A HULKING figure — half-man, half-tank and with a back you could project a movie onto — ambles over to a table in Ludhiana’s five-star Majestic Park Plaza and, in a voice as improbably shy as the question he’s about to pose, coos, “Spanish boltain ho?” (‘Do you speak Spanish?‘) The Spanish sardar, 27-year-old Sukhwinder Singh, is lolling around the hotel lobby, looking slightly confused as a battery of turbaned men brandishing impressive-looking cards anchored to lanyards buzz with an air of consequence. Singh manages Spain’s unlikely all-Punjabi kabaddi team (a motley assembly of shopkeepers, restaurateurs and jobbers) and the sprightly card-bearers are coordinators for the nation’s first-ever Kabaddi World Cup.
Held in seven cities across Punjab between April 3-12, nine teams from such unexpected kabaddi hotbeds as Italy and Australia competed for international bragging rights — with India prevailing over a scrappy Pakistani side in the finals to bag the Rs 1 crore top prize. The sheer scale of spectacle — attendance for the final hit two lakhs, with busloads more watching on giant screens outside — was a huge draw for Punjabis, who flocked to the kabaddi circus as pilgrims to a newly-sanctified shrine.
The bemused, sometimes bewildered, athletes seemed dumbstruck by the attention, though they certainly enjoyed the perks — especially the Volvo coaches provided to each team. For many players, kabaddi is a passionate sideline, not a fulltime gig, so the equal treatment of amateurs and professionals was something of a pleasant surprise.
Sukhwinder, a Barcelona resident originally from Saiflabad in Punjab’s Kapurthala district, has taken an odd route to the games: while on holiday in Ludhiana this January, Singh convinced an official to allow him to bring over a Spanish side. Short five players, Singh barely managed to scrounge up a few more bodies in the interim for the competition.
Comedian and sometime kabaddi commentator Bhagwant Mann is elated by the public response: “Kabaddi is a pindu [village] sport, not a gora sport.” Organisers, he says, have finally managed to package the kabaddi as entertainment, and “people always love to be part of a festival!”
As for the athletes, though, perhaps the promise of a shiny new tractor for the man of the match proved too tempting to pass up. Next up: Kabaddi Premier League?