Defying all accepted norms, the diminutive Manohar Aich achieved greatness.

The wrinkled skin and toothless grin are in sharp contrast to the chiselled physique framed by the photos on the wall. Former Mr Universe Manohar Aich is close to 100 years old (born on March 17, 1913).

Long before cricketing demigods captivated a billion Indian hearts, he was the ‘Pocket Hercules' — all of 4 ft 11 inches — who captured the nation's imagination by winning the Mr Universe title in 1952. And much like the legendary Hercules, Manohar Aich has had to surmount innumerable challenges in his trailblazing lifetime. His global achievement came in an era when the country rarely made heroes of its sportspeople, leaving him to battle alone near-empty coffers and the pressures of running a family.

Bent by age and the vagaries of time, seated in his non-descript home in Baguihati, on the northern fringes of Kolkata, he however proudly claims he is a “happy man”.

“I have no regrets and I remain tension free. My happiest moments have been when I won competitions,” he says in a feeble, inaudible voice. Halfway through the interview he falls asleep.

A childhood love for fitness

Thanks to a childhood illness — he was afflicted with cholera and kala-azar (black fever) when he was ten — he devoted a lifetime to fitness, following a rigorous 8-12 hour exercise regime for close to nine decades.

His daughter Bani Banerjee recalls that he used to pump iron even until he was 90, and scoffed at youngsters who failed to follow a fitness regime. Today, however, his routine is restricted to a few minutes of “leisurely stroll” in his courtyard. “He gets tired quickly and has trouble speaking for long,” his daughter says. “He says he wants to listen to others now. Neither is he into heavy training,” she adds.

What has remained unchanged, however, is his diet comprising lentils, rice, eggs, milk, vegetables and fish. He never smoked or drank in his life.

Born in Comila (now in Bangladesh), a young Aich was forced to earn for his family after his father, an accountant, took ill. But the love for exercise and bodybuilding never left him. At the famous magician P.C. Sorcar's shows, Aich got an opportunity to display his bodybuilding prowess.

In 1942, he joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) to pursue his interest in bodybuilding. Years of extensive training finally paid off and his physique earned him accolades. However, as ill-luck would have it, he was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment on charges of slapping a British officer. With Indepedence, he regained freedom along with the country, and moved to Kolkata (then called Calcutta) in 1949.

Best in the universe

The following year, he won the Mr Hercules contest and grabbed second place at the Mr Universe contest a year later. He went to London for training in 1951 and ended up winning the Mr Universe title in 1952. He came third and fourth in 1955 and 1960 respectively.

The victories brought him fame but no money. Aich set up a physical fitness club — Studio de Physique — in Kolkata. Later he dismantled it and re-established it at his residence in 1959. “It takes time for a physical fitness club to become popular in Baguihati (then a remote suburb not connected with Kolkata), even if it is run by Manohar Aich,” his daughter says.

With no steady income in place, Aich returned to ‘showbiz', performing in circuses — International Circus and Oriental Circus among others — and earning anywhere between Rs 1,500 and Rs 3,000 (then a princely sum).

He even set up his own Biswasree Circus, but without much luck.

Ironman and doting dad

Though he tried his hand as an instructor at the newly set up Sports Association of India, he returned to where his heart lay — training youngsters at his fitness studio, now renamed Aich Vyayam Mandir.

Aich and wife Jyuthika had two sons and two daughters, and the family responsibilities grew. “Finances were tough. But we never felt the constraints, perhaps because our mother was an expert in managing household finances,” Bani says.

Today, Aich's elder son runs a gym from his residence (in the same area), while daughter Bani is married to Aich's one-time ‘prodigy' Rajdulal Banerjee.

Despite opposition from his family, Aich decided to enter politics and contested as a BJP candidate during the 1991-92 Lok Sabha elections. He lost the election, but the family took it in its stride.

The death of his wife in 2002, however, proved a big blow. “But gradually he recovered from the loss,” Bani says.

After all, Aich's dictum in life is: “Exercise and remain happy”.

(This article was published on March 29, 2012)
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