How long will the authorities remain deaf to the soundless cry of this mute wrestler?
Body covered in mud and dust, eyes gleaming, Virender Singh observes his heftier opponent slowly circling the dirty wrestling pit – desi ‘dangal’. Then, with surprising agility, he takes on the larger wrestler. Some deft moves later, Virender defeats his rival, to loud cheers from the onlookers. It is hard to believe he cannot hear any of that. Nor can he thank the adoring crowd with anything besides a huge grin. This 28-year-old wrestler is deaf and mute.
That didn’t stop him from winning five medals for India at the five international tournaments in which he has participated, including India’s first gold medal at the 2005 Deaflympics in Melbourne and another gold at the 2013 Deaflympics in Bulgaria. He is India’s Goonga Pehelwan.
He has been training – and winning against wrestlers who can hear and speak — at the Chhattarsaal stadium, which has produced the most number of Olympic hopefuls in wrestling, including Sushil Kumar. He used to wrestle with Sushil in their childhood, and they still train together. But Virender is yet to fight an official tournament in India on mat.
“Hello, I am the Goonga Pehelwan,” Virender said through sign language with a bright smile when we met him at the India Inclusion Summit in Bangalore. He wears that moniker, meaning the ‘mute wrestler’, with pride.
It hit me hard in the guts when Virender said that despite his haul of medals, he had never seen any awards or monetary compensation come his way. To make ends meet, he works as a clerk with the Haryana Power Corporation and fights at dangals in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Why, he even had to pay for himself to participate in the Deaflympics, 2004, where he was the lone Indian wrestler. That he won gold for India there didn’t seem to matter, for in 2008, he had to pay his way to the World Deaf Wrestling Championship as well. Finally, in 2013, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) paid his expenses for the Deaflympics grudgingly after much back-and-forth.
It is Virender’s dream to represent India in an international competition for able-bodied athletes. Everybody who has seen him wrestle vouches for his prowess. Deaf athletes can take part in all competitions, including the Olympics. In fact, at the 2012 London Games, there were three deaf athletes in the US contingent. But the Wrestling Federation of India is yet to take note.
In the face of such apathy, three filmmakers in their early 20s, Mit Jani, Prateek Gupta, and Vivek Chaudhary, decided to tell Virender’s story to the world. Their hour-long documentary ‘Goonga Pehelwan’ is the frontispiece of their project Mission Rio16. “It is an attempt to help fulfil Virender’s dream to be at the 2016 Olympics in Rio,” Mit, Prateek and Vivek told YourStory.
“It is absolutely shocking that Virender still hasn’t got cash rewards for all the prizes he has won so far.”
Vivek said that Virender fights in 20-25 dangals each year for prize money ranging from INR 5,000 to 100,000. “Out of all the dangals that we watched, he was defeated only once and that too because of an error by the referee. He weighs 74 kilos but in these dangals, he fights wrestlers weighing 100 kilos upwards and defeats them,” he said.
Their film is currently being screened in different Indian cities. They are hopeful that the authorities would take note and give Virender a much-deserved chance to fight at the State and National Championships in the run-up to the Rio Olympics.
Watch Virender, Mit, Prateek and Vivek talk about the making of Goonga Pehelwan: