Along the banks of the Yamuna canal or nahar from which the village of Nahri gets its name, and whose fields it waters, lives a full bearded ascetic who goes by the name Bhramachari Hansraj. He was a wrestler once, and still has the gruff barrel chested build of one, but found religion once his knees blew out a couple of decades ago. He now spends his time along the banks where he devotes his time to prayer but indulges a couple of passions – planting trees and growing wrestlers.
He’s planted a fair few. There was Amit Dahiya – the youngest Indian wrestler to medal at the World Championships. Now there’s Ravi Dahiya, who is guaranteed at least a silver medal in Tokyo having reached the finals in the 2020 Olympics.
By the time the 23-year-old wrestles for the gold with Zaur Uguev of Russia on Thursday, his home in Nahri village, on the northern border of Delhi, just next to the village of Narela will be abuzz with fans, media people, well wishers and hangers on. His coaches at New Delhi’s Chhatrasal stadium where he’s was entrusted by Hansraj a decade ago will be asked the secrets behind his success. They will be asked – what was the move that Dahiya used to secure the pin? Just how did he reverse a seven-point deficit with 90 seconds on the clock and beat a two-time world medalist? They will all have their answers – reasonable, educated and well-thought out ones.
It’s simpler for Hansraj.
“It was his destiny,” Hansraj says. “I had so many youngsters I coached. There are so many talented youngsters. They all work hard. I had Amit Dahiya who I still think was perhaps blessed with more natural ability than any youngster who came to me. They haven’t reached anywhere where Ravi has. He is at the biggest stage for a wrestler. Why is that? It is written already. His wrestling ability comes not from this life but a previous one.”
Destiny – the belief that sometimes greatness isn’t something entirely in our own hands is not some quaint belief in the part of the country Dahiya is from. It is as real as anything else. Our paths are sometimes chosen for us.
It was Ravi Dahiya’s destiny to wrestle. Everyone wrestles in Nahri – a village that’s produced three Olympians. His father Rakesh Dahiya was a wrestler as was his grandfather. His uncles Anil and Rajkamal wrestled too and it is to support their career – that Rakesh gave up his own. While Anil and Rajkamal joined the police and the army, Ravi’s father remained on the farm.
Rakesh Dahiya is a simple man. Unlike many of his neighbours, he doesn’t own farmland. He takes it on leases and raises vegetables. It is a risky profession. A few weeks back when pre-monsoon showers reached Delhi, half his crop of tomatoes went underwater. “It is destiny,” he shrugs. But he’s planted again.
“It takes courage to be a farmer. At any time you might lose everything,” he says. But it isn’t just fate. Both Hansraj and his father will tell you so, you have to plough fields, you have to water saplings. It’s the same for wrestling. “The only thing in your hands is to work. You have to give yourself the best chance.”
It’s that penchant for hard work that Hansraj remembers, too.
“Ravi was someone who never complained no matter how hard the training was. And he was focused. He is like Arjun aiming at the eye of the fish. He didn’t have the natural skill that others did but that was what stood out about him,” he says.
Indeed, Ravi’s natural behavior earned him an unusual nickname. All Indian wrestlers from Haryana have them, usually something that stands out about their appearance. Deepak Punia is kettli (kettle) for his prodigious appetite. Ravi’s nickname was Mohni – the pleasant one. “Man mohne wala tha (that which is attractive to the mind). He was perhaps the best student you could work with,” says Hansraj.
When Hansraj realised he could teach the youngster no further, he took him to New Delhi’s Chhatrasal stadium — the finest wrestling school in all of India – perhaps one of the best in the world. Ravi had wanted to be here himself ever since he first saw Sushil Kumar wrestle. While Sushil’s career has now gone downhill, the two-time Olympic medalist remains Ravi’s idol.
In his house in Nahri, mounted high and proud is a framed picture of the two-time Olympic medalist.
“Ravi was a very quiet boy. He wouldn’t even talk loudly. But during the 2008 Olympics where Sushil won a bronze medal, he got up and said – he would do the same as well,” says Rakesh.
So Ravi went to Chhatrasal, where among an ocean of talent of boys from the hinterland around Delhi with sky high ambition and talent, he didn’t really stand out. Like many kids with ambitions to be the next Sushil Kumar, he was dogsbody, a chela who did odd jobs for senior wrestlers.
One such senior who took a shine to the young lad was Arun Dahiya, also from Nahri and with two Commonwealth titles, no mean wrestler himself.
“He kept to himself but he was someone who stood out. He loved to train. If you told him to train for a half an hour, he’d do twice that. That’s what I liked about him,” he says. Ravi’s father also tended to him the only way a father could. Each day, he’d walk the five kilometers from Nahri to Narela’s railway terminal with a portion of white butter and milk. He’d take the morning 4.00 to Azadpur Railway station some 30 kms away then walk another five kms to the Chhatrasal stadium where Ravi would have just finished his morning training. The job of a farmer is precarious and so nothing was left to waste.
“There was one time when he dropped the butter that I had got from our home. I said that nothing you get should be wasted and immediately he picked the butter up off the floor and ate it,” recalls Rakesh.
For all the care on him and his own hard work, Ravi though never found the results he was looking for. “At one point I asked him whether he wanted to continue to wrestle. He said he did so I let it go,” says Rakesh. It was only later when Arun, now an employee of the Indian Air Force, arranged to have Ravi tested at a hospital, that it was realised that he was limited by a severe iron deficiency. Once that was treated, the results started to trickle in.
If there’s one thing that Ravi can count on it is his stamina that’s been built up through hour upon hour of training in the sweaty wrestling hall of Chhatrasal stadium, climbing miles upon miles of the frayed coir ropes on the banyan tree underneath which the idol of the god Hanuman sits.
“There is no one in the world who can match his endurance. It doesn’t matter how much of a gap he gives up to an opponent. If he is wrestling, he is always confident of pushing the opponent until they break. And if he has time they all break, ” says Arun.
It’s that steam train like endurance that saw him win the junior national title in India in 2015 and then travel to the World Juniors in Brazil that same year where he came back from a 2-8 deficit in the semifinals before eventually returning with a silver. His rise caught the eye of others, not always those looking for his best interests. That’s where Ravi’s other tremendous gift would prove handy – grit.
“The competition in the 57kg category in India is very strong. Sometimes your opponents will try and injure you deliberately. In the 2016 Delhi senior state championships, his rival deliberately broke the middle finger on his right-hand. He was in tremendous pain. But he never complained. He only said I’m going to continue and I’m going to beat him. Then he got the finger taped up and he won,” says his uncle.
In that way, Ravi wasn’t unlike his father, who has a reputation in the village of probity, even at the expense of personal loss.
“He isn’t someone who will look to cheat and get something. He will lose money but he will do the right thing,” says Anil. One such instance was in 2019 just before the World Championships in Nur Sultan. Money was tight in the family then since Ravi hadn’t yet got his current job in the Railways.
“His crops were just about to be harvested. And then by accident, a spark in the machinery in a neighbouring field set fire to ours. The village council decided that Ravi’s father should be paid for the loss by the contractor of the neighbouring field but he decided not to take it,” says Anil.
“I lost about 3 lakh rupees, but I couldn’t take their money. It wasn’t their fault. They were working as contractors and their own field had burnt down. If I had taken their money they’d have nothing to go home with,” says Rakesh.
Rakesh’s honesty has earned blessing for his sons that have seen Ravi bounce from several setbacks – the issue with low iron, a bout of typhoid a year after his silver at the world and then injuries to his knees that required surgery in 2017 but from which he recovered to win another silver at the U-23 worlds in 2018.
“At the World Championships (Where Ravi won bronze to qualify for the Olympics) I think a lot of the blessings Ravi’s father received have helped him,” Anil says.
Not that Ravi would know.
“His family is the one in Chhatrasal stadium. His home is so close to Delhi, but he goes to Nahri only once a year and he’ll come back the same day. After he won a bronze medal at the worlds, his uncle suggested he buy a car or at least a motorcycle so he could come home more frequently, but he’d rather take the train or take a lift from some other wrestler,” says Arun. Indeed, when the push to get some vehicles got too much, Ravi promptly bought his father an Eicher tractor that now sits outside his house.
Even the recent controversy in which his hero Sushil was arrested for the murder of a fellow wrestler in Chhatrasal stadium hasn’t shaken him.
“In a way it was lucky that he was abroad (Ravi has been training in Poland and subsequently Russia over the past couple of months). He’s someone who is absolutely obsessed with wrestling. It is his life. He doesn’t care for anything else. He doesn’t care for social media. He is signed by a management team that handles that for him. He doesn’t care about clothes or music or girls. He is happiest on the wrestling mat,” says Arun.
‘Arjun looking at the eye of the fish,’ as Hansraj would say.
Ravi’s focus has been honed to a razors point at the Tokyo Olympics. “He’s completely stopped responding to calls. he’ll reply with a single line message every four days. The only thing on his mind was to complete his weight cut smoothly and be ready for his bouts,” says an associate who has worked with Ravi for over five years.
When the draw was announced, it had seemed that indeed destiny was beckoning Ravi. He had first up Oscar Tigreros and then Giorgi Vangelov, easy opponents both of whom were dispatched with ease. His focus and indeed all the virtues he had perfected over a lifetime were tested against Sanayev. They would prove true. Even as he fell behind, he had outworked the Kazakh, draining him of energy.
As Sanayev prepared to defend his lead, he employed every trick – not all legitimate – he knew. In his quarterfinal against Japan’s Yuki Takahashi, Sanayev had grabbed his opponents’ singlet to deny him leverage. He had claimed injury to earn rest time. He tried the same with Ravi. That isn’t something he could do with Ravi. The Indian didn’t get frustrated at the tactics, he bade his time. When the action resumed, he tired Sanayev’s arms further before shooting for a takedown that placed him on his back, a move, Sanayev was too surprised or tired to react. In the final moments before he was pinned, he even chewed on Ravi’s bicep in desperation. This was a wrestler who fought without complaint with a broken finger in the pursuit of a mere state title; now with a Olympic gold beckoning Sanayev could probably have chomped on a few other limbs to no avail. There would be no release until the final whistle blew.
Despite the dramatic end to his semi-final, there was no burst of elation or exuberance from Ravi. This was just a job done and he was already looking forward to his next contest – the gold medal match against Zaur Uguev. The Russian is a master of the mat, inventive, technically brilliant and also has a win over Ravi at the World Championships. It will take all of Ravi’s ability to make the match competitive.
Can he do it? Can Ravi win gold?
It depends on who you ask. His family in Nahri, his brothers in arms at Chhatrasal say he will. “He is the better wrestler. We told him even before the competition that he will be coming back with a gold,” says Arun.
In the canal by his village, the bearded sadhu Hansraj doesn’t care for such details. “It is his destiny,” he says.