Tomorrow. No, it’s one in the morning, so it’s today, technically, and just seven hours to go. Sushil Kumar, for a moment, is hit by a wave of self-pity, by regret, and he forgets that he’s sworn off swear words. Four years, and almost every single day building up to this. Every minute of training, every moment of pain, every thought, each competition he has been to, what was it for? To find himself here, in a toilet in the Olympic village in London, vomiting up even the electrolytes he has been given. Worse: shitting water, muscles cramping and spasming up and down his body. It’s just too cruel. It seems impossible to fight his body, so he fights his mind. He unleashes a feverish tirade against it—every curse word he knows to keep himself afloat.

And then he’s somewhere else, a space he likes. He feels calm and aggressive at the same time. If he has to vomit, he will. If his muscles cramp, let them. If he shits blood, it won’t change a thing. There is only so much that the doctor can do—just three doctors for the fifty-nine athletes in the Indian contingent, and a single physiotherapist, who is not even available right now. The doctor has come and gone, given him some electrolytes, which he has promptly thrown up.

He knows, of course, why this is happening. For the last ten days, he has been on a starvation diet, coupled with endless cardio sessions of slow running with heavy, warm clothing. He had to lose six kilos in ten days to fit into his weight class at the Olympics. This is the standard practice for combat athletes, and Sushil is used to doing this. But things can go wrong when you push the body in such extreme ways, and it has today.

His fellow wrestlers are awake with him. Yogeshwar Dutt, with whom he has trained since they were both little boys, massages him even though he is fit to collapse himself. Dutt had won a medal earlier in the day, five hellish matches in the space of a few hours for a bronze medal—India’s third bronze in wrestling in Olympic history, after Sushil’s win in 2008 and K.D. Jadhav in 1956. Dutt’s right eye is swollen shut, and yet he is here. Coach Yashvir steps in to massage when Yogeshwar tires, his lips a thin, stoic line under his salt-and-pepper stubble. Amit Kumar and Narsingh Yadav, the two other wrestlers in the men’s team, take their turns as well.

Sushil finally manages to go to sleep at two, six hours from his first match at the 2012 London Games. He wakes up at five. A miracle: he feels good. His mind is calm and sharp, and it tells him, unbidden, ‘you will win’. He feels—and this is incredible even to him—happy.

There is Hanuman to thank for this. Jai Bajrangbali.

The weight class in which Sushil fights, 66 kg, offers one of the toughest competitions in Olympic wrestling. There is Mehdi Taghavi, the reigning world champion from Iran, an elegant wrestler whose exceptional skills are matched perfectly by the speed at which his mind works. Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu, the Japanese whom Taghavi had beaten at the World Championships, had avenged that loss at the World Cup just a month before the Olympics. There is the explosive Cuban Livan Lopez, bronze at the World Championship. There is Russia’s Alan Gogaev, whom Taghavi had beaten in the final for his world title, and Turkey’s Ramazan Sahin, the 2008 Olympic gold medallist. Every one a champion.

As Sushil tightly wraps his red langot in the changing room at the stadium, the names mean nothing to him. He thinks of them as no more extraordinary than his training partner back at Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi, ready for a lesson or two. He is happy. He will win.

*****

In Baprola, a packed neighbourhood of housing colonies on the outskirts of Delhi, which was a proper village barely a decade ago, a two-storey house is crammed to bursting. Outside, there is a poster of Sushil Kumar kissing his Olympic bronze medal from 2008.

Kamala, Sushil’s mother, and some of the other women of the family rush around inside, making tea and ripping open packets of biscuits for the great number of relatives, neighbours and yet others whom no one has seen before. Kamala is a squat, powerfully built woman, with a radiant smile and impish eyes. Unlike her husband Diwan, who prefers wearing clothes in shades of grey or white (faded by years of use), she is always in colourful attire. Sushil not only looks like her, but is also built like her.

She is also agile, fast. Hello, Olympian gene, nice to meet you! She leaps on to the waist-high kitchen counter in a single bound to reach for more packets of biscuits from the high shelves. She passes on plates of dry fruits and glasses of milk to be taken out of the kitchen. All the TVs in the house are tuned to the Olympics. Outside the house, behind the high gates, a scrum of journalists is making a din. Broadcast vans are lined up on the thin strip of highway outside, and traffic is at a crawl. Tea and biscuits are sent out for the reporters too. Other onlookers gather; there is now a thick swarm outside. Only Diwan looks unmoved, a bemused half smile on his face. He is lean, with a stiff grey stubble and piercing eyes. He seeks out his nephew Sandeep’s baby boy, and starts tussling with him playfully. It is the only time he smiles broadly. Here’s another boy from the family who’s got the makings of a wrestler. He reminds Diwan of Sushil when he was a baby.

A roar goes through the house, and is taken up by the crowd outside. On the TV, Sushil has walked out into the Olympic arena. Kamala, heart in her mouth, quickly exits the room, goes to the kitchen. She can’t bear to watch Sushil fight. She’ll stay in the kitchen till it’s all over. Sushil struts straight up to the mat, jaw set, psyched-up, a man in a hurry; and even before the people in the house have had time to gather themselves around the TV, it has begun.

*****

The stadium is packed. Ramazan Sahin, the defending Olympic champion, steps up. The Turkish supporters are loud, louder than the Indians. Sahin makes the first attacking move, sweeps for Sushil’s legs, but Sushil twists out of it. Sahin stays low, makes another sweep, Sushil pushes him away, steps back, his eyes on the rival’s.

‘Apna kaam, apna kaam,’ team coach Vinod screams out—stay focused on what you have to do, don’t let him dictate the fight. But here’s Sahin, and he’s got a solid grip from in front. He’s slipped his arms under Sushil’s armpit and swivelled around, and Sushil has no option but to go down on his knees. Point to Sahin. Sushil gets a leg lock on, tries to turn Sahin on his back with the lock in position, but Sahin counters, breaks the lock, and manages to get himself behind and on top of Sushil. Sahin 2, Sushil 0, and the first period is Sahin’s. Sushil’s younger brother Amarjeet is in the crowd; he can’t believe what he is seeing. He is edgy and annoyed. This should have been over in two periods. Now it’s all up in the air, and oh god, oh no, Sushil looks a little less springy on his feet as he goes to the mat for the second period. Amarjeet recalls the night Sushil has endured and prays, don’t let this be over, not here, not in the first match.

Sahin gets rapid instructions from his coaches, Sushil’s side is silent. Both wrestlers are a little more cautious now, and neither manage a point at the end of the two-minute period. The ball draw. Now it’s all luck. Sushil gets to pick the ball. If it comes out red, he gets to apply a hold on Sahin without opposition, and then Sahin has to try and prevent him from converting it into a point. If the ball comes out blue, the advantage is Sahin’s and he can finish the match right here, right now, no third period needed. Amarjeet drops his head, closes his eyes. Sushil picks red: finally, some luck. He converts the advantage, a point to claim the second round.

Third period, and now the fight goes into overdrive. Both wrestlers attack incessantly, a blur of hands and legs and rotating torsos. The noise from the crowd is ear-splitting. Thirty seconds in, Sushil feigns an attack to the upper body, but in a flash reaches down and has a hold of Sahin’s legs. Sahin tries to defend desperately, but Sushil’s behind him now, and takes him down. One more point. Muscles on fire now, the pain oppressive, heavy, weighing Sushil down. He has to stand back up, withstand Sahin’s frantic attacks.

‘Nineteen seconds, 19 seconds,’ Sushil’s coach bellows out to him. ‘Stay on your feet.’ Sahin gets a leg hold, but somehow, on his hands and feet and scrambling, Sushil slips away. He’s through to the quarters.

Sushil barely makes it to the changing room, where he collapses in a heap on the floor. The entire team is there—Yogeshwar, Amit, Narsingh, the two coaches and Amarjeet. He is now cramping and spasming badly, his body feels like stone, his fingers have become bent and fixed at weird angles; he needs Yogeshwar just to straighten his fingers. Everyone is massaging him together now, one has a leg, another an arm; the coach makes him sip some electrolyte, a slice of apple, half a banana, a few sips of a protein shake. Amarjeet’s wiping away his sweat, fanning him with a towel. ‘How do you feel? Is it better? Clench and unclench your fingers.’ Slowly, his body starts to loosen. It’s a relief. One step at a time, he thinks. Every step is good. He can stand now. Assisted, he can stretch. Then he swings his arms briskly. Good, he’s happy. It’s happening again.

‘Shabash,’ Yogeshwar says. The others repeat the cry.

‘You will win, you are the best, you can’t lose,’ Amarjeet says.

‘Be calm, do your thing,’ coach Yashvir tells him.

‘Be defensive,’ Yogeshwar says. ‘Wait for your chance, conserve your energy, keep things easy. This guy is all about speed, he’ll lose his patience, and he’ll rush at you. You play with him, okay?’

Okay. He’s happy. He can feel the electricity running through him. He is tingling.

Quarter-final. Uzbekistan’s Ikhtyor Navruzov. Be patient. Let him rush.

*****

Diwan watches the action unfolding on TV without moving. There is something wrong. He can see it plainly. He has rarely seen Sushil so defensive. He looks a bit stiff too. Manjeet, Sushil’s youngest brother, has told Kamala in the kitchen that Sushil has won his first fight. Diwan can hear Kamala say: ‘Ah good. Now that the Bhainswaliya Manish (Manish from Bhainswal village—Yogeshwar) has got a medal, my son will also get one.’

‘I saw all this in a dream last night,’ Sushil’s aunt, who speaks a lot, says. ‘I saw Manish win his medal, and then I saw Sushil win a medal.’

Kamala laughs. She starts cleaning the kitchen counter.

Diwan’s throat feels like it’s been baked in an oven. He hollers for Manjeet to get some water, but it comes out feebly. He wishes he could smoke a bidi right now. But he can’t. Ever since the cancer and the chemo, no way. The house is stuffed with sofas and beds, but he sits on the floor. He can never get comfortable on a sofa. Now it begins again. Diwan straightens, forgets everything else. Uzbekistan. Who is this wrestler? He’s not bad, but Sushil is not moving in for the kill. That’s fine. As long as he gets the points. But what is wrong with him? And now Sushil’s gone to the physio, he’s getting something done to his hands. Diwan wishes he could just call Amarjeet and ask him, but he refrains. A series of moves from Sushil now—he’s shot for the legs, he’s dropped the Uzbek by his ankles, but he can’t move fast enough to get on top of him. The Uzbek’s slipped out, but only just, Sushil’s got his grip still, and YES! He’s lifted Ikhtyor across his shoulders, this will be the pin…but no, a strange lack of strength from Sushil, so uncharacteristic, and the Uzbek escapes a straight defeat. Diwan reminds himself to breathe. He tunes out the noise in the house, the noise outside. Sushil wins the fight. He’s in the semi-final, but Diwan is unhappy. He looks around him, looks at all the people, but he’s alone in his own world. There is something very wrong with Sushil, there is no doubt about it. How long can he keep going?

‘I saw all this in a dream last night,’ Sushil’s aunt comes and tells Diwan. ‘I saw Manish win his medal…’

Diwan walks away without waiting for her to finish.

*****

What are the Olympics like for a competing athlete?

It’s a fortnight of tuning out the outside world—blanking out noise, emails, text messages, phone calls, unsolicited advice, fan talk, alien food, foreign music, other athletes—anything that can cause the slightest deviation in the mind. As long as the athlete is in competition, the Olympic village is his or her prison.

Sushil has seen nothing of the Olympics. This is his third time at what is perhaps the modern world’s most extravagant spectacle, certainly its most expensive sporting event, and a medal here is undoubtedly the most coveted sporting prize on the planet. He has memories only of dull rooms, gyms, dim corridors where he ran for hours to lose the last few kilos before the weigh-in, and the bright lights of stadiums. They were different rooms, different corridors, different arenas—in Athens, Beijing, London—but they have all dissolved into one uniform mass of grey carpets and white lights and sweat stinging the eyes. He has never been a spectator at a single event. He has not seen Michael Phelps cut through the pool like an improbable sea monster, or Usain Bolt push the human speed limit to a place just beyond logic. He has met Bolt briefly this time around, as he was entering the gym a couple of days back and the lanky Jamaican was coming out of it. He took a picture on his phone as Yogeshwar posed with Bolt.

The Olympian’s burden is an extraordinary one. Their chance to truly shine, to become more than just an athlete, comes only once every four years, and when it does, that opportunity can last a few minutes, or a few seconds. A lifetime has to be spent to get to those hours. So the prison is self-made, self-administered; a prison to bide your time and be ready when it comes.

He is ready. He can feel the rhythm in his body, and for the first time in the day, that extreme focus takes over him where he is not even conscious of his thoughts, but everything seems very clear and bright. He does not have to fight his weakness, his urge to vomit has disappeared. Every muscle in his body is twitching to go, and his mind is working smoothly and rapidly as he makes the first contact with his opponent in the semi-final—Kazakhstan’s Akzhurekh Tanatarov.

Click here to see Sushil Kumar’s semi-final at the London 2012 Olympics.

This is where he wants to be, where his mind makes decisions without even telling him and his body executes them, and the decisions are all correct, they all fall into place. The noise inside the stadium is deafening, but Sushil can only hear the sticky sound of Tanatarov and his body against the mat.

Seconds into the opening round, Sushil gets a leg lock in place. But somehow, from that most precarious of positions, Tanatarov slips out of the lock. Now Sushil backs away as the other man tries to get a grip. He comes in low, and Sushil springs forward with startling speed, one hand pushing at Tanatarov’s face, the other pulling on his knee, shoulders driving forward towards the Kazakh’s hips. The best that anyone can do in this situation, and Tanatarov has trained all his life to do just this so it’s reflexive, is to turn as he falls, land on his chest and not his back, to not let the shoulders touch the mat. Sushil is all over him—a leg lock, a cross-body lock, searching for his head and neck, his ankle—he wants to turn Tanatarov flat on his back. Tanatarov twists and turns, tucks his legs in, spreads his arms wide, and pushes towards the zone outside the playing area, to concede a point but not three, which is what will happen if he gets turned on his back. Sushil manages to turn him just in time, millimetres from the safe zone. Three points. Good. This is exactly what he wants—one hold, and then keep pressing, apply technique after technique, don’t let the man get away.

The first period is his, but in the second, Tanatarov neatly reverses an attack, the two wrestlers go down in a frenzy of torsos and limbs, and now it’s the Kazakh’s turn to score. A round each. A world hinges on the last round, the final two minutes.

Sushil attacks without delay. Tanatarov counters swiftly, and gets on top of Sushil. Three points to the Kazakh. Tanatarov in control. A minute and a half left in the match. They re-engage, Sushil attacks immediately, but Tanatarov’s defence is strong. Sushil attacks again and gets a grip around the Kazakh’s waist, and propels himself into the man without delay. Tanatarov goes down. In a flash, Sushil puts a leg lock in place. He tries to twist Tanatarov to the right, but can’t, so he tries left, then right again. Now he’s got a leg lock and a head lock in place, and Tanatarov writhes in pain. He gets flipped. Five points for Sushil. One move, five points.

Tanatarov points to his ear—it’s bleeding. He gestures to the referee that Sushil bit him. A serious allegation. Sushil can be disqualified. But the Kazakh’s two coaches, who can call for a review here, decide not to do anything. They know that Tanatarov’s ear had a bruise before the match had even begun.

With thirty seconds left in the match, Tanatarov frantically gets hold of Sushil’s leg. But no joy, the defence is rock-solid. Sushil, on his knees, turns the situation around, grabs Tanatarov by the waist from the back. Now Tanatarov, desperate, rash, pivots and gets his arms around Sushil’s waist. Yes. This is what he was waiting for. Sushil drops his hands from the waist to Tanatarov’s thighs, and in one, swift, explosive move, lifts the Kazakh over his shoulders like a sack of flour. It’s done. He’s in the final.

The author is deputy editor of Mint Lounge.

Excerpted from Enter The Dangal: Travels Through India’s Wrestling Landscape, with permission from HarperCollins.

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