Aerogrammes and Other Stories - By Tania James


Gama the Great is bored. Imam translates the newspaper notice as best he can while his brother slumps in the wing-back chair. On the table between them rests a rose marble chessboard, frozen in play. Raindrops wriggle down the windowpane. It is a mild June in 1910 and their seventh day in London without a single challenge.

Their tour manager, Mr. Benjamin, lured them here from Lahore, promising furious bouts under calcium lights, their names in every newspaper that matters. But the very champions who used to thump their chests and flex their backs for photos are now staying indoors, as if they have ironing to do. Not a word from Benjamin “Doc” Roller or Strangler Lewis, not from the Swede Jon Lemm or the whole fleet of Japanese fresh from Tokyo.

Every year in London, a world champion is crowned anew, one white man after the next, none of whom have wrestled a pehlwan. They know nothing of Handsome Hasan or Kalloo or the giant Kikkar Singh, who once uprooted an acacia tree bare-handed, just because it was disrupting the view from his window. Gama has defeated them all, and more, but how is he to be Champion of the World if this half of the world is in hiding?

Mr. Benjamin went to great trouble to arrange the trip. He cozied up to the Mishra family and got the Bengali millionaires to finance the cause, printed up press releases, and rented them a small, gray-shingled house removed from the thick of the city, with space enough out back to carry on their training. The house is fairly comfortable, if crowded with tables, standing lamps, settees, and armchairs. When it rains, they push the furniture to the walls and conduct their routines in the center of the sitting room.

Other adjustments are not so easy. Gama keeps tumbling out of bed four hours late, his mustache squashed on one side. Imam climbs upon the toilet bowl each morning, his feet on the rim, and engages in a bout with his bowels. Afterward, he inspects the results. If they are coiled like a snake ready to strike, his guru used to say, all is in good shape. There are no snakes in London.

These days, when Mr. Benjamin stops by, he has little more to offer than an elaborate salaam and any issues of Sporting Life and Health & Strength in which they have been mentioned, however briefly. He is baby-faced and bald, normally jovial, but Imam senses something remote about him, withheld, as though the face he gives them is only one of many. “You and your theories,” Gama says.

Left to themselves, Gama and Imam continue to hibernate in the melancholy house. They run three kilometers up and down the road, occasionally coughing in the fume and grumble of a motorcar. They wrestle. They do hundreds of bethaks and dands, lost in the calm that comes of repetition, and at the end of the day, they rest. They bathe. They smooth their skin with dry mustard, which conjures homeward thoughts of plains ablaze with yellow blooms. Sometimes, reluctantly, they play another game of chess.

On the eighth morning, Mr. Benjamin pays a visit. For the first time in their acquaintance, he looks agitated and fidgets with his hat. His handshake is damp. He follows the wrestlers into the sitting room, carrying with him the stink of a recently smoked cigar.

The cook brings milky yogurt and ghee for the wrestlers, tea for Mr. Benjamin. Gama and Imam brought their own cook from Lahore, old Ahmed, who is deaf in one ear but knows every nuance of the pehlwan diet. They were warned about English food: mushy potatoes, dense pies, gloomy puddings—the sort of fare that would render them leaden in body and mind.

When Mr. Benjamin has run out of small talk, he empties a sober sigh into his cup. “Right. Well, I suppose you’re wondering about the tour.”

“Yes, quite,” Imam says, unsure of his words but too anxious to care. It seems a bad sign when Mr. Benjamin sets his cup and saucer aside.

Wrestling in England, Mr. Benjamin explains, has become something of a business. Wrestlers are paid to take a fall once in a while, to pounce and pound and growl on cue, unbeknownst to the audience, which nevertheless seems to enjoy the drama. After the match, the wrestlers and their managers split the money. Occasionally these hoaxes are discovered, to great public outcry, the most recent being the face-off between Yousuf the