A fad that has been sweeping through middle-class India might look familiar to some Americans — it's a craze for fancy gym equipment. But when commentator Sandip Roy visited India's first Mr. Universe (who is known as the "Pocket Hercules") he found that the body builder has little patience for the new trend.
The first gyms I saw in Kolkata were in people's living rooms. The attendant would turn on the fans and uncover the machines when you came to work out. Now there are "multigyms," which have diet charts, Zumba classes and trainers who outnumber the machines.
Bishnu Aich is owner of the Bishnu Manohar Aich Multigym and Fitness center in northeastern Kolkata. He is 65, but he looks much younger. He shows me pictures of himself at 22 — all bulging muscles. But, he says, normal people don't need big muscles. They need what his gym promises: "energy, stamina, endurance," he says.
Three flights down, there's another Aich gym that is all about muscle. It's an akhara — an old-school Indian gym with a red brick floor — just barbells and clanging iron weights. No cardio machines, no padded mats, not even air conditioning. There's a tattered poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger on a pillar.
The man who set up this gym is Bishnu Aich's father, Manohar Aich. He was the first Indian to become Mr. Universe. He just turned 100, and until his stroke last year, he came to this gym religiously to do his squats and bench presses.
Manohar started lifting weights in jail, when he was serving time for slapping a British officer. Just 4 feet 11 inches tall, he was known as India's "Pocket Hercules." But in 1952, a Mr. Universe title didn't lead to sponsorships and stardom. Bishnu says his father supported the family by lifting weights in the circus. "He was lifting 600 pounds on his shoulders," Bishnu explained.
Manohar Aich says lifting has helped him live a hundred years.
Bishnu says his father doesn't care for the newfangled multigyms. He prefers the body-building exercises that he is used to.
"Today's gym bunnies want quick results," says Manohar. "That's wrong."
But Bishnu says it's time to enter the modern world. "People do not have time to spend four hours, six hours a day" in a gym, he says.
A single-minded bodybuilder trapped in the age of the multigym, Manohar seems lonely. He tells me he wishes he could meet the one man who might understand the purity of his passion — fellow Mr. Universe, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When I tell him I lived in California for years, he lights up briefly. "That's Arnold country," he says.
I ask, "What would you tell him?"
He shrugs shyly, "My best wishes to him," Manohar says. "And live long." He leans forward and adds, "after all, he's still a young man."
Manohar Aich smiles toothlessly, and I think: There's India's Pocket Hercules, sitting in the morning sun with a shelf full of medals, California dreamin'.
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