After flexing muscles for seven decades, Manohar Aich died on Sunday, four years after completing a century and barely 48 hours after Muhammad Ali breathed his last. But unlike the legendary Ali who had been afflicted with Parkinson since he was 42, Aich was fighting fit and hitting the gym even at 104! Aich, who earned the moniker Pocket Hercules for rippling muscles packed into an astonishingly tiny 4-feet, 11-inch frame, had served in the Royal Air Force and began his weight training in 1942, coincidentally the year when Ali was born.
A decade later in 1952, Aich fought off tremendous odds including bodybuilders who literally towered over him to lift the Mr. Universe crown under the amateur category. Five years later, an unknown Austrian called Arnold Schwarzenegger would win the same title.
It was Reub Martin, a British officer in RAF who introduced Aich to weight training when he was 30. Pumping iron with determination and without the supplements and steroids that bodybuilders rampantly use today, Aich soon sported a physique that others in the RAF were envious of. But it was in jail where he had been incarcerated for protesting against British oppression of Indians, that he seriously began weight training.
“The stint in prison helped me prepare for the world championship. There were no equipment but I practised free hand 12 hours a day,” he recounted during a visit to the TOI office a couple of years ago.
The Universe Championships organized by the National Amateur Bodybuilders Association (NABBA) was first held in 1948. It is little-known how Aich found himself participating in the contest within a few years of its inception. But he took everyone, including perhaps himself, by surprise when he won the amateur prize in 1952.
For Aich, the results were spectacular but the philosophy was simple: It was al but the philosophy was simple: It was always mind over body. A simple diet complemented an uncomplicated life. Despite his struggles to make ends meet as a bodybuilder, Aich would say it was his ability to take hurdles in the stride that helped him to remain tension free. “Since my young days, I had to struggle to earn money but whatever the situation, I remained happy,” Aich had said during his interaction with TOI.
As for his mindboggling longevity, Aich would once again point to his simple diet.He would recite a few lines very frequently that underlined his philosophy: ‘Uno bhate duno bal bahu bhate rasatal’ (A small amount of rice doubles up power while a full portion of rice may bring doom). It spoke of restraint winning over normal practice.
Aich’s diet of milk, fruits and vegetables along with rice, lentils and fish kept him healthy. “Jethu (uncle) never smoked, nor did he touch alcohol,” said Tushar Sil, Trinamool MLA and bodybuilder who was close to Aich. “I would call him jethu because of our age difference, but we were actually friends,” added Sil.
Aich leaves behind his two sons, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. Getting introduced to a new addition in the family was his greatest pleasure, said family members. Perhaps that was the driving force.
Although Aich was bed-ridden for a year, his faculties remained razor-sharp. Even after suffering a stroke in 2011, he continued to visit the gym he had built in his house and would keep a watchful eye on young bodybuilders training there.
Born on March 17, 1912, in Dhamti, a remote village in Comilla district of undivided Bengal (now in Bangladesh), Aich was always interested in strength-related sports like wrestling and weightlifting from a very young age. However, he had a near fatal kala-azar (Leishmaniasis) attack when he was barely 12 and suffered severe ill health.
He gradually regained his strength by exercising regularly, doing push-ups, squats, pull-ups, leg raises and traditional sit-ups. Later, in the run-up to competitions, he would do only bodyweight calisthenics exercises with up to 100 reps per set.
When he won the Mr. Universe title, his chest measured 54 inches with waist 23 inches. His last body building show was in 2003.
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