The athletes that spill from the hostel onto the fields and courts encircling the grounds are not so much sinewy gladiators but instead sport the kind of gristle built of roti, idlis, and dosas in tiny, unsatisfying portions which are common meals and nothing more than flour and water in differing densities used to sop up masalas and curries made with vegetables so thoroughly boiled down that it would take a forensics team to identify the recipe. The stuff is tasty as heck once generously spiced, but still it’s all flavor and fill with no real fuel. The liberal addition of chilies is meant to shift attention from bellies burning with hunger to tongues burning with capsicum. It’s why I fear the stray dogs that hunt the grounds since I’m the most substantial prey to the roaming and the rabid and I expect that beyond my meaty frame, they can sense with the honed instincts of the under-nourished that my 400m run times are weak and easily chased down.
I walked towards the back gate of the stadium grounds on my way home from yet another weightlifting practice swinging the key to my apartment which requires no key chain since its so large I feel as if I’ve been granted an honorary key to a small village or perhaps my lock had been salvaged from a catacomb door behind which a cask of Amontillado was stored. My neighborhood is a crowded disorderly row of apartment buildings bound together with laundry strung like prayer flags. Encroaching the street are buildings with the pastel palate and the slender proportions of runway models enticing socialites with the have-to-have spring collection and scooters parked haphazardly at doorsteps like show props, it reminded me a little of Venice if Venice were overcome by the kind of disinterest in upkeep and accumulation of dust that might plague the city post nuclear fall-out and after the canals inexplicably went dry.
‘Do Not Commit Nuisance Here,’ is posted every five feet in a jaunty little cursive along a wall that is hosed down almost continually by a stream of urine from the auto drivers who eat at a Veg stall right outside the gate I was exiting. On my short walk home, I first weave through a flock of drivers who stand about like pigeons pecking Palav off metal plates. I sometimes want to toss rocks to see if they’ll squawk and flap or even mix Alka Seltzer in with their idlis to see if their tummies will explode. That’s only on mean days when practice goes badly.
Where the sidewalk mercifully widens, I’m confronted with the foulness of the splatter-patterned wall that looks like it was the scene of an attack by Super Soakers. Urine runs to the street in eight ounce streams. I tiptoe so that the puddles don’t soak my gel padded Addidas flip flops that have proven to be an unfortunate choice for India. Given that urine is rumored to be a spectacular cure for Athletes foot, my sandals are constantly on the brink of becoming nothing more than a medicinal applicator pad for a fungus I don’t even have.
I was even treated to full frontal nudity as a man squatted facing the street with his pants circling his ankles. He was defecating while waddling slowly forward to leave a broken dot/dash pattern on the sidewalk which I could only assume said something like ‘can you please spare some toilet paper?’ in Morse code. Apparently relieving oneself in public does not fall under the umbrella of ‘nuisance’ in India which I think needs to be defined more clearly.
“’YESH!’” Ganesh repeated for the fourth time only louder and more clearly enunciated, “WRITE IT!” My pen was left circling over paper without clearance to land as I was uncertain how exactly to represent ‘yesh’ on paper. I assumed it was a symbol similar to ‘the artist formerly known as Prince.’ “BUT IT’S NOT A LETTER IN THE ALPHABET!” I repeated between giggles at about the same volume and clarity. We had only tackled the first letter of ‘Sampangi Rama Nagar’, which is the name of my neighborhood, and already there were problems. My official address actually includes the words ‘Across from Kanteerava Stadium’ which has a friendly sort of chatty element to it like it should also naturally include a greeting to my postman and the common inquiry ‘have you had your breakfast?’ It lacks the sort of precision required for a 911 dispatch which in other countries is a reasonable goal for an address.
But then, I got to see first hand what a 911 response looks like here and I couldn’t help but wonder if service that poor is intentional. After all, in a country where agrarian ties are still strong, a practice like culling the herd makes good, practical sense though it would appear heartless if a token effort wasn’t made to respond during an emergency. A fumbled address was not a plausible excuse when one of the Athletes from Kanteerava, which is also across the street from Malya Hospital, injected himself with the medicinal equivalent of a ‘get rich quick scheme’ that in this country could have been a cocktail of veterinary meds, expired antibiotics bought over the counter and a pinch of turmeric. Whatever works especially since no one can be bothered doing the research when it comes to ‘performance enhancement’ schemes. I was horrified when, after he passed out in a room full of barbells, we were expected to hoist him up and carry him out to a jeep ourselves partly because the malnourished and barefoot ambulance crew of one could scarcely lift himself and partly because there was no such thing as a stretcher anyway.
Curious, I did a little cruise on an online PDR to research the black market elixir only to discover that the performance enhancer, though arguably tinkered with oxygen uptake in an agreeable way, also tended to make a person dizzy which seems like nothing but folly if you’re planning to throw significantly more than your body weight over your head in one rapid movement. Though his snatch numbers were high, his IQ appeared to be on the low side and consequently he and my sometimes female coach [or rather my always-female but sometimes coach] were bounced from the stadium program after lockers opened to the light of day exposed a pharmaceutical wet bar though given the run-down and dusty confines and the scattering of smudged bottles, probably more like Sid and Nancy’s bathroom. Athletic careers over, there were rumors of hasty marriages arranged on the next auspicious days after the drama.
This left me and Sharada Siddi to represent Kanteerava in the upcoming State weightlifting competition and though nothing had really changed, I felt obliged to collect the gold metal lost the moment the other female lifter was locked out of practice. And not that I didn’t stick out already considering I was the only white lifter competing, but walking into a meet in the shadow of Sharada – a lifter whose 53 Kilo frame was as solid, fast and fear-inducing as a medieval catapult – implied that I too would be a worthy competitor which wasn’t necessarily true. Like a major league pitcher in his rookie year who has a good arm but an unsettling habit of broadsiding batters with the occasional wild pitch, my snatch was still random and sometimes unrecognizable as one of the three required lifts.
After meditating one day – well, because this is India – I realized that part of my problem was a dysfunctional relationship with my equipment. If it’s true that we’re sending a message out into the universe that’s influencing our results, my message was as unclear to the universe as my English is to most of India. I approached a weighted bar with a kind of trepidation that had me almost sneaking up on it with the thought “hmmm, I wonder what it’s going to do this time.”
Refusing to take any responsibility for how things were going to go, I was letting the bar decide.
As diplomatic as that sounds, you can imagine the kind of results I got. I spent the next couple of weeks in what amounted to couples therapy with my 15K cohort and it started by kissing it hello. This sounds crazy but everybody in the gym, and as it would turn out, everybody at the meet, gave the bar some sort of referential peck. In my own act of American civil disobedience, I opted for a slippery, porn inspired smooch in the hopes that the other athletes would be strategically unsettled.
It was about the time that me and the bar renewed our vows – I promised to communicate more clearly, it promised not to maim or disfigure me – that’s when Sharada and Basava decided what weight class I would compete in and what my opening lifts should be. Basava or Basva which is pronounced ‘Baswa’ picked numbers that exceeded my one-rep-max by at least ten kilos. For the weight class, I’d have to lose two kilos. I tried to smile when he said, “you do,” the way he does. And that’s when all the fun began.
My thumbs, which have ached for at least a month now because they need to wrap around the bar during the snatch and then get tucked tightly under my fingers on the other side, began to throb. They especially complained every time I mounted my hands on my hips, a genetic marker identifying me as my mother’s daughter, and it’s something I do in the slight exasperation experienced when a trainer offers completely unfounded reasons why Arnold Schwartzenegger should be president of the United States other than his political leanings of which they know nothing. And this topic comes up often, by the way.
I’ve stopped listening and/or replying whenever Arnold’s name gets a mention and I think we all enjoy that better. In fact, I’d wager the guarantee of silence on my part is why the topic is so persistent. I just mount my battered thumbs on my hips making the experience all the more painful and try not to imagine that their collective will might materialize in a Schwartzenegger ‘Terminator in Chief’ simply because India made it so. And, not because I know much about Arnold’s political leanings either but because I never want to see that look on all the trainer’s faces that says that Arnold’s presidency alone confirms that silly things like data and facts have no place in an intelligent argument. Ganesh is even now refusing to listen to a word I have to say about body building which he’s decided I know absolutely nothing about for the sole reason that I didn’t know Arnold had four kids until he told me.
It’s times like this that I yearn to scurry off to the dusty, warped plates of Kanteerava and away from the Bollywood Glamaerobics of Gold’s Gym. The trainers are wonderful and friendly but just when I think I’m on the brink of an actual conversation with one of them, I catch their eyes dart to the mirror as they check their own biceps. Yep, still there.
In some outdated textbook somewhere there’s a chapter about how quickly lean mass melts away like Ghee. Since, I’m told, books are almost always stolen in-transit, any efforts to correct that misconception have been lost to the black market. As a result, I expect there’s a Crash Cart and a protocol inspired by ‘ER’ that administers an emergency dose of Dumbbell Concentration Curls to any trainer whose vital bicep circumferential measurements dip below normal. They can’t resist peeling back their shirts and having a little fling with themselves in the mirror periodically and I, a hopeless romantic myself, don’t wish to be an obstacle in the path to true self love. I just stand quietly in my Gold‘s gym T-Shirt and try to pretend that the insignia on the front isn’t encouraging an obscene act – that of an innocent Olympic Bar being curled for the sake of pretty arms. Should you ever attempt to do that in a CrossFit gym, you would be soundly beaten – for time.
Days in which you’ve hit an all-time low are never planned and aren’t scrawled on calendars anywhere in the appropriate pen color that would designate such a thing. They’re more of an interesting road sign that you notice on your way to somewhere else. Take Bucksnort, Tennessee for which I noticed an exit off the highway in 1995 while driving across country. I didn’t go to Bucksnort, had never planned on it but now I know where it is and have a photo taken out the passenger window to remind me. On Tuesday, January 5th I had a meal of egg whites with no salt and Nescafe instant coffee with no sugar. I hit a culinary low and have noted where it is. I can now measure bad taste by asking myself the question, “Oh, this is bad but is it Egg-Whites-and-Nescafe bad or just bad?” It was previously the question, “Is it boiled-peanuts-outside-Atlanta bad or just bad?” but that was a low water mark set in the 80s and the true ‘badness’ has worn thin over time. This new badness will be defined by whether or not I have the urge to lick my own arm between bites just for flavor.
Without the culinary magic of egg whites au natural, it would have been easy enough to lose the two kilos but any drastic cut in calories would have affected my ability to lift which would have made last minute cramming out of the question. The snatch had never been particularly heavy just poorly executed. I could bully it - knock it down and taken its lunch money - but I couldn’t keep it overhead which means I still needed to practice with a good amount of volume. I cleaned up my proteins, removed as much carbohydrate as possible without killing my recovery and shifted to full-gear intermittent fasting which means my last meal of the day was at 2:30p after which I would eat nothing else until breakfast. My caloric intake remained the same which allowed for the training but try telling that to my rumbly belly that kept suggesting tasty little snack options that would pair nicely with my cinnamon tea - suggestions that kept getting between me and my e-mail. Oh, “peanut Chikki” my tummy would coo, “not the brittly kind but the dry, cookie-like peanut-buttery stuff they sell at Thoms Bakery, mmm.” Then, less sweetly, “Hey! Did you frickin’ hear me up there!”
I’m not saying there was joy in my heart. I threatened to kill Ganesh daily and meant it. That was especially true on the day that the ‘long fellow’ - because Ganesh isn’t familiar with the word ‘tall’ - passed along a solid misshapen Tirupati Laddu, a mass of baked good, that was heavy, lumpy, studded with raisins and cashews and meant for Ganesh. It looked like a scone that had been birthed. It was ‘Food of the Gods’ brought back from Tirupati where it was made only there but gobbled up all over India when brought back as prasadam. I made disparaging comments about how Indians had simply stolen it off the plate of British High Tea, repackaged it, improvised randomly, called it something else and then got defensive about it if you ever implied it could be made better. “You know, like they do with all their other cheap knock-offs!” I said trailing off my rant as I faced the blank stare and a mustache full of crumbs on the man who lost me three words into my rapid-fire English hissy fit. Really it was grade school hair-pulling and I yearned to swallow it whole. So, apparently, did Ganesh as he indulged in the kind of lip-smacking noisy maceration that would drive my sister nuts. Instead, I just threatened to kill him.
On the last night before the event, finally two kilos lighter and about twenty degrees colder thanks to the distant memory that was my last meal, Sharada called from Mangalore. She had become a really exceptional coach to me in the last few weeks even though, as an athlete competing in the same event, it really wasn’t her job. The man who has that title trains telepathically, I gather. Though I grew to truly appreciate her, I usually screened her calls. We could work most things out in person but her understanding of the English language was very poor and my understanding of Kanada was completely non-existent so that phone calls were impossible and usually ended with one of us sort of randomly hanging up when noise stopped. Given the timing however, I answered and what she said in her clearest English ever was that I needed to gain the weight back before morning.
When I got off the phone, I deliberated. The girl in me wanted to stay lighter, use the momentum to make a bid for my skinny jeans and pack on the difference with water I’d drink right before I weighed-in. The lifter worried that two kilos of water would make me throw up when my belly hit my thighs at the bottom of the squat. My freezing cold hand flipped both of them the finger and tore open a package of peanut chikki with my teeth to shove between my purple lips before I scooped up my bag and headed for the bus. Part of me worried that Sharada would change her mind again. That would have caused stress except that the Sari factory downstairs was in production later than usual because of the daily mid-day power outages and the thump, thump of the loom acts as a sort of pacemaker until my heart rate aligns with the pulse of the silk and gold threads. I only notice it during moments when I can sense stress but just end up feeling out of sorts like a tickly sneeze that wont trigger or when the power goes out and I wonder if I'm going into ventricular-fib.
Peanut chikki, with it’s near 50/50 proportions of sugar and fat, is not a snack that can be easily undone and as it was Sharada did waver a couple of times when news came that the lifter whose weight class I was trying to bail out of had gained weight as well. We talked about it in the morning as if losing the two kilos again before the event was going to be anything other than a miracle. I had already used up my one miracle getting there alive and I was tired from all the earnest prayer through the all-night bus ride. No wonder Hindus make no effort to convert the masses, given that India's roadways are a route to God.
I would have assumed that going from Bangalore to Mangalore is simply a backspace followed by a poke two keys to the right on a QWERTY keyboard but that’s just because I’ve always been a smart ass. By the time I arrived at Mangalore Town Hall I had spent at least eight hours in a sleeper coach and, though I didn’t notice until the way back when I was no longer playing ‘good snatch/bad snatch’ in my head, I’m pretty sure we simply aimed the bus towards Mangalore and drove over whatever stood between Point A and Point B, road or no road. I was so cold both on the way there and on the way back that I was about to gut a passenger and crawl inside the carcass for warmth but one look at the scrawny travelers and I could see there was nothing in my size. The best I could have done is fashion a shawl and some ear muffs.
When I got to Mangalore Town Hall I was confronted with the Indian equivalent of the Pine Grove Grange with a stage and a sign courtesy of Bank of India that read, “Wishing The Function A Very Success.” Um, thanks. One of the organizers greeted me warmly when I arrived which I think was big of him since it turned out he was the secretary of the weightlifting association, had on office in Kanteerava stadium, likely knew the coach was a no-show and had just found out recently that there was a white girl letting herself into the building for the last couple of months. He was not a man with a bald spot but a bald man with a hair spot that originated at the extreme lower corner of his head to the left of the medulla obbligato. It flapped excitedly from time to time and because it looked like a creature in its own right, I watched to see if the movement was caused by one of the oscillating fans or if something was making it happy. He had taken the splotch of hair, weaved it into a lacey mesh and swirled it around his head like soft-serve ice cream. Donald Trump should pay this man to stand next to him in photos.
As I watched the competition commence it appeared that most of the lifters in the low weight classes were skinny teenagers living on meager rations with a dancer’s flexibility and good technique. They had the balls to step under falling weight but not the brawn to support it. Most of them lacked the raw materials for anything other than their opening lifts which is apparently all the propulsion one gets from roti. There were a few lifters scattered through the weight-classes that were solidly built and technically proficient and I couldn’t come near their numbers. Sharada was obviously one of them and ended the day with the Best Lifter distinction as well as her usual Gold with combined lifts of 147 Kilos.
She’s been lifting for fifteen years and works for Karnataka State Police where she is paid only to train and compete which is sad in a way considering that she’s the only police officer I’ve seen that appears to be fit enough for the job. I was able to determine based on the jeep parked in a quiet, shady spot outside the stadium, that the hat worn by officers which is flattened on the left side for what I thought was a stylish flair is actually a practical feature which allows officers to sleep in full uniform lolling their heads to the flat-side so as not to crush their brim.
Before she completed her lifts, she sent me back-stage for the weigh in which I was able survive by downing a protein shake and thinking heavy thoughts. The mood itself was made heavy by the official in charge who was working extra hard to give all the appearances of officiating including a stern inquisition. It lacked any real bite since I didn’t have to produce any documentation or proof of any kind other than, “What, I don’t look Indian? I get that all the time.” ‘How long have you lived in Bangalore? Where do you work? What do you do? Are you married? Where’s your family? Where do you live? Who do you live with?’ Throw in a question or two about religion and salary along with the obvious what do you weigh, soften the tone slightly and you’ve got a replay of the first conversation I have with everyone in India. They appear to be fond of prying questions and passport sized photos. It wasn’t tough to navigate.
The fact that I wasn’t wearing underwear was a much tougher conversation since she wanted me to strip naked and I wanted to leave my pants on, understandably. Not that I’m shy but I was already being stared at like something in a jar full of formaldehyde by a group of skinny teenagers in the corner. It was expected given that the black hair and pale skin is a little Edward Scissorhands under bright light. I had also accumulated angry red mosquito bites all over my arms that were accentuated by a yellow-stain of Turmeric - the cure for everything. They formed a constellation that predicted the rise of Venus over my left elbow any day now.
Had I stripped completely I fear I would have stopped the show. Instead the official peered down the front of my pants for a few awkward moments and then snapped my waistband a little unnecessarily before scratching down a number. She moved safely back to her seat before she treated me to well-intentioned information regarding the importance of undergarments in a voice loud enough to warn the villagers.
Before I was called to warm up, the two college students loading the bar stopped, rolled the weights off the platform and brought out five black metal chairs with red plastic seats that must have been shipped from a bankrupt House of Pizza somewhere in New England when, after a few short years, the lunch of nitrates consumed daily in the pound of deli meat stuffed in a 12 inch Grinder finally killed all the regulars. The chairs were aligned along the platform and five bureaucrats aligned themselves placing their buts in the seats.
There were speeches and honors bestowed which was evident by the garlands that went over the heads of each official only to be popped off as quickly as the rings of a ring toss at a rigged carnival game. The garlands were more spectacular than those offered free when ordering a Scorpion Bowl at Larry’s Chinese Food in Providence, Rhode Island in the 90s where the food was lousy but you were never carded, yet slightly less showy than anything draped on the Kentucky Derby’s winning horse during the post-race photo shoot. Either way, they were stripped off and tossed onto a coffee table in what would turn out to be the most lively moments of the whole presentation. Nobody was willing to translate for me but given that we were all equally slumped and slackjawed by the end of it, I guess it’s just as well.
There were pieces of plywood thrown on the ground outside in the tent where we did our warm-up. My wooden Adidas lifting shoes made their usual mighty smack which drew a murmuring crowd like munchkins admiring Dorothy’s ruby slippers. This was in spite of the fact that we only had ten minutes to get close to our max weight overhead. Sharada shooed everyone away, secured a place for me at the bar and set up my weights. It was like having a roadie.
The funny thing about poor technique versus weakness is that everything goes up solidly until, within a kilo, it just doesn’t. It made me look fierce in the warm-up which even had the weigh-in official commenting about me admiringly as if I was wearing underwear.
The event itself is as blurry as the audience, obscured by the stage lighting. My name was called and I did what I knew to do with as much control as anyone has over movements that take a millisecond. For that I won gold.
Competitions are never a measure of who we are just a measure of where we are at that moment. But we have to keep making it mean more or who would work that hard, sacrifice that much or subject themselves to all the pain? The coach in me had a pretty good idea of where I was at and what I could do going into the Karnataka State Weightlifters’ Association State Senior Weightlifting Championship / 2008 even without the medal but every now and then I create situations that force me to show up and deal with what it takes for me to show up. I almost never want to for a variety of wheeny reasons that I always have to straighten out in my head and no matter what I’ve lifted, that’s where I get the strongest. The final results may refocus my training but it does nothing really to measure the athlete who shows up every day to deal with whatever there is to deal with and that comes between me and the work if I let it.
At the end of the event, the happy-haired secretary congratulating me and told me that he had expected to see me lift at least 20 kilos more as if he had actually monitored my progress through some regular and secret reporting. I suspect the security guard may have been spying as he had recently learned some English and while handing me the keys grilled me one afternoon with the one question on everybody’s mind. “Have you had your breakfast?”