Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Everything Spicy About It

The employees of the Spices Board, Kochi, have won several medals in arm-wrestling. They are also active members of the organisation's health club

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Albin MathewReshmi EG (left) and Nileena Boban testing their skills. Coach VJ Xavier (centre) watch​es keenly; Nileena Boban strengthening her arms

On a Wednesday afternoon, Nileena Boban and Reshmi EG stood on either side of an arm wrestling table and gripped each other's right hand. Suddenly, Reshmi pulls her hand off, as it is sweaty. She wipes her palm on her black salwar kameez. Then they grip hands once again. This time, Nileena and Reshmi hold steady for a while, both exerting matching pressure. The spectators watch silently. Then, suddenly, Nileena leans forward, uses a better technique, and downs Reshmi's hand on the padded cushion.

What is unusual about this event is that it is taking place in the Spices Board office at Kochi. Amazingly, many of the women employees are district, state and national-level winners in arm wrestling.

And it all happened rather accidentally. In January, the chairman, Dr. A. Jayathilak suggested that there could be a healthy competition among the staffers during the New Year day celebrations. So, an arm wrestling contest took place. Two weeks later, there was a news item in the newspaper: a district-level arm-wrestling competition was going to take place at Kochi.

The Chairman said that we should participate,” says staffer Ancy M. John. “When we took part we got a shock because we won many medals, even though we had only two days of training. One reason was because there were few women participants. Then we went to the state-level tournament at Kanhangad, in February, and won 15 medals there, while the men won seven.”

Immediately, Jayathilak okayed the purchase of an international-standard arm wrestling table, at a cost of Rs 13,000. “Then we got a former national champion, KS Nobi, to come and train our employees,” says Jayathilak. “The Kerala Arm Wrestling Federation officials also provided support.”

To ensure that they are in fine fettle, there are daily training sessions for the competitors. One period is from 9.30 to 10 a.m., while the other is from 3.30 to 4 p.m.

Thereafter, the Spices Board sent a team to the national championships at Bazpur, Uttarakhand, in June. And the women did reasonably well. There were three bronze medal winners: Stephy Antony (55-60 kgs category), G. Aparna (60-65 kgs), and N Thara (65-70 kgs).

For Jayathilak, there have been a few gains so far. “There is a good projection of the organisation in the media,” he says. “When they go for competitions, the employees, from different departments, mingle with each other and become friends. They also made friends with other competitors. In normal circumstances, they might not have done so.”

The wins have helped develop self-confidence. “Overnight, our women employees have become state and national-level medal winners,” says Jayathilak. “These achievements are something to tell their grandchildren about. What is clear is that if women are given opportunities, they will shine, like the men.”

Meanwhile, few know that the arm-wrestling practice sessions are taking place in the health club on the fifth floor. And the idea of starting a club also happened by accident.

In October, 2012, Jayathilak noticed that the medical reimbursement bills of the staff were high. “I told my colleagues that they should do regular exercises, and become healthy,” says Jayathilak. But the staffers replied that they did not have the time to practice at a health club. Because of traffic jams, they had to leave the house early, and it was the same situation in the evenings. “They could only manage some exercise on the weekends,” says Jayathilak.

That was when the chairman had a brainwave. He decided to start a health club at the office. And it is a state-of-the-art club, with all the latest machines, including a treadmill, bench press, and weight machines. “We spent Rs 10 lakh,” he says. “And, most probably, this is the first government organisation in India to have a health club like this.”

And the impact on the employees has been profound. Ancy was a diabetic, who had high blood pressure. She would take medicines regularly. “But when I began exercising regularly at the health club, my health improved. I have stopped taking tablets, my weight has stabilised, and I feel positive and happy.”

Standing next to Ancy is the visually-challenged AR Shibhu. He is an arm wrestler, as well as a power-lifter. “Last year I lifted 240 kgs,” he says. Shibu was the only visually-challenged competitor in the national arm-wrestling championships. “My competitors were very strong,” says Shibhu, who came fifth in his event. “Now I am doing a lot of weight training, to develop my forearms.”

Two years ago, when A Subramanyam entered the health club, he had not done any exercise in his life. But, thanks to the guidance from the coach, VJ Xavier, he started doing power lifting. And, at the state championships, he won a bronze in the 74 kgs category.

Before I began to do exercise, I used to feel tired at the end of the working day,” says Subramanyam. “But, today, after doing one hour of intense weightlifting, I feel rejuvenated and mentally relaxed. And I get a good night's sleep, too.”

And so does Jayathilak, because of the overall benefits. “There are an all-round positive attitude and an increase in productivity,” he says. “And I am also sure that there will be a long-term decline in the medical reimbursement bills.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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