Staying fit! How a gym fanatic from Chembur changed his destiny
In his new book, anthropologist Michiel Baas, after a decade of studying gyms in Indian metros, tells the story of a fitness instructor who changed his destiny using 'muscle power'
In the modest working-class neighbourhood of Chembur, many dreams have been made. There was a time when the famous RK Film and Studios—currently being transformed into a swanky residential destination—was the jewel in its crown. It made stars out of the ordinary. Some of the men in anthropologist Michiel Baas's new book, Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility and the New Middle Class (Westland) are the new heroes of this developing suburb.
Baas, who has spent a decade studying gyms, trainers and bodybuilders in India, first visited Chembur during the annual Ganpati celebrations, on a shiny-black Royal Enfield motorcycle. Riding him through the festive frenzy was Kishore, a fitness trainer and friend, whom he met over Facebook, years ago. "This was when trainers barely had an online presence, and Instagram had not yet arrived. I was doing some online research, when I came across a picture of Kishore [on Facebook]. He was doing a hand stand and seemed incredibly fit. I connected with him, and asked if he'd mind sharing his story with me. He asked me to meet him on a Sunday at Bandra Band Stand, right outside Salman Khan's house. He used to go there quite frequently to catch a glimpse of Khan flexing his muscles in the balcony," recalls the Amsterdam-based researcher. The irony of discussing Kishore's professional journey against the starry backdrop of his screen idol was not lost on Baas.
The two continued to keep in touch. Each time Baas visited Mumbai, he'd see a new Kishore. His English improved, his sense of style had changed and his confidence in interacting with those belonging to a socio-economic strata different from his, grew. Kishore's story, though, was intrinsically tied to Chembur, the neighbourhood where he was raised, and which Baas eventually got to visit. It also best exemplified how urban India was using bodily capital for upward mobility. This became the heart of Baas's research.
Baas first got interested in India's fitness industry, while researching the lifestyles of IT professionals in Bengaluru. "I find middle-class India, interesting. And it has been an important line in my research. At some point, spending a lot of time in the country, I noticed that gyms were growing very rapidly. They always existed, but the modern ones that we see now, were only found in the big multinational campuses, like Wipro and Infosys, which were trying to emulate the Silicon Valley companies," says the author, in a telephonic interview.
Two things, in his opinion, happened in the first decade of the new millennium, which lured more Indian men to the gym—the release of Om Shanti Om (2007), where Shah Rukh Khan, "one of Bollywood's most revered actors, suddenly and rather miraculously sported six-pack abs," and the launch of the Indian edition of Men's Health magazine. "Its glossy cover invariably featured a non-famous Indian—usually a fitness enthusiast or personal trainer—whose stunning physique could be achieved by following his training routines," the author writes in the book.
For the Indian man, the evolving body consciousness among urban Indians, also provided a "new" career opportunity. "None of the fitness trainers we have today, woke up one day, saying they wanted to be that," says Baas, who also enrolled himself at gyms in different metros, including New Delhi, so that he could interview trainers and their clients. "Men from the lower middle-class have a lot of time to burn, as they find it hard to get a job. Some of them work out in the local gyms, often just to kill time. When people take an interest in their bodies, they start pursuing it more seriously. Gyms then recruit them as trainers for meagre salaries of R10K to R15K.
They start making money in personal training; that's really when they develop themselves into self-made persons," he adds.
Kishore, says the author, grew up as the son of a labour migrant from Odisha, who came to Mumbai to join the textile mills in Parel as a weaver. His father never made more than R7,000 a month, and for the longest time, the family lived in a small tenement in Chembur—"nothing more than a hut". He did his BCom, but he never took a shine to studying. Personal training in upmarket gyms, and at clients' homes, changed his fortunes. Today, the Chembur gym rat makes a six-figure monthly salary, and has a ground-floor apartment in the same neighbourhood he grew up in. "I find his story quite exemplary, and a reflection of what these men have achieved considering where they've come from. Their life is all about obstacles," says Baas.
But does this upgrade in the quality of life, thanks to their bodies, really mean that they've moved up the class ladder. It's something that the author investigates. Irrespective of the rapport between the client and the trainer, the boundaries continue to be evident. In the city of dreams, Kishore's dreams, unlike those of his Bollywood idol, are likely to be on the periphery. "The way they [fitness trainers] navigate the city, they have to constantly negotiate who they are, and who they can be. That's not always easy."
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