My body, a wonderland

58manohar-aich Mr Cool: Aich always believed that taking care of the body would help you improve the mind and live longer | Salil Bera

For the former Mr Universe, discipline was more important than ambition

A strong and intelligent man who was so outspoken that he could antagonise people with his honesty, Manohar Aich taught Indians how to make a career out of bodybuilding. But there were also other facets to the 104-year-old muscle man of India who died in his house in north Kolkata on June 5.

Born in 1912 in a poor household in Dhamti village in Commilla district, now in Bangladesh, Aich lost his father at a young age. He was a sickly boy but hardships at home made him strong. He understood that if he had to get ahead in life, he would have to take care of his health. After recovering from kala azar (black fever), he started working out, often lifting heavy stones to build muscles. Although he enrolled in school in Dhaka, he did not study for long as he had to take care of his mother and siblings. He came to Kolkata and spent nights on the floor of the Sealdah station, sometimes having only rice and salt for dinner. But poverty did not make him undisciplined. He would wake up in the morning and start working out after a cup of tea and biscuits.

Although he was only 4 feet 11 inches tall, Aich made it to the the British Royal Air Force, thanks to his physique. He passed the exam and medical test and joined as a ground staff boy in 1942. He spent almost all the money he earned to maintain his diet and build up his body. As he always used to say: “For me, my body is a work of art. It’s a temple.”

Although he was happy there, he felt the British served Indians inferior food. “I did not mind eating ordinary food, but even ordinary food should be good quality and not stale,” he told me a few years ago. He protested and, one day, slapped an officer. Inevitably, he was imprisoned in 1943 but released after India got independence.

After independence, he got the freedom to work on his health and diet, which included rice, fish, pulses and vegetables. He liked small river fish and the head of the rohu fish, which he consumed for its minerals and proteins. Smoking and drinking were a big no. During this period, some of the British officers he knew gave him the money to attend the Mr Universe competition in London in 1949 and he started learning the tricks of the trade. He came back, underwent rigorous training and won the Mr Hercules competition. He focused more on a disciplined life and the correct diet, including milk and milk-related products like curd in it.

“He was the first Mr Hercules of India,” says his son Khokon. “The Kolkatans used to call him Pocket Hercules as he was short and well built.” In 1951, he participated in the Mr Universe championship but lost. He won the next year and became India’s first Mr Universe after independence. He learned how to bend steel by flexing the muscles on his forehead, mouth, gum and stomach. He credited his success to his wife, Sabita, who died 10 years ago.

“My wife never demanded anything of me,” he once said. “At the time, we had to sacrifice a lot of things so that I could focus on my bodybuilding. She shouldered all the responsibilities without asking anything from me.”

Aich became extremely popular in Kolkata after he became Mr Universe. He taught in schools and nurtured some of the finest bodybuilders of the future. He used to tell children that maintaining a good body was important not only to win competitions but also to improve the mind and live longer. He also ensured he lived a stress-free life. Once, in his Baguihati residence in north Kolkata, he told me: “I never cared for negativity in life. I always made myself happy.” He felt too much ambition could lead to unhappiness. One had to learn how to become moderately ambitious.

“I never had a sleepless night in my life,” he said. “Whatever I received in my life I never waited for. Even if that had not happened, I would not have been disheartened.”

Entering politics was also not out of ambition. That’s why he could easily give it up when he found himself a misfit. He was influenced by the popularity of the BJP after the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the Bofors scandal, and the party fielded him in Dum Dum in the 1991 Lok Sabha election. Although the BJP did badly in Bengal, Aich got more than 1.4 lakh votes and came close to winning.

However, a few months after the election, he found politics stuffy. “I found the leaders not committed,” he said. “They were all for show and not for sacrificing. We have fake politicians all over.” The only politician who earned his respect was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who, he felt, was a man of principles and dedication. Aich remembered his interaction with Vajpayee when he came to Kolkata to campaign for him. “Atalji had a great sense of humour,” he said. “He wanted to know about my choice of food and how I could still go to the gym at my ripe age. I told him some of the stories. He was thrilled.”

Although politics was not his cup of tea, he never faded from public life, encouraging the youth to build their bodies. He was also the brand ambassador of a steel company and an ayurvedic sweetener. In his last years, he set up a gym near his home which Khokon used to look after. A few years after the death of his wife, he suffered a more grievous blow, when his daughter Bani died, days after he turned 100. “He became numb and very shocked,” says his younger daughter Neena. “He refused to be normal after that.” He started consuming less food and, last year, he fractured a limb after a fall in the bathroom. He died at 12 noon on June 5, minutes before his lunchtime.

His body was not cremated but was donated to Kolkata’s R.G. Kar hospital. “He never wanted his temple to be cremated,” said Khokon. “He wanted it to be used by the future doctors.”

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