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No words needed

Wrestler Virender Singh is India’s most successful deaf athlete, but he’s still struggling for a foothold.

Virender Singh can’t hear the morning call for training, but he’s up at 4am anyway. He’s almost always the first to wake up, the result of a finely-tuned inner clock, and it’s his job to rouse the other wrestlers at Delhi’s Chhatrasal akhara, or wrestling school.

By 4.30am, large, muscular silhouettes begin lining up in one corner of the stadium. One by one, a few of the floodlights begin to come on. The coach walks in. Virender does a silent count of the trainees and then claps once. The training begins.

Virender, 26, can’t hear or speak, but he sure can fight. He won India’s first and only gold medal at the 2005 Deaflympics in Melbourne, in 74-84kg freestyle wrestling, a silver medal at the second World Deaf Wrestling Championships in 2008 in Yerevan, Armenia, and a bronze at the 2009 Deaflympics in Taipei, Taiwan. On 7 September, he won a bronze at the 2012 World Deaf Wrestling Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. That’s four medals at the only four international competitions Virender has fought in.

“Wrestling is my life," he says through his interpreter. “This is my home."

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Virender Singh at the Chhatrasal wrestling school in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

“I used to wrestle with him when we were children," Kumar says of Virender, “and I still train with him. As a wrestler he’s up there with the best. He can take on anyone, it doesn’t matter if they can hear and he can’t."

In wrestling circles, Virender’s real name is lost. Everyone simply knows him as Goonga Pehelwan. This may seem politically incorrect, but few wrestlers or coaches are aware of that. To them, the name represents a badge of pride—there are other deaf wrestlers in India, but only one Goonga Pehelwan. A man who takes on non-disabled wrestlers in dangals (traditional wrestling competitions) and still wins.

“He may be deaf, but he has big ears," says Dutt. In kushti (traditional Indian wrestling) parlance, this is the highest praise for a wrestler. Repeated impact injuries leave wrestlers with swollen or “cauliflower" ears. The common belief is that the bigger the ears, the better the wrestler.

Breaking down barriers

Born in 1986 in a village near Jhajjar in Haryana, Virender was brought to Delhi by his father Ajit in 1995 for medical treatment. Ajit was then a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) jawan and a wrestler, and stayed at the CISF akhara in Delhi. While Virender was being treated for a recurring foot problem, Ajit’s friends advised him not to send his son back to the village.

“What future does he have there, they asked me," says Ajit, sitting inside an old and decrepit akhara tucked away in the chaotic by-lanes of Sadar Bazar in old Delhi. “They said, let him stay here at the akhara, and go to a proper school for the deaf."

One day, while the wrestlers at the CISF akhara were in training, Virender stepped on to the mud platform and gestured for an opponent. Ajit’s colleagues got in the ring to humour him, but soon realized that there was more to the boy. “From that day on," Ajit says, “my friend Surinder Dagar, who is also a pehelwan, started teaching him to fight." In a few months, Surinder and Ajit realized that Virender had more talent than the humble CISF akhara could handle, so they took him to Chhatrasal.

Ajit says the family found out about Virender’s deafness when he was a year old. For years, they took the young boy to doctors, shamans, Ayurveda practitioners, even Baba Ramdev, who advised Kapalbhati (a yogic breathing exercise) twice a day. “He said it will cure Virender in a year," Ajit says. “We never tried it. We stopped being concerned about his deafness, because we knew that God compensates. Look at him now. He’s stronger than anyone else in the family. He’s cleverer too. He’s the first one in the family who can use a computer and send messages on the phone."

In 2001, a 16-year-old Virender was selected for the trials for the World Cadet Wrestling Championships. He came first in the trials, but the Wrestling Federation of India decided not to send him, say Virender and his coaches. “They told us that it’s not meant for people with disabilities," Ajit says. Virender was heartbroken. He was ready to give up wrestling. “For years I had been watching other wrestlers going for tournaments, and I really thought I was going to go for this one," Virender says. “I felt lonely and left out. I cried a lot. I asked myself what was wrong with me. I just did not understand why I could not go."

For years I had been watching other wrestlers going for tournaments, and I really thought I was going to go for this one.
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