An Indian commentator in the press recently bemoaned the lack of success of the nation’s athletes in Rio. He suggested that howking and spitting were two things at which India excelled. True, the pavements and walls of Delhi are spattered with red spittle. This isn’t blood; it’s paan masala. This is a mixture of betel and areca nuts, tobacco and slaked lime to bind it together, wrapped up in a betel leaf (parna is the Sanskrit word for leaf). It’s a mild stimulant, reportedly good for the digestion and addictive. But there’s the problem. If spitting became an Olympic sport, the Indian contestants would fail the drug test.
Apart from causing a mess, paan is a major cause of oral cancers. At University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, the pathology department has a histologist who specialises in oral cancer. This is because of the high numbers of people originally from the Indian Subcontinent living in the city and county.
I have just had Sunday lunch at a restaurant in Connaught Place, right in the centre of Delhi. At the side of the road, by traffic lights, are ragged child acrobats called Nats (nata is the Sanskrit word for dance). They perform cartwheels and flips to entertain the drivers stopped at the lights. Other groups of khelwalas squeeze their bodies through hoops, perform headstands and do other acrobatic stunts. They need to pack a lot of action into a short time in order to impress and get tips from stationary motorists. But what if they could leave the slums of Patel Nagar and be trained to become new style gymnasts who could compete at the next Olympics?
Interestingly, a physical fitness college in Maharashtra called the Hanuman (monkey god) Mandal sent a troupe of 35 gymnasts to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. They were independent of the British India Colonial team, and marched under a saffron banner, not the Union flag. They impressed Hitler so much that he ordered they be given a special medal.
So broadening the focus of gymnastics to include using wooden poles, tightropes, martial arts and traditional dancing might win India medals in future Olympic Games.