Gama the Great, the Lion of Punjab

How one wrestler embarrassed the British Empire.

Nikesh Shukla

February 19, 2020

Gama the Great, the Lion of Punjab
The Great Gama Horizontal

In 1910, an Indian wrestler became the strongest man in the world, and newspapers around the world wrote that his feats of strength were inspiring rebellions in India. He won the world championship belt in the worst possible way, but I won’t spoil it for you. This is a story about strength, about people becoming symbols for larger struggles, and how one person can make a difference.

Ready? 

Round 1

It’s no longer there now, but the only place on Brick Lane where you would find brown customers was this tiny kati roll spot. I found it a comfort — they had the same tiles as the bathroom in my parents’ home, no white hipsters were trying to turn it into a place to be seen, and most importantly, the cumin and coriander on the kebabs turning on the spit would mix with the fat and drip into the hot coals and cackle loudly, like the laugh of an auntie.

(Where would a personal essay by a South Asian be without a food reference?)

What brought me back to the kati roll spot, time after time, were the walls of pehlwan posters. Strong, stocky, muscular kushti wrestlers, standing in hero pose, their hands on their hips. Action shots of them grabbing each other in an akhada. The television screen in the corner, showing grainy matches shot on a home camera. 

On the door of the toilets was one man, in black and white, looking like he was ready to f*** you up, staring over a thick mustache, holding a massive mace, standing on a lion fur. I didn’t know who he was yet, but I liked how sure of himself he was. I liked how he was big and took up space, and extended that space with his elbows and legs apart. I liked how he didn’t need to smile. He was ready to f*** you up after all. I loved the mace, which I imagine was for decoration, because his bare hands were surely enough. I loved the thought that maybe he wrestled this lion to death, de-furred it, and now stood on it to send you a message. I loved staring at the man, chatting shit with my friends Nerm and Kunal, eating kati rolls, and breathing in the Indian food smells. This place was home.