ONE EVENING IN LATE APRIL, inside Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium, about sixty men circled up for a warm-up session. In the centre stood Virender Singh, a compact, muscular man who proceeded to demonstrate brief routines for limbering up, each lasting about ten seconds, which the group replicated. The session would have been unremarkable had it not taken place in almost complete silence; there was no banter or spoken instruction, only the huffing and puffing of the men punctuated by louds claps from Singh to signal the end of each routine.
Virender Singh, better known as Goonga Pehelwan—literally “mute wrestler”—is one of India’s most successful deaf athletes. The group he led in warming up were all competitive wrestlers, sponsored in varying degrees by the government, who live and train together at the stadium. Among them that evening were distinguished wrestlers such as the multiple Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar. Singh has won a medal at each of the five international competitions he has participated in, including a gold each at the 2005 and 2013 Deaflympics, which are sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee. Yet, while success has brought recognition and financial benefits to wrestlers such as Kumar, and to others whose accomplishments do not compare to Singh’s, Singh himself continues to toil with little tangible reward.
I asked Singh, through an interpreter, whether I should call him Virender or, as the rest of the wrestlers referred to him, Goonga. “Anything,” he signed in a version of Indian Sign Language, and chuckled. Singh is 31 years old, and lost his hearing before he turned one, following a high fever. He learned mitti ki kushti—traditional wrestling in mud arenas—as a child, watching his father and uncle in his home village of Sasroli, in Haryana. Soon he started fighting non-deaf opponents at village dangals, or tournaments. By age ten, Singh was training and competing in Delhi, and at 13 he won the capital’s prestigious Nausherva tournament. “I never wanted to come here,” Singh said, “but my father forced me.” However, he added, after a while “I started loving it here.” Financial pressures mean he still fights at the dangals in Sasroli every year, soliciting small donations from onlookers. This year, though, Singh skipped the dangals to continue training for upcoming state and national tournaments.