By Debdoot Das
Kolkata– In the early years of independent India, when the newly-freed nation was desperate to make its mark in the world, a 4 feet 11 inch bodybuilder — Manohar Aich — propelled the country into limelight, winning the Mr Universe title in 1952.
He was only the second Indian, after Monotosh Roy in 1951, to win the prestigious title in any category.
Aich passed away on Sunday, aged 104, having lived a life worth living — replete with adventure, colourful experiences and dalliances with varied professions. A widower, Aich is survived by his two sons and two daughters.
The man, lovingly called “Pocket Hercules” for his short but muscular frame, will be remembered by posterity not only for his lifelong dedication to body building, but also for never flinching when ranged against heavy odds.
If he took up the job of bus conductor in London, he also churned out power-packed circus shows for years to make both ends meet.
Born in Comilla District, now a part of Bangladesh, to Mahesh Chandra Aich (Father) and Chapala Sundari (Mother), Aich joined the Royal Air Force in 1942 — when India was still a British colony — and took up body building, encouraged by a British officer, Reub Martin.
For Aich, the passion for exercise was a childhood habit that he picked up after watching palanquin bearers of Comilla take part in wrestling bouts and stick fights every morning to keep themselves supremely fit for their arduous job.
“This inspired him. From the age of five or six, he loved exercising, specially push-ups,” said daughter Bani Banerjee.
Like most youths in colonial India, Aich was fired by patriotic zeal. The young man was thrown into jail in the mid-1940s for slapping a British officer in a police station — and that is where he started practising body building more seriously.
Three years after India gained Independence, Aich won the Mr Hercules crown, which egged him to try for the Mr Universe title.
He travelled to London and in 1951 finished second in the contest. Not one to give up so easily, he stayed back in London to have another go in the Pro-Short division of the Mr Universe title.
But putting up in an unknown foreign had its problems. Aich had to work as a bus conductor to sustain himself.
“He once told me, ‘I had to work as a bus conductor in London to live there and train’, and he was so determined he won it next year,” said former Bengal champion body-builder Ashim Mallik, who had seen Aich from close quarters.
Once Aich came back, he was warmly feted, becoming a virtual traffic stopper. He started his own gymnasium, and also dabbled in circus.
“There he used to showcase his strength. Aich used to pull chains, tear thick books. It was all about power for him,” said Mallick.
He spent some time with the International Circus and later started his own circus company but ended up bankrupt. Then he spent about three years in Oriental Circus.
From the 1960s onwards, Aich was much in demand across the country and abroad for his body building shows. The chiselled frame, and the rippling biceps and triceps were a big draw among the crowd.
Even at the age of 85-90, the showman was a regular feature at body building competitions where he was bought in as the judge. But such was his fame, that everywhere he had to display his muscles on public demand.
In his traditional “akhara” called the “Manohar Byam Mandir”, Aich used to train budding talent. For him exercise was the only way to stay fit.
“If you exercise daily you won’t fall ill. When you are young, you train to build your body, when you are old, you train to maintain it,” he said in an interview to a fitness portal a few years back.
A minor stroke in 2011 robbed him of his ability to lift heavy weights. But he was keen on watching the progress of his students, sitting on a chair of his akhara with a toothless, childlike grin.
Wily politicians also tried to exploit Aich’s public appeal. He contested from Dum Dum constituency as a BJP candidate in the 1991 Lok Sabha election, and finished third, getting 1.63 lakh votes.
“Live life simply, tension-free, be disciplined. Eat to live, and don’t live to eat. Be honest and truthful,” thus was Aich’s motto of life.
“And he stuck to this path till the end,” said Bani Banerjee.