It's hard to find anyone in Bengal who has not heard of and, in some manner or another, worshipped Manohar Aich. After all, anyone who came before his time is probably not around anymore. On Sunday, Aich died at the ripe young age of 102, but he will live on as the "Pocket Hercules", independent India's first winner of the Mr Universe title.
The four-feet-11-inch bodybuilder from Bengal won the title at the 1952 National Amateur Bodybuilders’ Association. He followed it up with three gold medals in bodybuilding at the Asian Games in that decade. And to the present generation, the very sight of him flexing his muscles well into his 90s and then beyond his 100th birthday was magically inspirational.
A big draw
However, Aich was so much more than a sportsperson, becoming one of Bengal’s foremost public performers of strength feats over the years. Thousands of people would gather at circuses where he was a star billing. Aich would bend steel with his bare hands, let elephants walk over him without being injured, and even lift trucks.
“He used to travel with an orchestra,” said Chandan Bose, a 55-year-old executive who went to see one such show in the early 1970s. “I distinctly remember that there was one act that would bring the entire house down: the orchestra would play a tune and he would make his muscles ripple to the beat of the tune.”
Mind over matter
The secret to Aich's longevity, he claimed, was surprisingly simple. A simple diet of fish, milk and vegetables in small quantities, with an emphasis on taking care of the body. “If you digest well, your body is taken care of,” he once told the Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika. “...and the doctors will remain outside your house!”
Born in the village of Comilla in present-day Bangladesh, Aich fought off the kala azar, which was then a fatal disease, when he was just twelve. He joined the British Royal Air Force in 1942, where an officer introduced him to weight-training. But what followed was a spell in prison, after Aich slapped an officer for making offensive remarks about the Indian freedom struggle. However, it came as a blessing in disguise for him. He started practising in those long hours of confinement, moulding his body.
After he was released following India's independence, the “Pocket Hercules” earned his nickname by winning the Mr Hercules contest in 1950. A second-place finish at the Mr Universe contest in 1951 spurred him on to try again, and he duly won the title the following year, becoming the first Indian to win the prestigious title.
According to Bose, Aich would often recount how he won that title in 1952 at his shows. “He said at first he was intimidated by all the other competitors at the Mr Universe competition in 1952,” said Bose. “They all towered over him. So he decided to show off this move where he would place his arms behind himself and show off his entire body in all its splendour to the audience. Supposedly this is what led to him winning the title that year.”
The announcement of his death on Sunday afternoon lead to a palpable sense of gloom. For generations that had grown up in the decades after Independence, Aich was a hero – a man who had inspired thousands to get fit and take care of themselves. Almost till his last days he remained fit and alert, always at peace with what he had achieved.
“The word 'fitness' will always be associated with him,” said Bishnu Aich, his son, who runs a gymnasium. “My father would always emphasise on mental fitness and then physical fitness. He never liked the modern trend where people rush to gyms just to pump up their muscles. His was a very simple philosophy – keep your mind strong. If there was someone who epitomised motivation, it was him.”