The smell of fish is overwhelming. Deira’s fish market is chaotic at the best of times, but there’s an atmosphere of anticipation that I can sense even if I can’t find the source of it. I know there’s wrestling going on here, somewhere, but every person I ask gives me a blank uncomprehending stare.
I need to get visual. Wandering into a dusty fishing tackle shop on the edge of the market, I say ‘Where...?’ and make a movement like someone struggling from a straitjacket or of giving themselves an over-enthused cuddle.
After much eyebrow raising: ‘Ah yes, Kushti!’ says the owner, and begins gesticulating towards the busy street outside. Is he calling me a kushti and insisting I go stand in the road? I get the impression he’s wondering what I’m up to.
Outside, there’s a gathering in the parking lot opposite. People are slowly joining it. Having wandered round the market for the last hour pestering people, I feel as if I’ve stumbled on a lost city.
In the car park just next to the Creek and fish market, on a tiny strip of sand made soft and pinkish by a weekly thrashing, groups of men meet to wrestle. This is a social world of informal freestyle Indo-Pak wrestling. Kushti or Pehlwani, as it’s known in Pakistan and India, is a style of wrestling that remains popular across the two countries.
There’s a carnival atmosphere. For as long as the light of the late afternoon allows, challengers step into this shouting, pushing, laughing circle of labourers, taxi drivers, men from the fish market, porters and Pakistani and Indian expats. Cars and trucks form the circle, and people sit on the roofs to watch.
Somebody hollers ‘Lo lo lo!’ as one of the wrestlers in the ring breaks the initial ‘I cuff you round the head, you cuff me’ deadlock. Having just grabbed his opponent around the thigh, he unleashes a powerful hopping stagger to topple him. There’s a combination of laughter and cheering as the two loin-clothed men collapse to the floor. The more powerful of the two, who managed to execute the artful thigh crush, keeps trying to get on top of his opponent. Behind them, some of the crowd kneel to look closer. The weaker combatant grits his teeth and has one final attempt to get some advantage. But he’s spent, submission is soon inevitable and the winner gets to his feet.
The sport is a synthesis of Persian styles of wrestling (Pahlavani) which were carried into the Subcontinent by Mughal emperors in the 16th Century, and indigenous Indian wrestling. There are whole schools of philosophy dedicated to the style, with ideas about diet, rigorous training and massage techniques espoused by gurus and ustads.
The next combatant steps into the ring, stripping down to a pair of electric blue underpants and sporting an exceptionally winged moustache. Things are a little more Freddie Mercury than Mughal. There are titters.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere is there. The referee-cum-ringmaster, designated only by the rattan stick that he points wildly around the circle, barks at the crowd in Urdu. He’s looking for a challenger to the wrestler in blue and laughs at the skinny Pashto boy who is jostled unwillingly forward by friends. Then a great bear of a man, who I later learn is known as Mr. Said, stands with his arm lifted by the referee. He promptly pulls off his shirt and hauls on a loincloth.
The sport may have found an unusual enclave of popularity in the shadow of Deira fish market, but Indo-Pak wrestling is having a hard time back on the Subcontinent. Decline of interest in the sport from both potential wrestlers and fans has hit it hard and, because of the excessive physical demand on those aiming to be Rostam- i-Hind (Persian for ‘champion of India’), serious pehlwans are athletes who must commit full-time to their profession. A marked drop in interest is forcing a number of akharas (the pits used to train and fight professionally) to close. The number of Pehlwan colonies is receding.
Mr. Said and the wrestler in the blue briefs face one another across the sand. They each take a handful of sand and slap it across the other’s chest, before shaking hands. The crowd falls almost silent; the light is beginning to fade. They begin to circle one another, curl their bodies with hands outstretched. Said lightly cuffs his opponent around the head as the wrestler in blue goes for his hips. He then steps back and clamps his arms around the much thinner man’s moustachioed face.
The crowd begins to shout, intermixed with inevitable mirthful laughter. Said clamps onto the wrestlers head, they turn in a circle and the blue trunked wrestler is clearly struggling to stay up. A burst of energy comes out of nowhere and he breaks free, but a misplaced leg is a point of weakness that Said can’t let him get away with. The larger man drags him to the ground, they tustle and the crowd catches a glimpse of Said’s heaving, sweating face squeezing out of the clinch.
Suddenly the sound of the Adhan from the mosque cuts in. A few seconds more and the fight comes to an end. The light is almost completely gone. It’s a frustrated draw, and both men shake hands.
As the circle dissipates in the direction of the mosque, I approach Said and ask, ‘Is that it?’. He’s sweating profusely and can’t speak much English. He shakes my hand over and over again, and the referee tells me he wrestled a lot in Pakistan. ‘Pretty famous,’ he says to a chorus of ‘in Pakistan’ from the people around us. ‘He’s a labourer here now. You should come back next week, you’ll see him finish this fight.’