Shabeer Bapu has worked as helper to cooks at wedding feasts and painted houses when the festivities ran dry. He's also one of Pro Kabaddi League's (PKL) most weathered names, who's seen the enterprise go from the novelty and exhilaration of season one to the calendar staple of the current sixth season in three different team jerseys.
The 32-year-old raider, who's turning out for Dabang Delhi this season, himself sees it all as a grand coincidence, though.
He broke his forearm even before the fog machines and lights were set up for the first PKL season. It went on to be his best showing in the league across all seasons, where he picked up 66 raid points. Four years into the league and there isn't a single ligament in his body that wasn't ruptured and sown back together. He has two iron rods running through his left arm, he says with a seasoning of pride.
It's not the only thing he wears as a badge, though.
The dubki, something of a raider's duck-dive-plunge feint, Shabeer prefaces with a fair amount of modesty, has been his pioneering contribution to the league. It made up his three-point super raid which won U Mumba the season two final against Bengaluru Bulls. But with injuries, his body and mind grew more tentative. Not ideal for a technique that hinges on reflexes. Today, it works as a prefix to its most artful and popular exponent - Pardeep Narwal. "Dubki was always part of my skill set since my early years and I was the first player in the league to use the technique," says Shabeer, "But I haven't been able to time it well recently. I think Pardeep has perfected it."
This season, Shabeer featured in just two out of four matches Delhi have played so far. But he's learnt to wait, thanks to his tough beginnings in the sport.
Growing up, along with seven other boys in his neighborhood in Railway Colony in Ummini, Palakkad in the north of Kerala, Shabeer was part of a local sports club. In the absence of equipment and formal training, they took to the most basic, inexpensive sport they could think of: Running. School coach Shanmugham spotted them one evening wildly racing across the playground and got them to try kabaddi.
Shabeer and his friends hadn't heard or seen kabaddi until then and didn't know whether it was played with a ball or racket. He returned home with deep gashes and skinned elbows and knees every day and his mother was mortified at his choice of sport. Not anymore. Kabaddi fetched him a job ahead of his elder sibling and got him into a moneyed, televised league. "It wasn't a popular sport in Kerala a decade ago. It isn't even now. My mother would wonder why I liked playing kabaddi even though I came back home with cuts all over my body. But there was something about the sport that I couldn't just let go."
His father, Sharafuddin, an auto driver and mother Dhoulath, a housewife, needed all hands on the deck to get food on the table, make rent and send three kids to school. "I started assisting cooks for weddings in Mallapuram and Kozhikode," says Shabeer, "I would help with chopping onions, peeling and dicing vegetables and the little jobs that ran around putting together wedding delicacies. The money was good, around Rs 500 a day."
Sometimes, he even took up low-paying painting jobs, which offered as little as Rs 75 per day.
All three siblings took to kabaddi, but his older brother was the first to drop out and after spending three years at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) hostel in Chennai together with him, his younger sister too left the sport. Shabeer, though, clung on. Coach Edachery Bhaskaran (who is now Tamil Thalaivas' coach after five seasons with U Mumba) spotted him at an all-India tournament in Kollathur, Tamil Nadu when he was barely 15 and later picked him in his team, U Mumba, from out of the 40 national camp boys, when PKL began in 2014. He stayed put there for the first three seasons, played for Jaipur Pink Panthers in the fourth season before returning to U Mumba the following season.
"I haven't been able to time it (the dubki) well recently. I think Pardeep (Narwal) has perfected it" Shabeer
Today at 32, Shabeer isn't certain how many more seasons his injury-worn body will last. In the nine months that isn't taken up by the league, he wears a buttoned-down look and plods along his 10 AM-5 PM shift as a bank clerk in Bengaluru.
"The nine months at work," he says, "are spent waiting for these three months."
For the many things PKL has changed about his life - from an expensive bike he gifted himself out of his first paycheck four years ago to the roof he's been able to stick over his family's heads, Shabeer draws the greatest gratification when neighbours back home in his village who didn't earlier care for what sport he played now have their kids queuing up for kabaddi lessons from him.