Pocket Hercules: Legend turns 100
A stroke in 2011 has ensured that Manohar Aich hasn’t lifted weights in over a year. Still, he is ever present in his eponymously named gymnasium in suburban Kolkata. The young bodybuilders stare in awe as Aich flexes his rippling muscles and flashes his very wrinkled smile. Those muscles have lasted the test of time. In a couple of days, they would have lasted exactly a 100 years.
Aich, at 99 years and 364 days, remains not just an inspiration to trainees in his academy or in Kolkata, but to the universe of bodybuilding in India. He has won every award worth winning in his field, including the coveted Mr Universe title. But on the day of his birth centenary, the grand old man of Indian bodybuilding will win a title he has never won before — a government award.
On Saturday, Aich will be honoured by the West Bengal government for the first time in his very long life. Ever since he became Mr Universe in 1952 (incidentally, it was the same year when WB’s longest serving chief minister Jyoti Basu was first elected into the state assembly), Aich has waited patiently to be recognised by his state. But that wait has outlasted nine chief ministers.
“I have never been selected for a government award. Other prizes, I won plenty. But I always yearned to be recognised by my state. I am grateful to the new chief minister that they will fill that void on a special day,” Aich says, while stretching on a chair in his Dum Dum house.
He lives a simple life. The exterior of the house is as wizened as the owner’s. The interior also looks rather dilapidated. But his fitness club -- the Bishnu Manohar Aich’s Fitness Centre & Multigym -- is good enough to give the best gymnasiums in Kolkata a complex. Managed by his youngest son, Manoj Aich, the Centre boasts of more than a 100 regular trainees and many more in the waiting line.
Aich, however, finds the new generation’s interest in the ‘health club’ section of his gym quite puzzling. “These youngsters want the easy way out these days. They don’t have the time and energy to go through the drills in an old-style gymnasium. They don’t worship their body,” he says. But does he wish that he had such facilities during his heyday? “Never. I prefer the manually operated apparatus. Times have changed.”
Times truly have, considering when a 39-year old Aich wanted to first participate in the Mr Universe ‘51 held in London, he had to do charity shows across the city to raise the requisite travel money. “I was not successful that year. But I was determined to do it the following year, so I stayed back in England,” he says. So, instead of travelling back and forth, Aich found himself a job with British Rail and trained hard to win the event as a 40-year old. “I returned home only after winning the 1952 competition. The Rail paid for my ticket back home,” he adds.
While Aich remains indebted to British Rail, his daughter Bani Banerjee feels that her father is missing out a very vital reason for his success. “Without my mother’s help, he couldn’t have achieved any of that,” says Banerjee. “My mother Jyotika sacrificed a lot to ensure her husband continued with his passion. She passed away in 2001.”
While Jyotika raised the children at home, Aich travelled the world and earned acclaim. And once he retired as a professional, he began cultivating more champions back home, such as Mr Universe Premchand Dogra and eight-time national body building champion Satya Paul. But Aich believes that his life wouldn’t have taken the path it did had he not been thrown into a military jail in 1942.
Working as a physical instructor in the Indian Air Force, Aich protested against the British oppression during the Quit India movement. He slapped a British officer for an offensive remark, and Aich was imprisoned after a court martial hearing. “It was the best thing that happened to me. It was in jail that I first got fascinated by weights. I spent my time training. And the jailor was a good man. He even allotted special food for me,” the 4’11’’ man, also known as India’s ‘Pocket Hercules’ says.
Once he was released, Aich flirted with various jobs and disciplines, including working as a coconut vendor outside Sealdah station, but his love for bodybuilding remained a lifelong constant. “I didn’t become rich. There is not much money in bodybuilding,” he says. “But there is respect. And for that, I wouldn’t mind being a bodybuilder in my next life as well.”
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