’s elder brothers used to wrestle and he had an uncle who, despite hardship, “was the champion of his village district.” One of his older brothers runs a dairy enterprise and has rented space on the outskirts of the city where twelve or thirteen buffalos are tethered. The other brother works in a modest sweet shop located off a main street. The typical wrestler hopes to join the army, the police, or the railway, but his father in the village needs help managing the family’s land holdings, and so the wrestler is forced to curb his ambition in the interest of more immediate demands.
It must be emphasized, however, that within the framework of a wrestling way of life, family wealth and status are not important considerations. As a wrestler Atma, who can neither read nor write, is on the same footing as Babul, who has a B.A. from Banaras Hindu University. Similarly, Ashok, whose family owns only a few buffalos and a small tea shop, is a better wrestler than is Ram ji, who comes from one of the wealthiest families in Banaras.
The claim that education and wealth are unimportant factors in the akhara would be false and acrimonious but for the fact that wrestling is not just an extracurricular leisure activity. It is, rather, a holistic integrated way of life. As a person, a wrestler must of necessity live in a world of social and economic obligation where status, class rank, and educational training play a strong hand. As a wrestler, however, a person must bracket himself out of the obligations and expectations which ensue from his involvement in this larger, divisive world. The complex and problematic nature of this important attitude will be taken up in a later chapter.