Telegraph Calcutta

Jeem, deem and a dream

How Guru Nandi is turning butterflies into steel. A glimpse of an improbable vault of imagination in Agartala

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Bishweshwar Nandi with Dipa Karmakar, his wife Soma Nandi and several butterflies at Agartala’s Vivekananda Byamagar

He carries an improbable vault of imagination in his pocket.

The display picture on his smartphone texting app is an elephant in sheershasan, its rotund tonnage pressed upon the coiled trunk, its hind legs flung skywards – an altogether tempting dare to credulity.

I hadn’t the heart to ask Bishweshwar Nandi if the image was a minor miracle of photoshopping; that would be to undermine the more unlikely magic Nandi himself has come to cast.

It’s not the Produnova that pupil Dipa Karmakar stopped hearts and stunned eyes with in Rio de Janeiro. It’s the satellite leap Nandi has made into the alien orbit of global gymnastics from Agartala’s terra infirma, a Third World breach into the protected precincts of a First World – or, Second World, to classically locate it – sport.

Consider where we stand this muggy evening: on a fringe of India that you cross another country to arrive in, the whole breadth of Bangladesh. Consider a cloud clapped so close overhead, it has stilled the air.

Consider a slender midtown lane banked by dwellings so low they creep along the earth. Consider a slush-ridden quadrangle opening off the lane, and to one end of it, a brick barracks overlaid with a corrugated tin roof: the Vivekananda Byamagar, or gym, Gandhi Ghat, central Agartala.

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Nandi at the tea shack. The tea arrives without Nandi having to order it, in small plastic tumblers, the measure of a vodka shot. He isn’t averse to being photographed in this mofussil setting, quaffing roadside tea; this is his world and he couldn’t be more comfortable elsewhere
Consider this warehouse setting – a cruddy mud floor, grime-ridden piles of foam, a tangle of crudely crafted beams of wood, a carcass-like set of muscle-building stations made to work beyond superannuation on doses of diesel.

The air oozes what men give off and machines consume, sweat and lubricant. It is also redolent with deficits; ask for water and someone helpfully heads to a leaky tap cocked on a wall at the far end of the courtyard.

Nandi is perspiring under his acrylic T and track bottoms, both embossed with India colours; he flexes uncomfortably and wipes his sleeves and brow. He is used to the requirements of this clammy clime, he has a hand-towel tucked into his waist.

“This is it,” Nandi says, ushering me to the comforts of a vinyl chair. “This is where we do what we do.”

Or a bit of it.

The other bit of Nandi’s workday lies three parallel streets away in Office Lane, the seat of Agartala’s babudom. Here’s where, on a first-floor room of the Tripura Sports Council, he plays out the part many think he looks – a babu, Bengali babu. Here’s where we had the first of our three assignations.

I arrived early and spent all my waiting time wondering if I was in the wrong place. A board tacked to the door did assign the room to “B.S. Nandi, Assistant Director” and “Dipa Karmakar, Sports Officer” but this didn’t remotely look like it belonged to two of India’s celebrated stars from the Rio Olympic Arena.

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Bishweshwar and “Mrs Soma Nandi, SAI coach”. That’s the only way Bishweshwar Nandi refers to her, in the third person particular, honorific attached. She’s been thinking how best to answer my question on her husband’s personal likes and passions. Just as we are about to leave, she whispers: “Uni toh shudhu jeem aar deem.” He likes only the gymnasium and eggs.

A short inventory of the precinct no bigger than eight feet by ten: a clerk’s workdesk and five plastic chairs, one with a signature towel thrown round the back; a helmet plonked on a midget steel almirah choked with files; gunny bags full of what might be track suits or tarpaulin; stray sheets of paper matted on the unswept floor; a padlocked toilet and, just outside, a washbasin bearing no sign of intimacy with water; overhead, a naked CFL bulb and a slowly whirring fan. A setting so appointed it would be familiar to whoever has had the pleasure of passing through the bottom rungs of a government facility.

But once Nandi arrived and took his place, he began to define the chair rather than the chair define him; the beatific air about him became the room’s ambience.

” Bolun,” he boomed, tell me. But before anything could proceed, the long tail that came attached to Nandi’s aura intervened. It is Teachers’ Day, and Nandi our most recently anointed Dronacharya.

There are pupils from the past arrived to pay obeisance with flowers and ribboned souvenirs; Nandi’s sneakered feet are in demand. No less the entirety of his personage.

There’s a string of petitioners and their brief carriers: “Sir, please grace us with your presence.”

A school function, a chamber of commerce event, a university annual day, a bazar samitireception, a women’s club, a Mahalaya “anushthan”. “Sir, please grace us with your presence.”

The Mahalaya entreaty fetches the firmest “No”.

“This time we have decided to strictly stay with our families during Puja, both Dipa and Mrs Soma Nandi and I, we are not accepting anything, this Puja leave us to ourselves.”

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Vivekananda Byamagar, Agartala’s gym nursery that produced Dipa Karmakar

But why, complains one among the pleaders, has Nandi accepted an event in faraway Bangalore and is turning away Bengalis?

“What do you mean?” Nandi retorts, affronted. “What is this Bengali-non-Bengali business? With me there is no Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, north Indian-South Indian, please understand. To me all are Indians. Do you know how far back the people in Bangalore invited me? What wrong has Bangalore done? I will come, but not immediately, please, I am requesting you with folded hands, nothing before Pujas, ami thakur bhakta… I am a devotee of God.”

God would recur in our conversations like a central character of the Nandi scheme; his mission rituals could remind you of what the late General K. Sundarji famously said of how the army undertook Operation Bluestar in Amritsar’s Golden Temple in 1984: “With humility in our hearts and a prayer on our lips.”

Nandi talks incessantly of praying: I prayed to God to make me an Olympian, that was my real dream, but it wasn’t to be; I prayed to God keep me close to gymnastics, and that has happened; I prayed to God for Dipa to qualify, she almost didn’t and then God made it possible; I prayed to God give Dipa nothing, but at least don’t give her pain.

That last prayer was brought on by what has brought Nandi and Dipa their fame: the Produnova.

The Produnova itself was brought on by a gym-floor spell so flat Nandi had begun to imagine the end of his days: “Gymnastics is my life, if I give it up I will quickly die because there will be nothing more for me to do. I had failed to get the ‘Olympian’ tag to my name, Dipa was not getting anywhere, I thought to myself we have to take some risks.”

From such a trough of despair, they together coaxed the Produnova, a high-risk frog-in-the-blender routine named eponymously after its first performer, the Russian Yelena Produnova.

Between leaping off your palms and landing on your heels, the Produnova requires the gymnast to pluck velocity off the air, double-twist and hurl into a forward somersault, shins akimbo, for the finish. It is accorded the highest degree of difficulty, but the Produnova is more than merely difficult.

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Bishweshwar Nandi with former national gymnast and pupil Banasri Debnath, who had come to pay Teachers’ Day respects to him

The Egyptian Fadwa Mahmoud nearly killed herself executing it at the world championships in Antwerp in 2013; she escaped a neck landing by a whisker, and earned the Produnova its other, ominous, name: Vault of Death.

Nandi did ask Dipa and her weightlifter father, Dulal Karmakar, if they were agreed on upping the bar, and peril. “Dipa told me she would do anything, she’s a gutsy girl. Her father was very helpful.”

Nandi doesn’t believe in looking at the competition too much; watching videos of classier gymnasts leaves him with the unease of imitation. “But for the Produnova, I read and I watched before we went in.”

Dipa sprang to her first Produnova in the foam-pit of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium on July 10, 2014, watched only by two: Nandi and Gurdayal Singh Bawa, India’s chief gymnastics instructor.

Two weeks later, she grabbed bronze at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games with a near-flawless leap and landing, only the fifth woman in the world to have done the Produnova after Egypt’s Mahmoud, Yamilet Pena of the Dominican Republic, Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan and Produnova herself.

I asked Nandi what could be common to all of these ladies. “Speed and the strength to jump,” he said.

I asked him what was most critical to building speed and strength. “Meats,” he said. What meat? “All kinds of meat – mutton, fish, chicken, pork, beef. Meat ektu beshi khetey hoy… you require to eat a lot of meat.”

I asked how many Produnovas would Dipa have done, and he said, “Countless, countless, mostly in training.”

I then asked him what was the most important muscle in a gymnast’s body, and he tapped his head. “The brain, the determination, the will, if you don’t have the strength of mind to do it, no muscle will help.”

At five, the Agartala sky has begun to darken, but the Vivekananda Byamagar has just become awash with colour. The foam-pit is a merry eddy of girls, most of them not yet six, not even able to fill their mini leotards. They are stretching, goose-marching, twirling on the beam, cartwheeling – butterflies training to turn to steel.

Dipa has bounded in from somewhere and blended seamlessly into the clutch of would-be Dipas. It’s only the champ-class trainers she’s wearing that set her apart from the rest; else, she’s just another girl at the Byamagar, putting herself through the daily routine.

The girls have conjured a compelling churn of energy and joy, oblivious and unmindful of their meagre circumstances. One topples off a beam, another little maiden jumps on, both cackling away, plunged in the vortex of a rapture all their own.

Nandi proposes tea; he can leave the kids a while to the charge of “Mrs Soma Nandi, SAI coach”.

Soma Nandi is Dipa’s first coach, and wife to her current one. But that’s the only way Bishweshwar Nandi refers to her, third person particular, honorific attached: Mrs Soma Nandi, SAI coach.

She’s been thinking how best to answer my question on her husband’s personal likes and passions. Just as we are about to leave, she whispers: ” Uni toh shudhu jeem aar deem.”

He likes only the gymnasium and eggs.

We walk out the squelched Byamagar yard, past a bay of motorbikes of which one is Nandi’s, and arrive at a shack round a turn in the lane.

Nandi slides into wooden bench and pats a place for me. Had he devoted his life to another sport – cricket, even badminton – Nandi wouldn’t be riding a bike at 58; and he’d probably not be walking around unattended by adulation. The celebration of all that Nandi has achieved appears fulsomely located in his wan smile.

The tea arrives without Nandi having to order it, in small plastic tumblers, the measure of a vodka shot. He isn’t averse to being photographed in this mofussil setting, quaffing roadside tea; this is his world and he couldn’t be more comfortable elsewhere.

“People have come with lots of offers, come here, come there, we’ll give you this and this and this. I cannot leave Tripura, never, just as I can’t leave gymnastics.”

On our stroll back, he asks if he may see some of the photographs. He scrolls the screen, impassively. Then he returns my hand-held and pulls out his own.

“Some of those pictures have turned out dark, but you know you can put light into them these days.”

He’s scrambling his phone for an app; it’s then that I catch a glimpse of the improbable vault of imagination he carries around in his pocket.

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