NEW DELHI: It wasn’t the best day to venture out in Delhi on Tuesday. Though it was a public holiday on account of the Republic Day celebrations, several parts of the national capital were witnessing unfortunate clashes between the Delhi police and agitating farmers. With the farmers’ ‘tractor rally’ turning violent, the police had barricaded several arterial roads.
However, despite the challenges, Virender Singh – famously known as ‘Goonga Pehelwan’ – didn’t cancel his scheduled interaction with this correspondent at a coffee shop in south Delhi. Virender, a deaf and mute wrestler and a legend in his own right, braved several diversions and closure of routes to reach the venue. He had travelled from his Delhi home in Pul Mithai in Sadar Bazar locality, one of the protest sites in North East Delhi.
A day earlier on Monday, Virender, a three-time Deaflympics gold medallist, had been chosen as one of the recipients of this year’s Padma awards – a Padma Shri, making him the first from his community of deaf athletes to achieve this feat. It was a massive recognition of his talent and the hardships faced by him since childhood. It was a moment of pride for the entire differently-abled sporting community.
Virender looked a little lost and somewhat tense during the interaction. The 35-year-old grappler was accompanied by his friend for 25 years, Rambir Dagar, who in Virender’s own sign language, is no less than his brother. When asked why Virender was tense, Dagar hesitantly informed that Virender’s nearly one-month-old son was ill. Virender was getting several Whatsapp video calls from his wife Anjali Singh, also deaf and mute, during the interaction, updating about his son’s condition. In turn, he assured her he would be back with them soon. Despite the family situation, Virender was willing to oblige and talk about his biggest achievement.
“He is worried about his son’s health. But Virender is a strong character. He is a fighter. He is very happy about his Padma achievement. The award was long overdue. It will encourage him to perform well at the Deaf World Championship in May in Turkey and the Deaflympics in Brazil later this year in December. He still has one unfulfilled wish – the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. Hopefully, his gold winning performance at these two events will make him a strong contender for that next year,” Dagar said after communicating with Virender in sign language.
Dagar said the turnaround in Virender’s career happened after he got married to Anjali, who was raised by her uncles in a village near Nagpur in Maharashtra. Both got married on January 30, 2020. “Just a month into their marriage, Virender got the good news that the central government has recognised Deaflympics and the Worlds in this category on par with those who compete in the Olympics and Paralympics. It made him eligible for the government’s cash awards. Now he has been chosen for the Padma Shri just a month after the birth of his child. It’s been the best phase for him,” Dagar said.
Virender’s journey since birth has been full of hardships and it’s well-documented in a 2013 sports documentary titled ‘Goonga Pehelwan’ based on his life and struggles. He was born deaf and mute and it was his father (a retired CISF officer) Ajit Singh, now 62, and uncle Surender Singh (an inspector with CISF) who played key roles in introducing him to wrestling.
Both were associated with wrestling and had participated in several dangals across the country. For Virender, a career in wrestling didn’t happen out of choice but compulsion. Born in Sasroli village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district, Virender was just eight years old when he was brought to Delhi by his father to get him treated for a foot injury. Around the same time, Ajit met with a road accident which badly damaged his left leg and consigned him to the bed for several months.
Unable to take care of Virender, it was best thought to shift him to his uncle’s accommodation in Pul Mithai locality. Since Surender had to report for duty at the CISF, Virender was shifted to Bal vyayamshala akhada in the same locality where he was introduced to wrestling. Soon, with Surender coaching him personally, the ‘Goonga Pehelwan’ started participating in dangals in the city’s Mori Gate locality and landed his first-big trophy, the prestigious ‘Nausherwan’ title, winning Rs 11,000 in cash.
Virender’s transition from dangal to mat wrestling was equally seamless. He won the gold in the 76kg weight category at the Cadet Nationals in Haridwar in 2002 and was picked for his first international competition. However, because of his impairment, he was later dropped and the second best in his category was selected. This snub, because of his disability, left Virender heartbroken and he returned to dangals to earn his livelihood.
In 2005, he did what no other deaf wrestler had achieved. His father and uncle came to know about the Deaflympics and spent Rs 70,000 to arrange for Virender’s travel. He justified their faith and returned with a gold medal from Melbourne.
However, the win didn’t bring any recognition or monetary support. Since then, Virender kept juggling between dangals and the Deaflympics and World Championships. Before the Padma award, the only recognition Virender received was the Arjuna award in 2016.
WHAT IS DEAFLYMPICS?
Deaflympics (previously called World Games for the Deaf, and International Games for the Deaf) is an International Olympic Committee (IOC)-sanctioned event in which deaf athletes compete at an elite level. Unlike the athletes in other IOC-sanctioned events (the Olympics, the Paralympics, and the Special Olympics), the Deaflympians cannot be guided by sounds (e.g., the starter’s guns, bullhorn commands or referee whistles). The games have been organized by the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf since the first event in 1924. The Deaflympics are held every four years.