Manohar Aich blushes when his son tells him about a marriage proposal. “Of course, I would like to marry a woman of my age. I won’t mind having a companion,” says Aich, who turned 100 last year.
Born and brought up in Dhamti village in East Bengal, Aich is a short man at 4’ 11”. But what he lacks in height, he makes up for in muscles, something he has been working on for the past nine decades. As a child, he tried out all the exercises he knew and all the equipment available in the village. Gradually, he figured out the food and exercise ratio vital for building muscles.
“A body-builder aiming to have a muscled body should not eat too much at a time. He should have a high-protein diet,” he says, sitting in his house in Satgachi in north Kolkata. Aich has always lived life on his own terms. After completing matriculation, he married a woman of his choice and left for Kolkata in the 1930s. His life took an exciting turn when he got a job as an airman in the Royal Air Force in 1942 and moved to Bangalore.
The job gave him everything he had aspired for—money, a big house, good friends and a swanky gymnasium. “I loved spending hours in that gym, exercising and sometimes just staring at those wonderful machines,” he says. Soon his body became the talk of the town.
“I had a huge fan following within the air force campus,” he says. “A lot of people used to consult me on body-building. But in 1946, British officials started treating Indian staff badly. When I opposed them, they sent me and my colleagues to jail. It was only after Independence that we were released from Alipur Central Jail.”
In 1951, he went to London to take part in the Mr Universe contest. Though he did not win, he stayed back at a friend’s place to practise for the following year’s competition and took up a job in the British Railways. “I took part in many modelling contests and became famous in London. People used to call me Pocket Hercules because of my short stature,” he says.
He won the Mr Universe title in 1952 and returned to India, and began a career in modelling. In the 1960s, he joined a circus as a body-builder. He worked with almost all big circus groups. “It used to fetch me a good salary—₹1,000 a month, which was a lot of money in the early 1960s,” he says. “Circus was a lot of fun. I got so fascinated that I tried to buy a circus once and lost all my money.”
In the 1980s, he opened a gym, which is still there on the ground floor of his three-storey house. Ask him about the right workout for women, and he would sound a little dismissive. “In our times Meena Kumari and Mala Sinha were the role models,” he says. “Women should have some fat in their bodies; it is required to deal with the hormonal changes they undergo. Size zero is all bakwas (stupidity).”
This story was published in December 29, 2013 issue of THE WEEK magazine