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Aerogrammes: And Other Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)by Tania James
Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition
Excerpt from Lion and Panther in London
The Sensation of the Wrestling World Exclusive Engagement of India’s Catch-as-Catch-Can Champions. Genuine Challengers of the Universe. All Corners. Any Nationality. No One Barred.
GAMA, Champion undefeated wrestler of India, winner of over 200 legitimate matches.
IMAM, his brother, Champion of Lahore.
(These wrestlers are both British subjects.)
£5 will be presented to any competitor, no matter what nationality, whom any member of the team fails to throw in five minutes.
Gama, the Lion of the Punjab, will attempt to throw any three men, without restriction as to weight, in 30 minutes, any night during this engagement, and competitors are asked to present themselves, either publicly or through the management.
no one barred!! all champions cordially invited!! the bigger the better!!
Gama the Great is bored. Imam translates the newspaper notice as best he can while his brother slumps in the wingback chair. On the table between them rests a rose marble chessboard, frozen in play. Raindrops wriggle down the windowpane. It is a mild June in 1910 and their seventh day in London without a single challenge.
Their tour manager, Mr. Benjamin, lured them here from Lahore, promising furious bouts under calcium lights, their names in every newspaper that matters. But the very champions who used to thump their chests and flex their backs for photos are now staying indoors, as if they have ironing to do. Not a word from Benjamin “Doc” Roller or Strangler Lewis, not from the Swede Jon Lemm or the whole fleet of Japanese fresh from Tokyo.
Every year in London, a world champion is crowned anew, one white man after the next, none of whom have wrestled a pehlwan. They know nothing of Handsome Hasan or Kalloo or the giant Kikkar Singh, who once uprooted an acacia tree bare-handed, just because it was blocking the view from his window. Gama has defeated them all, and more, but how is he to be champion of the World if this half of the world is in hiding?
Mr. Benjamin went to great trouble to arrange the trip. He cozied up to the Mishra family and got the Bengali millionaires to finance the cause, printed up press releases, and rented them a small, gray-shingled house removed from the thick of the city, with space enough out back to carry on their training. The house is comfortable enough, if crowded with tables, standing lamps, settees, and armchairs. When it rains, they push the furniture to the walls and conduct their routines in the center of the sitting room.
Other adjustments are not so easy. Gama keeps tumbling out of bed four hours late, his mustache squashed on one side. Imam climbs upon the toilet bowl each morning, his feet on the rim, and engages in a bout with his bowels. Afterward, he inspects the results. If they are coiled like a snake ready to strike, his guru used to say, all is in good shape. There are no snakes in London.
These days, when Mr. Benjamin stops by, he has little more to offer than an elaborate salaam and any issues of Sporting Life and Health & Strength in which they have been mentioned, however briefly. He is baby-faced and bald, normally jovial, but Imam senses something remote about him, withheld, as though the face he gives them is only one of many. “You and your theories,” Gama says.
Left to themselves, Gama and Imam continue to hibernate in the melancholy house. They run three kilometers up and down the road, occasionally coughing in the fume and grumble of a motorcar. They wrestle. They do hundreds of bethaks and dands, lost in the calm that comes of repetition, and at the end of the day, they rest. They bathe. They smooth their skin with dry mustard, which conjures homeward thoughts of plains ablaze with yellow blooms. Sometimes, reluctantly, they play another game of chess.
On the eighth morning, Mr. Benjamin pays a visit. For the first time in their acquaintance, he looks agitated and fidgets with his hat. His handshake is damp. He follows the wrestlers into the sitting room, carrying with him the stink of a recently smoked cigar.
The cook brings milky yogurt and ghee for the wrestlers, tea for Mr. Benjamin. Gama and Imam brought their own cook from Lahore, old Ahmed, who is deaf in one ear but knows every nuance of the pehlwan diet. They were warned about English food: mushy potatoes, dense pies, gloomy puddings—the sort of fare that would render them leaden in body and mind.
When Mr. Benjamin has run out of small talk, he empties a sober sigh into his cup. “Right. Well, I suppose you’re wondering about the tour.”
“Yes, quite,” Imam says, unsure of his words but too anxious to care. It seems a bad sign when Mr. Benjamin sets his cup and saucer aside.
Wrestling in England, Mr. Benjamin explains, has become something of a business. Wrestlers are paid to take a fall once in a while, to pounce and pound and growl on cue, unbeknownst to the audience, which nevertheless seems to enjoy the drama. After the match, the wrestlers and their managers split the money. Occasionally these hoaxes are discovered, to great public outcry, the most recent being the face-off between Yousuf the Terrible Turk and Stanislaus Zbyszko. After Zbyszko’s calculated win, it was revealed that Yousuf the Terrible was actually a Bulgarian named Ivan with debts to pay off.
“And you know of this now only?” Imam asks.
“No—well, not entirely.” Mr. Benjamin pulls on a finger, absently cracks his knuckle. “I thought I could bring you fellows and turn things around. Show everyone what the sport bloody well should be.”
Imam glances at Gama, who is leaning forward, gazing at Mr. Benjamin’s miserable face with empathy.
“There would be challengers”—Mr. Benjamin shrugs—“if only you would agree to take a fall here and there.”
After receiving these words from Imam, Gama pulls back, as if bitten. “Fall how?” Gama says.
“On purpose,” Imam explains quietly.
Gama’s mouth becomes small and solemn. Imam tells Mr. Benjamin that they will have to decline the offer.
“But you came all this way.” Mr. Benjamin gives a flaccid laugh. “Why go back with empty pockets?”
For emphasis, Mr. Benjamin pulls his own lint-ridden pockets inside out and nods at Gama with the sort of encouragement one might show a thick-headed child.
Gama asks Imam why Mr. Benjamin is exposing the lining of his pants.
“The langot we wear, it does not have pockets,” Imam tells Mr. Benjamin, hoping the man might appreciate the poetry of his refusal. Mr. Benjamin blinks at him and explains, in even slower English, what he means by “empty pockets.”
So this is London, Imam thinks, nodding at Mr. Benjamin. A city where athletes are actors, where the ring is a stage.
In a final effort, Mr. Benjamin takes their story to the British press. Health & Strength publishes a piece entitled “Gama’s Hopeless Quest for an Opponent,” while Sporting Life runs his full-length photograph alongside large-lettered text: “GAMA, the great Indian Catch-Can Wrestler, whose Challenges to Meet all the Champions have been Unanswered.” The photographer encouraged Gama to strike a menacing pose, but in the photo, Gama appears flat-footed and blank, his fists feebly raised. “At least you look taller,” Imam says.
Finally, for an undisclosed sum, Doc Roller takes up Gama’s challenge. Mr. Benjamin says that Doc is a fully trained doctor and the busiest wrestler in England, a fortunate combination for him because he complains of cracked ribs after every defeat.
They meet at the Alhambra, a sprawling pavilion of arches and domes, its name studded in bulbs that blaze halos through the fog. Inside, golden foliage and gilded trees climb the walls. Men sit shoulder to shoulder around the roped-off ring, and behind them, more men in straw boaters and caps, standing on bleachers, making their assessments of Gama the Great, the dusky bulk of his chest, the sculpted sandstone of each thigh. Imam sits ringside next to Mr. Benjamin, in a marigold robe and turban. He is a vivid blotch in a sea of grumpy grays and browns. He feels slightly overdressed.
Gama warms his muscles by doing bethaks. He glances up but keeps squatting when Roller swings his long legs over the ropes, dauntingly tall, and whips off his white satin robe to reveal wrestling pants, his abdominal muscles like bricks stacked above the waistband.
They take turns on the scale. Doc is a full head taller and exceeds Gama by thirty-four pounds. Following the announcement of their weights, the emcee bellows, “No money in the world would ever buy the Great Gama for a fixed match!” To this, a joyful whooping from the audience.
Imam absently pinches the silk of his brother’s robe, which is draped across his lap. Every time he watches his brother in a match, a familiar disquiet spreads through his stomach, much like the first time he witnessed Gama in competition.
Imam was eight, Gama twelve, when their uncle brought them to Jodhpur for the national strong-man competition. Raja Jaswant Singh had gathered hundreds of men from all across India to see who could last the longest drilling bethaks. The competitors took their places on the square field of earth within the palace courtyard, and twelve turbaned royal guards stood sentinel around the grounds, their tall gold spears glinting in the sun. Spectators formed a border some meters away from the field, and when little Gama emerged from their ranks and joined the strong men, laughter trailed behind him. Gama was short for his age but hale and sturdy even then.
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