Two Rustam-e-Hind in a family!

Wrestling may have been in his blood but Palwinder grew up in the shadow of his first cousin, who the family felt would wear the mantle of Kesar Pehalwan. Palwinder loved to play in the mud and was often put to exercise by his paternal uncle and others because he was on the healthier side, says his mother. She says though the formal training of boys started much later, Palwinder adopted the lifestyle of a wrestler from a very young age. He even slept with his rumali (loin cloth) under his pillow.

The 100-yr-old wrestling club

Even as the Cheemas are focused on the training and grooming of their son, they continue to maintain the traditions set by Gama Pehalwan, whose land and akhara they have inherited. The akhara is home to around a dozen wrestlers who stay here on a permanent basis and many more who come to practise on its premises in the evenings. Their wrestling club, which is nearly 100 years old, comprises one full-fledged mud akhara with the same sand which was used in the original akhara of Gama Pehalwan and a small pit for practise along with rooms and toilet facilities.

A visit to the club showed that as many as 10 wrestlers were living in the three big rooms adjoining the akharas. The residents, who mainly belong to Haryana, do not have to pay any rent and are provided weights and other training material by the Cheemas, who do not charge them anything. Palwinder says many of the promising youngsters, including Sanjay Dahiya and Sajjan Pal, belong to the club.

Even now one is reminded of the sport at the entrance of the house, which has been named Rustam Villa to commemorate the memory of Rustam-e-Hind Kesar Pehalwan. Photos of three generations of pehalwans adorn the lobby and staircase leading to the first floor. You can see Kesar Pehalwan with Nehru and Maharaja Yadavindra Singh and then there are photos of Palwinder’s father Sukhchain Cheema, who was four times National Champion, and of Palwinder himself. All of them leave you in no doubt that you are in a house that belongs to wrestlers. The drawing room is decked with numerous maces and trophies won by these three pehalwans.

Palwinder says, "The family was more interested in my uncle’s son and I used to be mainly running around the akhara because of my excess weight. My formal training in wrestling started when I was 13 years old but even then I was not receiving training on mud. My father was of the firm view that I should train on mat if I was to compete at the international level." This one decision perhaps set him apart from other wrestlers in the country and also made him receive the Arjuna Award after a number of international victories in the field of wrestling.

Palwinder’s father Sukhchain Singh Cheema, who was earlier an Assistant Commandant in the BSF, remarks that wrestling has come a long way. "My father migrated to Patiala from Lyallpur in Faislabad district (now in Pakistan). He took up a small accommodation in the Nattan Wali Galli on the Nabha road on rent and immediately started the process of gaining patronage of Maharaja Yadavindra Singh, who was the Raj Pramukh of the newly formed Pepsu State. Kesar Pehalwan attracted the Maharaja’s attention in 1951 when he became Rustam-e-Hind. He then claimed the orchard and akhara which had been left behind by the famous Gama Pehalwan after Partition. Training in the akhara was a way of life for my father as well as for me but I wanted my son to learn the nuances associated with international style of wrestling so that he could rise above the akhara," Sukhchain added.

Palwinder, adding to his father’s line of thought, says many wrestlers are not able to become technically sound because their basic training is on mud. "These wrestlers find the switch to the mat difficult." Besides this, he says, there is a lot of difference between wrestling on mud and on mat. "Mud wrestling means lots of endurance because it is a slow sport. However, wrestling on mat means possessing both speed and endurance, which calls for special training."

Once the decision to give the boy training on mat was taken, the National Institute of Sports (NIS), which is within a stone’s throw of Palwinder’s traditional house, came to the rescue of the family. Palwinder was allowed to train along with national-level wrestlers coming to the NIS to train for national and international meets. This meant access to foreign coaches and also an early grasp of wrestling techniques.

Palwinder, however, had one more obligation to fulfil before taking on the world and that was to win the title of Rustam-e-Hind, which was held by his grandfather from 1951 to 1961. Palwinder annexed this title at the age of 17 years in 1999. He also won several other titles on mud. "It is easier to fight on mud once you have trained on mat," he says, adding that winning on mud was necessary for him to gain experience in wrestling.

This wrestler has travelled a long way since he became Rustam-e-Hind in 1999. He has become leaner since then. "This is because I have completely changed my eating habits. Milk and ghee were my staple diet during growing years. My mother gave me at least six to seven litres of milk and lots of ghee. Now I try to eat a balanced diet. Besides boiled chicken and vegetables, I have fruits, juices and protein milk. This diet has helped me increase the lean mass in the body."

Speaking about his training, he says he wants to peak close to the Olympic qualification round in February next year, following which he would work for realising his goal of bagging a medal in the Olympic Games.

Palwinder wants more respect for his sport from the common man. ”I know cricket is the t popular sport in our country. However, we should also be looked after and sponsored so that we are encouraged to do more for the country."

Photos by Subhash Patialvi 

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