Netra Sorap has picked up some peculiar tips over the last 13 years. Among other things, the 46-year-old has learned that on a man’s body, talcum powder is a cleaner shaving agent than cream or soap; for removing stains caused by kumkum, boot polish and Protan body colour, Surf Excel does wonders; rub a man’s body with Tiger Balm and the burning sensation will instigate an adrenalin rush so powerful it will give him an instant shot of strength; if Tiger Balm is unavailable, making him jealous is just as effective.
Everything Netra has learned, and everything she does is focused on helping one person: her husband Deepak, a competitive bodybuilder.
Though bodybuilding is considered something of a sub-culture of narcissists, it is now popular enough to have caught the imaginations of many Indian men. They take part in contests conducted by several improbable organisations, which bestow titles of every type, from Mr Girgaun to Mr India Handicapped. “Bodybuilding is the next popular game after cricket,” says Vicky Goraksha, an accredited judge of the Maharashtra Body Building Association.
It is hard to understand the popularity. Competitive bodybuilding doesn’t command much by way of prize money, fame or even respect, but it is expensive and contestants have to go to extreme lengths to be physically perfect for a few hours every year. “They do it for the glory,” says Netra, “for those few moments on stage.”
The long road to that stage is an excruciating journey of self-flagellation in which the unwitting companions are wives. Most of these men start with a simple wish to get fit, but as they push themselves, the sport takes over. It then affects every part of their lives, transforming their attitudes toward everything from food to sex. During competition season, a bodybuilder’s diet is an extreme version of the discredited high-protein, low-carbohydrate Atkins Diet, which means drinking copious amounts of chalky protein shake and eating some 60 egg whites a day. Then there’s the daily exercise: up to six hours in two sessions; Netra has counted Deepak doing 5,000 skips in one set (she has a skipping rope with an electronic counter). In many cases, such super-human effort is helped along with the use of what bodybuilders refer to in short as ‘roids’, or steroids. For the Soraps, the financial cost of this life runs up to Rs 50,000 every month.
But to really understand how far a man will go to master his physique, one has to live as these men do in the lead-up to a competition. In addition to starting a zero-oil-and-salt diet three days before D-day, they abstain from all liquids, even water. “When you are finally on stage, you are dehydrated, you are meant to be dehydrated, and you may look good on the outside, but inside you are at your weakest,” says Shahzad A Daver, a bodybuilder. The diet and exercise make many bodybuilders temperamental, a danger Netra has become expert at dodging. Netra and Deepak Sorap hail from large closely-knit Maharashtrian business families based in Mumbai. But when Deepak is training for a contest, not even relatives are welcome home. And in addition to everything else, she takes over as his designated driver because letting him drive has proven risky. Also, Deepak prefers her to a professional chauffeur.
At competitions, contestants who cannot afford the expensive body colours essential for exaggerating muscles use an allergy-inducing concoction of kumkum powder and boot polish. The result: a red-tinted body, and skin problems. It is not uncommon for the wives of professional bodybuilders to hate the sport. They don’t understand it, either. Netra, then, is not your average bodybuilder wife. Many consider her the most supportive spouse on the circuit. She met Deepak at his brother’s wedding, and they have been married for 26 years. She takes great pride in the achievements of Deepak and their sons, Jeet and Konark. Ask her what the boys do, and she’d say, “Jeet has finished a Bachelor’s degree in visual effects from San Francisco and achieved second rank with honorary mention from the university. Konark is a sports champ with 14 golds in swimming. He is a basketball player, chess champ, best in art, highest in computers and good in studies.” And even without the demands of Deepak’s sport, this petite lady seems passionately involved in a hundred things all at once. She graduated in commercial art, has a junior pilot licence and now manages business interests in interior decoration, event management, and the family engineering enterprise. Plus, she’s got several works in progress, including a book and video on bodybuilding by her husband, and a contestants’ handbook authored by her.
When Deepak decided to become a bodybuilder 13 years ago at age 38, his vital stats were 5’ 7.5”, 120 kg, 49.5” waist. He was a successful businessman who enjoyed food and loved his tipple. “Once doctors warned him about his lifestyle, he began training,” says Netra. “The results were so dramatic that friends pushed him to compete.” He did, with a dainty 28” waist, no less. In their two-bedroom apartment in Mumbai, Netra has created a velvet-lined glass cupboard in the living room for his medals; in their wardrobe, she has boxes marked ‘28’, ‘29’, ‘30’, ‘32’, which contain Deepak’s clothes at various waist measures. The year Deepak began competing, Netra was pregnant with Konark, now an eighth grader in a Pune boarding school. When they travelled for contests, both boys were cared for by friends.
The competitive bodybuilding season begins around October, when all the major domestic and regional contests are held, and goes on till about February. During this time, most bodybuilders do very little besides train. Twenty-five-year-old Viresh Dhotre lives in a nondescript outpost of Mumbai called Badlapur and is a regular on the competition circuit in Maharashtra. In December 2008, he married his girlfriend Swati, 23, right in the middle of the season. His routine was the first thing his wife learned to accept. “He would get out of bed at dawn and leave our house to his grandmother’s place to eat his breakfast and then gym, gym, gym.”
Competitive bodybuilders are judged on their symmetry, body composition, muscularity and mastery of the poses that exhibit specific muscles. It is an extreme body modification process that even alters their faces. The serious food abuse that produces these transformations also instigates mood swings, even sexual aggression—something that came as a surprise to Swati. “At first, I didn’t understand what he was going through, and I told him I was finding it awkward. It has been better since we talked about it,” she says. She is four months pregnant.
For now, Swati, who runs a garment store in Badlapur, is happy to let Viresh’s grandmother manage his diet. Netra, on the other hand, does not delegate. “Support,” she says, “means full support.” During the almost 70-day-long run-up to a contest, she shape-shifts into manager/trainer/ chauffeur/travel coordinator/businesswoman/wife and everything in between. It’s an effort so taxing that Netra says by the time they get to competition night, she’s so mentally wrought she ends up crying. “I always say never again, but we’re so proud when he wins that we end up coming back.” At the venue, she’s also Deepak’s mobile make-up artist. “Because of his diet it’s difficult for him to stand through it, so I make him lie down and do the shaving and colouring myself,” she says. “I always have wipes to take off the colour, dark-coloured clothes that won’t get spoiled, and extra bedsheets so that we don’t spoil the ones at the hotel.” Netra also records her husband’s performances for post-competition assessments and improvements. She says judges on the circuit have become so appreciative of her critical eye, one suggested she write the judges’ exam.
At 51, Deepak is already pushing the limits of how much his body can withstand. The family accepts the fact that the sport will probably cut him down sooner than nature would have. “I know it is not good for him in the long term, and we keep telling him that, but he’s happy and there is no point living like a mouse, afraid,” says Netra. There’s also the attraction of a stud muffin husband who looks younger than other men his age. Dhotre’s father-in-law Manohar Ambavane, a Shiv Sena district head for Thane, initially opposed his daughter’s marriage to Viresh because the groom was of a lower caste and less educated than his B Com graduate daughter, but once he visited the suitor’s gym and saw his Mass Monster friends, Ambavane was so impressed that he agreed to the wedding.
Sometimes, that impressive physique is just a chemical exaggeration. Steroids aren’t even a dirty secret in the Indian bodybuilding circuit; it’s a way of life. Most bodybuilders admit it’s not possible to get the form they need naturally. Though the International Body Building Federation has officially banned the use of anabolic steroids, there are loopholes. “We don’t have any way of testing,” says judge Goraksha. “In Maharashtra, we don’t have a lab that can conduct a urine test, and it costs Rs 4,000 per person to do it elsewhere.”
One of the side effects of sustained steroid use is infertility, a cause of particular concern for young couples. Vahishta Panthaki has been married to fitness consultant and bodybuilder Kaivan for almost four years now. The 30-year-olds relocated to Mumbai from their hometown Surat just so it would be easier for Kaivan to participate in competitions. Vahishta, an MBA graduate who works with an export diamond trading company, says her husband decided to wait to complete their family before taking any synthetics. The couple has an 18-month-old son and another baby due in the autumn. “We know the risks, but it’s also about knowing what you’re taking and doing it in moderation,” says Vahishta.
Vahishta is a supportive wife who prefers sedate yoga to self-punishing bodybuilding. But the sport has given her and Kaivan a sense of community vaguely reminiscent of their Parsi family unit in Surat. They have made close, empathetic friends like 27-year-olds Shahzad A Daver and his fiancee Kainaz Katrak.
The two men met on the circuit as competitors and ended up as friends. The younger couple is right at the beginning of the career-marriage trajectory, and has the optimism of a pair whose ambitions haven’t yet been tested. Shahzad is an accredited physical trainer with expansive plans to improve and be improved by the sport. He has not participated in a competition since winning a place at the Mr Zoroastrian contest in 2006, but he lives what he calls “a bodybuilding life”. Kainaz is a public relations executive, with a Master’s degree in psychology. She met her “soul mate” at the gym, and since the beginning of their relationship, he’s honed her ideas of what it means to be fit. “He taught me about the right way to use food, and about the science, rather than just looking at the weighing scale,” she says.
Both love travel and dancing, both battled weight issues as children, are intensely dedicated to their diets and fitness routines, and even won the Zoroastrian power-lifting contest together in 2007. Kainaz supports Shahzad’s plan to get back into bodybuilding, but one aspect worries even this optimist: the effect on his health. “Bodybuilding as a competition is not healthy,” he admits. “To understand why people do it, you need that passion.” Passion also drives these women, forcing them to figure out how to tackle boot-polish stains.