Rahul Aware honours Maharashtra's rich wrestling legacy with World Championships medal

Rahul Aware in action at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

When Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav won independent India's first individual Olympic medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, local lore has it that he was welcomed back to his village of Goleshwar in Maharashtra's Satara district with a procession of 151 bullock carts. There's going to be at least as grand a welcome, 67 years later, for another son of the soil, Rahul Aware, who won a medal at the world stage -- bronze in the 61kg freestyle at the World Championships in Kazakhstan -- on Sunday evening. For in doing so, the 27-year-old shrugged off the Haryana-sized chip on the shoulder of Maharashtrian wrestling.

Father Balasaheb can't be heard over the crackers already bursting outside the family's home in the village of Patoda in Beed district, in the arid heart of Maharashtra. Long-time coach Kaka Pawar is greeting a steady line of political honchos coming to offer congratulations and TV camerapersons looking to set up the perfect shot at the Antarashtriya Kusti Sankul Kendra on the outskirts of Pune, where Aware trains.

The man at the centre of it all is partially aware of the frenzy that awaits him when he touches down in Pune in a couple of days, because his phone, that of his brother Gokul and coach Dnyaneshwar Gochade have been ringing continuously since he beat American Tyler Lee Graff 10-4 in the bronze-medal playoff earlier in the day.

Aware's medal is the last of a record five medals won by India at the World Championships and it's in a non-Olympic category, which means he hasn't won an Olympic quota. But for the part of the country where he's from, that takes away little from the magnitude of the achievement. "This is a medal won for India, but I can't even begin to describe how much this means for Maharashtra," says Aware over the phone from Kazakhstan.

There is shallow parochialism involved here. Aware isn't the first wrestler from Maharashtra to have won a world medal -- Sandeep Tulsi Yadav won a Greco-Roman bronze in 2013, while Narsingh Yadav, from the same SAI centre in Mumbai, claimed a bronze in the 74kg freestyle in 2015. But as Pawar will insist, Aware is the first Maharashtrian wrestler to have medalled. "Narsingh and Sandeep are both from Uttar Pradesh and came to Mumbai later on in their life. Rahul is born Maharashtrian," he says.

This distinction goes some way in explaining why Aware's medal is special.

"Wrestling is in our blood. It is part of Marathi culture. It is alive in every home of our state. In Paschim Maharashtra, a wrestler like Aware is far bigger and recognisable than even a cricket player," says wrestling historian Ashok Jadhav. The state -- and specifically the western region of Desh, which was the birthplace of the Maratha kingdom founded by Shivaji -- has immense wrestling pedigree. The sport also finds mention in Dnyaneshwari, the oldest literary work in Marathi, says Maharashtrian wrestling blogger Ganesh Manugade. It has its roots in old royalty and finds relevance in the massive prize-money competitions sponsored by new wealth. "The thing that stands out about Maharashtra's wrestling culture is our parampara (heritage)" says Pawar.

That heritage is prized, as are the idiosyncrasies of the state's wrestling subculture. The wrestling academies in North India are known as akharas. In Maharashtra, they are known as talim, which is derived from the Urdu word meaning education. The North Indian emphasis on vegetarianism isn't a thing here, with wrestlers expected to consume meat.

But nothing is as much a source of pride as the wrestlers themselves. For many decades, the best competitors in India were from Maharashtra. Featherweight Dinkar Shinde and middleweight KP Nawale were part of the first Indian team to the Olympics in Antwerp 1920. Heavyweight Maruti Mane wrestled three-time Olympic champion Aleksandr Medved for the duration of 18 minutes at the 1965 World Championships, a feat few others managed in the legendary Soviet's career. And, of course, there was KD Jadhav's Olympic medal in 1952.

But even as Maharashtra held on to the past, the power centre of wrestling shifted decisively to Haryana. Of the 18 medals won by India at the World Championships, all but three have been won by wrestlers from the north Indian state. It's a statistic that sits uncomfortably with the practitioners of the sport in Maharashtra, even as they try to explain why their history counted for little in the international arena.

Some claims are just that. One goes that Haryana is more fertile and so can support a better diet for wrestlers, who mostly hail from poor families. Pawar blames the weather. "It's always very hot in here. You have to train twice as hard to get any effect," he says.

Others have more truth to them. "The main reason why we got left behind is politics. Haryana supports its athletes. They give them jobs and money for winning medals. Parents want their children to become wrestlers. Maharashtra didn't do anything for its wrestlers," says Pawar. There's also the belief that wrestlers from the region are at the wrong end of any decision-making. "There's always favouritism towards wrestlers from Haryana. That's the reason the national camp is always held in Balgarh [in Haryana's Sonipat district] and never in Maharashtra. If they had to choose, they'll always support someone from their part of the country," says Pawar.

It was this proud culture, albeit one simmering with discontent, that Aware is from. Even though he is from Beed in Marathwada, some distance from the heartland of Desh, he was always meant to be a wrestler. Balasaheb wrestled before him, both on the mat, winning a bronze at the national level, and as a prize fighter in dangals. His grandfather wrestled before that too.

A flicker of talent was spotted in Aware when he was 12, and he was sent to train at 1970 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Harishchandra Birajdar's talim in Pune. Maharashtra's reputation as a wrestling powerhouse was already running on fumes by that time, but Birajdar saw something special in Aware. "He said, 'Don't be satisfied with wrestling in dangals. You can win big medals: Asian, Commonwealth, even Worlds," recalls Aware.

Aware's ability shone through in domestic competitions, with him winning the first of his seven gold medals at the senior nationals in 2009. But even when he made his way to the national camp, he learned just how alien the conditions were. "Everything was unfamiliar. You couldn't even get things like puran poli. It was hard because there was no other wrestler from Maharashtra then. I was the only one there. No one spoke Marathi, so I was usually left on my own," he recalls.

In the 10 years since then, some things have changed. "There are now five boys from Maharashtra in the national camp. I've learned Hindi as well but because they've seen me for so long, a lot of the Haryana guys in the camp have picked up a few words of Marathi. They'll ask me, 'Tu kasa ahes, Rahulya? Jevan zhaale ka? (How are you Rahul? Have you eaten)," recalls Aware.

But he's also had some things stay defiantly the same, and come out on the receiving end of inexplicable shenanigans by the national federation. In 2016, as he looked to qualify in the 57kg category for the Rio Olympics, Aware finished third in the Asian Olympic qualification competition held in Kazakhstan. Only the two finalists got in. Aware had another -- easier -- qualification tournament in Mongolia, where the top three would qualify. Rather than get another chance, Aware, who had won the national selection trials, was sidelined and his closest rival Sandeep Tomar was chosen to head out to Mongolia instead. Tomar qualified and travelled to the Olympics.

It was -- coach Pawar says -- one of the lowest points of Aware's career. And while he made the decision to step back in the fray once more in 2016 -- and even appeared to have sealed the 57kg spot in the Indian roster once more with a gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games -- it appears that he most likely will not be part of the Olympic squad next year as well. Aware's medal is in the 61kg category -- a non-Olympic weight division. And he won it just two days after another another wrestler -- Ravi Kumar Dahiya -- had won a bronze and a quota in the 57kg Olympic category.

"Rahul was thinking he would medal in the 61kg category here and then drop down to the 57kg division for when trials were held before the Olympic qualification tournament. It's good for the country that Ravi qualified with a medal directly but it means that perhaps it wasn't written in Rahul's destiny to travel to the Olympics this time as well," says Pawar.

In such a scenario, it was absolutely necessary for Aware to claim the only world-level medal he was in sight of. He beat Kerim Hojakov of Turkmenistan in the first round, Asian Games silver medallist Rassul Kaliev 10-7 in the second, before going down in the final few seconds against a rapidly fatiguing world silver medallist Beka Lomtadze in the semi-finals on Saturday. While he still had a chance at the bronze medal the next day, Aware knew "there was no guarantee I would get a similar chance again." "These are moments that come once in a lifetime," says Pawar. He grabbed at that opportunity with the tightest grip he could make and as Graff tried but failed to overcome the insurmountable 10-4 gap, he pumped his fist in celebration.

Aware is still trying to process just what this achievement means to him. He finds it easier to explain just what he hopes it will do for the future of the sport in Maharashtra. "There are going to be so many children who are inspired by this. A lot of them will start to train as wrestlers. I think there will be more funding for the sport, more jobs from the government too," he says.

He's confident there will be more after him too, that Maharashtra won't have to wait another 67 years for it's next World medal. "Just give our wrestlers the support they need. There is talent everywhere in Maharashtra. There's no reason why with the right support they won't be the best in the country. Akhir Chhatrapati Shivaji ki dharti hai yeh (After all, this is the land of Shivaji)", he says.