Indian bodybuilder known as ‘Pocket Hercules’ who could ripple his stomach muscles to the rhythm of Bollywood songs
Manohar Aich was an Indian bodybuilder who was still lifting weights aged 100. A chiselled 4ft 11in, he was nicknamed “Pocket Hercules” for his diminutive though muscle-bound frame. As a young man he was celebrated as the second Indian to win a Mr Universe title.
In later life he still proudly displayed a rippling abdomen and was a regular gym-goer in Calcutta, where he mentored younger bodybuilders. He claimed his strength and good health were down to “a simple diet of milk, fruits and vegetables along with rice, lentils and fish”. He never drank or smoked. “I never allow any sort of tension to grip me,” he said. “I had to struggle to earn money since my young days, but whatever the situation I remained happy.”
Manohar Aich was born in 1912 near Comilla, Bengal, in what is now Bangladesh. His father, Mahesh, and mother, Chapala, were poor and he lived on mangos, jackfruit and vegetables that he said made him a plump child. As a boy he saw a group of wrestlers fighting in a ring and, at school in Dhaka, he began to lift weights. However, aged 12, he was struck down with black fever and several other illnesses. His parents could not afford medicine; instead, he rebuilt his health with a strict regimen of squats and push-ups. He was soon earning money performing with a magician, PC Sorcar, in village shows with exotic titles such as “Physique and Magic”. His feats included bending steel with his teeth and resting his belly on a sword. He could drag weights of 200kg.
In 1942 he got a job in the RAF as a fitness instructor. He spent a spell in prison for slapping a British officer — which he claimed had been in rebellion against what he felt was oppression. In his cell he began fitness-training in earnest. “I used to practise on my own, without any equipment, sometimes for 12 hours in a day,” he said.
Released on India’s independence in 1947, he struggled to raise four children with his wife on little money. The family had been forced to leave their home after it had become part of East Pakistan. Odd jobs included peddling coconuts outside a Calcutta railway station and working as a clerk. When he won Mr Hercules in 1950 and was spurred on to compete in Mr Universe. An amateur competition, it had begun in 1948 to coincide with the London Olympic Games.
Aich travelled to England and got a job for British Railways, staying for a year until he won. “In London, whenever I found time from work I would train in a gym. It paid off,” he said. His statistics were a perfect “V-shape”: bicep 46cm, chest 1.2m when swollen, forearm 36cm and wrist 16.5cm. He continued to compete in bodybuilding competitions, touring India in the Sixties and Seventies. He even learnt to ripple his stomach muscles to the rhythm of Bollywood songs.
He flirted with politics in 1991, standing in a local election for the Hindu nationalist BJP party and finishing third. As an old man he was kept company by his two sons and two daughters, who lived with him in the outskirts of Calcutta. One son runs a boarding house for martial artists. Another runs a fitness centre where Aich would visit regularly. His wife, Jyotika, died when he was 95, after which “Life became a burden,” he said.
The rooms of his house were lined with posters and pictures of his youthful oil-rubbed torso. He kept a strict timetable, rising at 4am, reading the newspaper each evening, and remaining “a cool customer,” according to his grandchildren.
“I have been blessed with this body,” he said. “What else does one want?”