I remember my first visit to the gym at my university at Clemson. I was awestruck by the facilities and the equipment. Times have changed but in the early nineties, I don’t think national level athletes in India had access to such facilities. The contrast was stark to the gym at my undergraduate college in India. The gym, if it could be called that, was a decrepit shed at the end of a weed-infested field. A few odd rusted dumbbells lay desultorily on the floor. So I went to “Apollo Gym” instead.
If there ever was an archetypal 98 lb. weakling, it was me. I was skinny throughout my school days. My mother despaired that all the ghee and butter that I was consuming, seemingly disappeared into a bottomless pit without adding any flesh to my scrawny body. When I was in my 10th grade or so, I found an old book in my dad’s collection. I’m not sure how he came across it but it was Eugene Sandow’s “Strength and How to Obtain It”. It was published in the late 1890s and I pored over the exercises in the book as well as narrations of his feats of strength. The exercises involved weights but I did not have access to weights so I improvised by lifting buckets of water in the bathroom. And then, there were the ads for “Bull Worker” in Illustrated Weekly and Charles Atlas promising to make anybody into a new man for the investment of just 15 minutes a day. Bull Worker was pricey and I made do with a poor man’s version that involved a detached bucket handle that I compressed with the hope of packing some muscle. I also met with some grief when I tried to do pull-ups on our window overhang and it crumbled as I was heaving myself up leaving me with some lacerations and bruises.
When I finished high school, my friend lent me a pair of dumbbells. I also got to tag along with another friend to his college gym. Now my friend was a serious bodybuilder, so I got some valuable lessons and got to work out with a bench press and other fancy equipment. So when I came across Apollo Gym in Chamundipuram in Mysore, I signed up. The owner was one Mr. Nagesh Rao who ran a tight ship. I don’t know if he had ever visited the US, but I would find him in the office every now and then starting a story with “In America…” while a small audience hung around him in rapt attention, lapping every word. He was from the old school and took his work seriously and believed in a strong work ethic.
The gym itself was very simple. It comprised of two parts, a long shed with a clay tile roof and a small adjoining office. The gym opened into a small walled compound area. My hopes of bench pressing were quickly quashed by Mr. Rao who sent me out to the courtyard. I realized that the gym with its equipment inside was only for the senior builders and that one had to go through a basic and intermediate workout program before being admitted into the gym. The bar to get there was to perform 5 sets of 25 push-ups in rapid succession. After performing push-ups on the ground, we would graduate to the next level that involved a variation. The push-ups were performed on 3 stools roughly placed in a triangle. We placed each palm on a stool and our feet rested on the third stool, the idea being that we could extend the range of motion while pushing down.
The push-up station was at the far end of the courtyard and was adjacent to a window. Now, this window belonged to the kitchen of a house inhabited by a family from Coorg. They cooked the most awesome smelling food! I would normally get to the gym at around 7:30 pm, just in time for the aromas to start wafting out of the window. A few guys would shuffle up to the window and hang around longingly trying to guess what was being cooked. “Man, they are cooking mutton today” one of the guys would mutter. We would all nod our heads appreciatively. Now picture my plight. I have always loved food. I stayed with four other roommates and we cooked our own meals. A couple of my roommates were such lousy cooks, that the food they cooked would have started a riot had it been served in Tihar jail. So here I was, on the 5th set of my push-up routine, panting for breath and inhaling the spicy aromas of delectable curries. It was a punishment worthy of finding a place in Maquis de Sade’s manual. Call it delicious irony for I knew I would go back to my room to eat some tasteless concoction that vaguely resembled food. It is not surprising then, that I never made it to the end of the fifth set. Mr. Nagesh Rao would shake his head disapprovingly and say that I needed to put in more effort and focus more. I did, the more I focussed on the mutton curry, the less likely I was to finish my fifth set. Sadly, I never graduated to the big boy’s gym. I quit the gym after two semesters. Blame it on that mutton curry that I only got to inhale, but never partake!