The unique experience of going to the gym in India
I had little sleep
last night during a forty hour train journey from Delhi. Only five hours
late - which isn't too bad. Backpacking across India you get used to it.
Now the incessant sound of vehicle horns fills the air. Women glide past,
perched side-saddle on a thousand speeding mopeds. Their saris drape and
flow in the evening pollution, accompanying the strangled wail of film
music coming from the street-side shops. We grind to another halt. A million
faces wait to cross. Old men in a group pause and peer into the taxi;
faces lined from a bygone age, frozen in time with sugarpuff teeth and
leathery skin. "Only five minutes more sir. Very near", the
driver insists after another half hour. He said that ten minutes ago,
no doubt he'll say it again in another ten.
through town in a rusting metal box of a taxi in hot pursuit of
another gym. No suspension, tattered and torn interior and head
wedged against the roof. Every bump and twist magnified from the
neck down. Side to side, twisting, turning, avoiding the meandering
cows and the potholes. All four windows are open to combat the onslaught
of the oppressive Chennai heat. The breeze brings only the noxious
odour of exhaust fumes that suck away the oxygen. On the dashboard
is a makeshift Hindu shrine; next to it, a stick-on logo which reads
"India is Great". At this precise moment I probably need
After crawling through the traffic for over an hour, I arrive at the gym,
nerves shattered and needing to lie down. The gym is one the myriad concrete
buildings that jostle for space, spilling down the hillside toward the
road. Outside the door is a massive cow, casually munching on some discarded
cardboard. Above the entrance is the hand-painted sign, "Gaylord
I make my way in, ill-tempered, jaded and tired from the journey. Why
does everywhere seem to be lit with a thirty-watt bulb, I mumble on entering
the stairwell. I emerge into the sweatbox and moan, "What? No ceiling
fans? No windows?" It is an ugly place with rusting machines and
seriously chipped weights. I notice the dust-laden, uneven stone floor
and the grimy walls. Fifty people stare in my direction, all in their
late teens and each with a look of bewilderment. They've never seen a
westerner inside the gym before.
As with many places here, the name "gym" is used with a cavalier
abandon that would be taken as misappropriation under the auspices of
any trades description act. The antiquated contraptions that populate
some of these places beggar belief. The only appealing thing about this
one is the sweet smell of burning incense. It drifts through the heavy
atmosphere from the picture shrine dedicated to Ganesh, which hangs a
centerpiece on one of the walls. Adorned with a garland of bright yellow
marigolds, the shrine adds to the special character of the typical Indian
gym. The distorted music from the latest film blockbuster is played at
the usual ear-splitting level. In front of the shrine is an empty chair
and an imposing, old wooden desk, behind which the absent manager or owner
would usually sit.
I notice a few fading colour photos of Hindi film stars, cut from magazines
and precariously hanging from bits of old tape. Cinema is a religion in
India. I see the same faces on walls throughout the country. I recognise
one or two; Salman Kahn with his classically chiselled looks is the face
of the moment. Curiously, female stars rarely make it onto the walls.
Indian men seem obsessed with the male stars - especially those who become
typecast as the heroes. There are also a few cut-outs of champion western
bodybuilders with their overblown steroided physiques.
Im dripping in sweat even before I lie down for the first exercise.
The tortuous, metal-backed bench wobbles from side to side. It becomes
less a case of me performing the exercise in good style, and more a case
of me trying not to slide off. From the corner of my eye I can see everyone
gathering. By the time Ive got up, everyone is surrounding me .
They form a circle and watch my every move. Fame at last! They probably
wonder why I am sweating profusely and gasping for breath throughout my
workout - after all, its only thirty seven degrees outside and eighty
eight per cent humidity.
The attention persists for the next hour. I am subjected to the now familiar
daily exercise of answering questions about where I live, whether or not
I an married, what my job and caste are, how old I am, and so on. On the
street, in the hotel, in the restaurant - the same questions, the same
answers, four or five times a day, seven days a week.
A big, grinning face peers out from one of the photos on one of the peeling
walls. One of the boys informs me that this is Sanjay, who will be in
later. I am told that I must stay to meet him; everyone agrees. And I
agree, not to disappoint. By now my weariness is overlaid with tiredness,
and my belief that anyone who poses bare-chested for a gigantic colour
poster has to be an arrogant poser is struggling to show through.
And still the questions go on.
What about my training schedules, my diet, how many brothers and sisters
and what do I think of India? Someone asks, Do I think this gym
is good?, to which I reply, Well
one of the best Ive been to in India. Which is true.
Sanjay arrives and looks as though he has just walked straight out of
a Hindi movie. He is over six foot tall, which is unusual for a South
Indian. His hair is stylishly combed back, and hes wearing an army
flak jacket with upturned collar. Relatively few Indians cultivate such
an individual image. To western eyes he may look whimsical, but to the
boys he has got it all - the look, the build and the walk. Contrary to
my preconceptions, he is very personable.
He sits on one chair and I on another, and we start to chat - the seats
had been strategically arranged without my noticing. Everyone in the gym
has gathered round to witness this famous meeting of minds. We are the
stage act, and they the audience, hanging onto every word. He seems to
accept - even expect - a large audience around him. A private conversation
for public consumption.
He tells me he has been to the West, and is full of tall stories about
his periods in Los Angeles and London. He tells amusing stories relating
to his time spent as a chauffeur, and his spell in the state pen
in California. Sanjay knows all the Hollywood lingo, talking of chicks
and pigs in a thick Tamil accent - a tall man with big stories
told in western movie slang and a good wit. He must appear the apotheosis
of glamour and sophistication to the boys. Travelling beyond the neighbourhood
is an adventure in itself for them.
When I leave, its like exiting a film set. Sanjay is a blurring
of reality and screen-world fantasy to the boys. They hero-worship him;
a star performer. And me? - I was probably a strange, exotic character
from half a world away. East meets West over a tattered desk in a run-down
backstreet gym. Hardly a world summit, but I bet our meeting was the talk
of the gym for days to come.
I hail a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw for the ride back to my hotel. I
haggle over the far. Very far, very far. Two hours, the driver
insists. Knowing that its more like one, I bargain him down. A dozen
gesticulations, exaggerated facial expressions and a lifetime later, we
agree on a price. I climb in for the long crawl back, further sapped of
energy after the mandatory haggling. Even trivial matters are turned into
major dramas. We move off and I drift into a semi-conscious dreamlike
state. I see cardboard cows eating sugarpuffs, and my picture having replaced
Salman Kahns on the gym wall. Its all surreal. Going to the
gym was never like this in England.
© colin todhunter 2002
Copenhagen to Byron Bay
India first you get married and then you work these things out",
he said with amazing casualness.
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