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.
Singh said that Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Haryana’s chief minister, promised him a bonus of Rs 5 crore if he won gold at the 2013 Deaflympics, per the state government’s policy of rewarding successful athletes. That money could help renovate Singh’s crumbling village home and finance his marriage, but he has yet to receive it. The reward existed, he said, “only on paper.” Meanwhile, Sushil Kumar and the Olympic bronze medalist Yogeshwar Dutt—both Singh’s peers from Haryana—have been awarded cash and cars. For Kumar and others, success has also translated into better accommodations at the wrestlers’ hostel at the stadium. Singh, however, continues to live in a small, dingy room alongside 14 other men. “The last time I went to the Deaflympics, I had to sponsor my own flight ticket,” he said. “My father has written a lot to the government, but it never supports us.”
Last year, Singh got some deserved attention when a trio of young filmmakers—Vivek Chaudhary, Mit Jani and Prateek Gupta—shot a documentary on him, titled Goonga Pehelwan, which has been screened at various festivals across the country. Alongside the film, the trio launched a campaign, Mission Rio 2016, that aims, as stated on the film’s website, to “help Virender get a fair chance at the state and national championships”—both of which are crucial qualifying events for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro—and to secure “the disbursal of appropriate cash rewards for all that Virender has achieved till now.” As part of the initiative, in February, Singh was invited to be the chief guest at a sports day at Riverside School, a private institution in Ahmedabad, where students presented him with Rs 9.8 lakh raised from their community. Singh said he used Rs 7.3 lakh of that sum to pay off loans, and was using the rest to fund his training.
The campaign also persuaded the Wrestling Federation of India to make better provisions for deaf athletes to compete against their “able-bodied” peers. “I have lost to less skilled, able-bodied wrestlers in the past,” Singh said, “because the referees blow a whistle that I can’t hear, and I lose for the lack of a head start or get disqualified.” Starting this June, the WFI has agreed to provide referees that use visual and tactile cues for deaf wrestlers.
Singh was confident he could repay his supporters’ faith in his abilities. “Bring anyone forward, I can bash him,” he said. “I am no different from them.”
Correction: Goonga Pehelwan translates as "mute wrestler", and not "deaf wrestler" as earlier stated.