Working out the hard way in Delhi

November 2, 2015

Bollywood has manufactured plenty of muscle-bound heroes in the past decades, but don’t look for their images on the walls of the rusty, dimly lit gymnasiums in Delhi’s lower-middle-class neighbourhoods. Arnold Schwarzenegger claims that space.

Schwarzenegger, best known as the Terminator and the former governor of California, enjoys a big fan following among the users of Delhi’s “poor” gyms, which offer a grittier bodybuilding experience than you can find in the modern and much more expensive fitness centers in the city’s richer neighborhoods. In those gyms, you’re more likely to find posters of white female models — barely clad, of course.

The poor gyms are where you can find examples of India’s growing population of young men. This is the middle class that heard Narendra Modi’s call to be proud of a modern India, and that helped make him prime minister. They don’t earn much, and they face a tough climb into prosperity as they seek work without the benefit of high-class social or family connections that a smaller, elite and primarily English-speaking population enjoys.

“Arnold is the ultimate hero. I idolize him more than even Sunny Deol,” said 24-year-old Deepak, referring to the Bollywood actor famous for his dhai kilo ka haath (2.5-kilogram biceps), as he tries to lift a 12-kilo rusty dumbbell in Narayan Fitness Centre, one of the many cheap gymnasiums in South Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar neighbourhood, close to the stinking Yamuna River.

Deepak, who is from Gautam Budh Nagar, a district past the outskirts of Delhi, survives in India’s second most populous city on 6,000 rupees per month ($92). He works in a back-office operation for Vodafone, and is trying to fund his part-time degree course in commerce in a nearby private college.

“Ever since my secondary school in my village, I was attracted towards bodybuilding,” he said. “The job is extremely hectic, but I still somehow find time for my evening workouts. Even Arnold and Sunny Deol would have to make some sacrifices to be where they are today.”

Narayan gym sits in the basement of a dilapidated complex in the main market of Madanpur Khadar; that’s why it remains relatively cool even during the harsh north Indian summers. That helps. The gym doesn’t have air conditioning, and the ceiling fans move slowly, like the trainer who apparently has no experience in training and looks like he has never picked up a dumbbell.

Even though the gym doesn’t have any banners advertising its presence, young men know where to go: down a narrow staircase to a big hall full of decades-old equipment. Women don’t exercise here.

Though the monsoon seepage in the walls adds to the sweaty whiff in the air, the gym is clean. There’s no dust on the floor, the mirrors sparkle and the equipment gets regular washing from the trainer in his second job as caretaker. The latest song by Bollywood rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh blasts from the speakers. Deepak sings along with the latest single “Desi Kalakaar” from Honey Singh’s recent album.

Bollywood figures in almost all the conversations I had with the bodybuilders before they returned to their seemingly endless schedule of reps and sets.

Binny Bidhuri, the gym’s owner, says it’s after the rise of muscled, sculpted male actors in the Indian film industry that this fitness trend has intensified among the young ones. “Few of them come for fitness, while most come in the search for those rippling six pack abs and curling biceps.”

Narayan Fitness Centre is the go-to place for hundreds of boys, coming from villages in U.P. and Haryana to earn a living in this metro region of more than 20 million people. The monthly fee ranges from 300 to 500 Indian rupees ($5 to $8), depending on the facilities required, duration of the membership and sometimes the economic background of the members. A premium gym membership in Delhi, by contrast, can run from 7000 to 15000 rupees ($100-$230) per month, with facilities like spa, sauna and body massage.

“We don’t earn much from this place, but it’s really important to boys from the neighbourhood. Raising the fee may deter some of them from continuing in the long run. We often allow promising ones with limited resources to use the facilities free of cost,” said Bidhuri as he showcased the much-used machines under the light of a dim tungsten bulb.

In a nearby slum known as Harkesh Nagar Okhla, similar gymnasiums are cropping up, signifying a low-key, but definite fitness revolution taking place among India’s lower middle class.

“Body to log yahi banate hain. Mehengi jagaho me bas ameer log weight loss karne jaate hain (Real bodybuilding happens only at such places. Those expensive gyms are just for those rich people looking to shed some weight)”, said Amit Singh, an aspiring model who was working out at the “Health India Zym” in Harkesh Nagar (Speakers of some Indian languages pronounce the letter “J” as “Z” and vice versa).  Besides him, dozens of other young boys from the slum jostled with heavy equipment, among them shopkeepers, juice sellers and vendors.

Working out and building muscle is a tricky challenge when many of them can’t afford the super-expensive supplements and protein powders, the staple of their well-off counterparts.

“I have devised my own protein supplement in the form of dried lentils, mixed with chickpeas and soybeans. It works at par if not better than those costly protein shakes,” said Kuldeep, a shopkeeper in Harkesh Nagar, brandishing enormous biceps, as evidence to the efficacy of his “protein invention”.

Part of predominantly vegetarian society, going for the rather affordable protein sources like meat and eggs is not always an option for many, as majority of them hail from conservative rural families.

“I come from a strictly vegetarian background, though I have eggs once in a while. In the end, it doesn’t really matter much for me,” said Mahesh, a fireman trainee, who was waiting his turn at the incline bench press at Narayan Gym. “In my training, we have to pick up heavy weights and run up and down on stairs. So, working out for me is not a luxury but a necessity.”

Delhi has nearly 1,700 unauthorized colonies, a significant population of which comprises of migrants from the villages of north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar. According to census data, there are an estimated 1.7 million migrants living in the national capital, many of them fulfilling city’s requirement of sanitation workers, rickshaw pullers and household helps.

Some make it big. One of the biggest success stories of Narayan gym is Wasim Khan, who recently won his second consecutive bodybuilding title at the International Bodybuilding Fitness Federation (IBBF) championship in Rome. He also will represent India at the “Mr Olympia 2015” contest in Las Vegas.

Some years back, Khan used to train and coach young bodybuilders at the same nondescript gym, earning 4,500 rupees ($70) per month. “Now he has become a big star and one of biggest faces in India’s bodybuilding scene. Most don’t really believe that ‘Wasim the star’ used to work out here in this very same gym, but that’s the truth” said Bidhuri as he returned to his office where two more applicants were waiting to enroll.

It’s not just fame or a good physique that places like Narayan gym give to its regulars.

“When you have a nice body, others think ‘this guy is something.’ They take you seriously and don’t consider you a lightweight anymore,” Deepak said as he pedaled on a creaking exercise bike. “And yeah, other guys will think twice before fighting me. A good body is always useful when you have an argument or conflict on the hostile Delhi roads.”

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; You can follow Zeyad on Twitter @Zeyadkhan and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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