The 97 kg repechage bout at the junior world championships in Tallinn ended in two minutes. Akash Antil of India pinned Haroon Abid of Pakistan to move into the next round. Given it was an India-Pakistan bout, both wrestlers wanted to win. But it turned out to be one-sided as Antil reached the bronze medal play-off with ease.
“I don’t think win or loss matters this time,” said Abid Aslam, Haroon’s father. “Ye pehli daffa hai ki family se koi bina tagda hue khushti lad raha hai. Humne to kabhi socha hi nahi tha fir se wrestling hogi family mein. [This is the first time a someone from our family isn’t a mature wrestler and competing. We did not even think that our family will pick up wrestling again.]”
Abid is right for this is no ordinary family of wrestlers. Perhaps one can say it the wrestling family of the subcontinent. Abid is the grandson of Imam Baksh, brother of the Gulam Mohammed. Gulam is popularly known as Gama pehelwan around the world.
Gama wasn’t just any wrestler. He is synonymous with strength in the wrestling world and second only to Hanuman. Gama is the wrestling equivalent of WG Grace and Don Bradman rolled into one. He was bestowed with Rustam-e-Hind (champion of India) and Rustam-e-Zamana (champion of the universe) titles.
Not just Gama, even Imam Baksh stayed unbeaten in his career. The two brothers were the best wrestlers in India even after they moved to Pakistan after the partition in 1947.
“They earned so much from wrestling and there is so much history they have left behind. Their sons were equally good wrestlers. But I don’t know what went wrong after that,” Abid said.
After Gama’s official retirement in 1952, the next generation in the family included wrestlers who famously came to be known as “Bholu brothers”. Five brothers Bholu, Azam, Akram, Aslam and Goga pehelwan continued the tradition of their family and earned many laurels.
The wrestling pedigree continued with Aslam pehelwan’s son Zubair Jhara, who also did not lose in his lifetime. He was famous for beating Japan’s legendary pro-wrestler Muhammad Hussain Inoki in 1979 in five rounds in Pakistan. But Jhara was only 30 when he died of heart failure in 1991. His brothers Abid and Sohail stopped wrestling.
“We have a good business which has been our bread and butter for 30 years now. But we do miss wrestling. Imagine losing connect with such rich history that stretches back 200 years? I feel sad,” he said.
For the last 28 years, no one from the family became a wrestler. The akhadas in Lahore began to close down and slowly the legacy only found mention in stories and memories until things changed one day in 2014.
Inoki visited Pakistan for the third time and met the Abid family, who were now close friends due to Inoki’s rivalry with Jhara. He was shocked to see that no one from the family was into wrestling.
“We met him and he said that he will take one of the kids to Japan and teach him wrestling. Haroon was 14 then and we decided to send him. We thank Inoki that he remembered us. After all these years he came and gave wrestling back to our family,” Abid Aslam said.
Haroon was shifted to Tokyo for his high school education. Inoki, who was also the member of the House of Councillors, gave him a three-year scholarship and took care of the expenses. Haroon trained in wrestling and won a gold medal in his final year.
“I was very young when I travelled to Japan. But Inoki helped in everything. Now I am studying in the Nippon Sports Science University,” Haroon Abid said.
Abid never told Haroon about the history of his family. Their house at Mohni Road in Lahore has several pictures of the two brothers Imam and Gama, who is even seen wrestling at the Red Fort, Delhi before partition.
For three decades, Abid has seen those photos time and again, he even started a Facebook page “Jhara pehelwan”. But that was all. Even that page is defunct now.
“With time, we never thought wrestling would come back to our family so I did not tell Haroon. I began telling him about Gama only after he went to Japan. He understands the legacy better now,” Abid Aslam said.
Gama’s legacy has been documented not only in India but internationally as well. From pre-partition Punjab to Maharashtra and Bengal to Gujarat, Gama dominated every competition he took part in. His famous international win was over then world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko of Poland.
Haroon now knows all about this but he longs to see where it all began in Amritsar.
“I have never been to India. Wrestling is popular there and I wish one day I can compete there and visit the places I have only heard of,” he said.
In 2017, Haroon was expected to visit India as part of the Pakistan wrestling team for the junior Asian Championships which were held in New Delhi. But he failed to get a visa. Even his father Abid has never been to India.
“They approved my visa. I was hoping Haroon’s visa is approved as well and we can go there. But his visa application was rejected. I did not want to travel alone,” Abid said.
Despite not getting to visit India, Abid is well aware of Indian wrestling and is a keen follower of freestyle wrestling.
“I had never thought anyone from our part could do so well in wrestling. Sushil Kumar did it. Then Dutt did it. Now Bajrang Punia is doing so well. Imagine an Olmypic gold medal in wrestling. I want that to happen to Pakistan as well if we want to revive this sport,” Abid said.
Pakistan has only one Olympic medallist in wrestling. Muhammad Bashir won the bronze medal in the 73 kg category at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Haroon wants to be the flagbearer.
“I see Sushil sir which gave a boost to wrestling in India. We have some wrestlers like Inam but there are no Olympic medallists now. I am not saying I will win it. But I can be the inspiration for kids to take up wrestling again,” he said.
Abid, too, wants wrestling to flourish again in his country. For that, he wants Haroon to train hard.
“He needs experience and we will send him to some other country to learn more. A medal would change the mindset of the people in Pakistan. We could fall in love with wrestling again,” he said.
Haroon is likely to participate in the senior Asian Championships which will be held in New Delhi next year. But with the political tensions between the two countries again on the rise, Abid knows that it won’t be that simple.
“I have tried so many times to visit India but it never worked out. I hope next year I can visit with Haroon. I dream of that day. Lahore aur Amritsar ke beech 40 kilometres hain magar lagta 4000 kms ki tarah hain. [Lahore and Amritsar are at a distance of just 40 kilometres, but they have made it 4000 kilometres],” he said.