India remembers 1.25m 'Pocket Hercules'

By Max Bearak

Indian bodybuilder Manohar Aich flexes his muscles in a 2012 photograph at a gymnasium in Kolkata, India. Photo / AP
Indian bodybuilder Manohar Aich flexes his muscles in a 2012 photograph at a gymnasium in Kolkata, India. Photo / AP

While the world's attention was fixed on the death of Muhammad Ali, another legend of strength passed away on the other side of the globe.

His name was Manohar Aich, but he was better known in his native India by his nickname, "Pocket Hercules".

At 1.25m (4 feet 11 inches), Aich was an unlikely bodybuilder, but, as his incredible life story attests, he was a man who could seemingly overcome any obstacle. He died on Sunday of natural causes at age 104 at his home in Kolkata, 64 years after he was crowned Mr Universe.

The obstacles to Aich's success came early. As a child, he contracted two grave illnesses sweeping the Indian subcontinent - Asiatic cholera and kala azar, also known as black fever or leishmaniasis. He overcame them without even being admitted to a hospital.

By the time he was 15, he was expected to support his family, as his father was bedridden. At the time, India had not been partitioned, and Aich left his home in what is now Bangladesh and began selling coconuts at the main railway station of Calcutta, now Kolkata.

In undivided Bengal, he began to show off his body at village fairs, and he travelled across the region with circus-like magic shows. He reportedly would bend iron bars with his teeth and neck and balance the sharp edge of a sword on his belly.

At some point, he caught the eye of the British, who still ruled India, and was hired as a physical trainer for the Royal Indian Air Force. In an interview with the Indian Express newspaper, Aich remembered how that job transformed his life and set in motion events that would catapult him to stardom.

"It was 1942 and the Quit India movement had gathered considerable momentum. I had been working as a physical instructor in the Royal Indian Air Force, when I protested against the British oppression at the camp. I slapped a British officer, who made an offensive remark against the Indians during the interrogation," he recounted.

"A court-martial and jail time ensued but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The jailer had been very kind and allowed me to train. In fact, he encouraged it. Then, I was shifted to the Alipore Presidency Jail but release followed as India won her freedom."

Aich apparently practiced his metal-bending skills on the bars of his cell, and the guards actually encouraged his passion for bodybuilding by procuring him special protein-rich meals. In the years after India's independence, Aich began to train more vigorously and eventually began raising money for travel expenses to take him to London to compete in 1951's Mr Universe competition.

He lost that year but caught a lucky break by getting a job with British Railways, which allowed him to stay on in London and train for the following year's competition, which he won. He was 40 years old when he lifted the trophy.

Upon his return to India, he devoted his life to training up-and-coming bodybuilders and opened a fitness club. Four years ago, on the eve of his 100th birthday, despite having suffered a stroke a year earlier, he posed for cameras and wowed India again with his still-impressive, albeit wrinkly, biceps.

"I didn't become rich. There is not much money in bodybuilding," Aich told the Indian Express on that day. "But there is respect. And for that, I wouldn't mind being a bodybuilder in my next life as well."

- Washington Post

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