The Dark Horse

July 2012 – GQ India

The images in the story are by Nishant Shukla. See more of his work here.

“There’s almost no traffic up here.” Shiva Keshavan gestures up the road, a tight asphalt curve winding up the Kullu Valley from Manali to the Rohtang Pass.

“Almost?” I ask.

He finishes pulling on his red, white and black jumpsuit. “A few trucks sometimes,” he shrugs, then slips on a white helmet and heads uphill.

The trucks concern me. Keshavan is India’s only internationally ranked winter athlete, the country’s best shot at its first winter Olympic medal, and he’s about to hurtle down this road on a street luge – a low-clearance steal sled mounted on skateboard wheels – maneuvering the sharp curves with minute shifts in body weight.  On the closed ice tracks where luge is practiced, Keshavan routinely hits speeds from 130-150kph. He’s slower on the street, but I can’t stop thinking about those trucks.

After a few test runs, Shiva tells me and his friend Dado to drive down and meet him at the bottom. About halfway down, where the road enters a series of villages, we catch up. We’re driving directly behind him, rumbling over the rough pavement in his old Gypsy, honking emphatically to warn the oncoming traffic. Shiva is a red bolt over the asphalt, dodging potholes, ditches and cars.

At the bottom, Keshavan pulls up short behind a stopped bus, stands, removes his helmet, flashes a grin. “That was good fun.” Villagers in woolen caps and shabby vests stand at the roadside and laugh at him in his mud-splattered jumpsuit. He doesn’t seem to notice.

Keshavan may hold bronze, silver and gold medals from the Asia Cup; he may have set the continental speed record in 2011 at 134.3 kph; he may be the youngest person ever to qualify for the Olympics in his sport – but that sport is still luge. He has committed half of his 30 years to an event even his parents hadn’t heard of when he started. Incredulity and incomprehension don’t faze him

“He was very good at gymnastics, he was a runner, he was a hockey player – he did a lot of things in school,” Shiva’s father, Sudhakaran Kallikandy, told me some days later. “But going for this [sport], of course, he could be the only one in India.”

*            *            *

Shiva began his career in winter sports as a toddler, strapping on a pair of skis fashioned by his father out of wood and saw-metal, and throwing himself headlong down the hill outside his house. It was an ordinary Manali childhood.

Shiva’s parents had both come to Manali in the late Seventies – Sudhakaran from the hills of northern Kerala, Rosalba from the hills of Tuscany – and settled in the then-remote village of Vashisht where they raised their sons in English, Hindi and Italian. Rosalba, once the captain of a first division volleyball team in Italy, and Sudhakaran, an avid sports enthusiast in his own right, encouraged their boys to pursue whatever made them happy.

“We didn’t want them to become a doctor or a scientist. We are not thinking of making money or anything. But quality life? Of course,” ” Sudhakaran says. After all, he and Rosalba had settled here seeking just that, running simple restaurants in town that catered to the growing population of visitors, brewing coffee from beans grown exclusively for their own use on a small family plantation.

Shiva pursued skiing seriously but, frustrated by nepotism and “corruption” in the sport, he quit at 14. A few months later, an initiative from the International Luge Federation sent an ex-world champion to India searching for fresh talent. Of the 30-odd kids who participated in that first scouting camp – among them Keshavan’s younger brother Devan, who now plays soccer in Florence – just two were sent on to Europe to join what Shiva calls “a team of athletes from unlikely countries” like Jamaica, Bermuda and the Virgin Islands.

Most of those kids went home, but Keshavan improved so quickly that at just 16 he qualified for his first Olympics, carrying India’s flag as the country’s sole representative at the 1998 games in Nagano.

After, he returned home, finished school, and moved back to Europe to pursue his bachelors and masters degrees in political science at the University of Florence, in close proximity to the heart of the luge circuit in Austria and Switzerland, where he taught himself German and French. Quality of life he had, but funding was a problem. The larger teams, Shiva says, “have a number of coaches, they have physiotherapists, dieticians, they have engineers and technicians – it’s a whole team that they travel with, which I don’t have access to.”

During the roughly six months of the year that Shiva spends on the training and competition circuit, he travels with his own gear, pools resources to hire a shared coach with other under-funded competitors, and borrows sleds for competition. About six years ago, Keshavan began working with Namita Agarwal, an MBA with an MA in organizational psychology from LSE, who left her position at a major international consultancy firm to manage his career. For over 10 years, she told me, “Keshavan had been handling everything on his own, so I started handling everything peripheral to the sport.”

In 2010, Namita and Shiva were married, and in 2011 Keshavan set his speed record on a sled borrowed from the Asia Cup’s defending champion.

“I remember him going back to Manali [after Nagano] and it was better than the Independence Day Parade in Delhi,” Devan recalls. After that gold medal in Japan, telecom company MTS committed to doubling its sponsorship to US$40,000, roughly enough, Shiva and Namita tell me, to fund travel expenses and some new equipment. If he medals at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi – and he very well might – he will become India’s first winter medalist.

Despite all this, sports administrators in Delhi have yet to catch up. “Delhi is so far-removed from Manali or Uttarakhand or Kashmir that they don’t realize it snows here,” Namita laughs, though she isn’t joking. When Shiva began applying to be officially recognized by the State for his achievement at Nagano, they insisted he produce proof that luge was a real Olympic sport.

“The Winter Sports Federation (WSFI) is really just a bunch of guys in Delhi who don’t even know how to ski, themselves,” Keshavan shakes his head, bemused. That sort of comment has gotten him in trouble before, attracting a defamation suit after the 2010 Olympics when he accused RK Gupta, former secretary of the WSFI, of incompetence.

The infighting is not for nothing. “When I’m competing, I’m competing for myself,” he admits. “But apart from that I want to inculcate a winter sports culture here in the valley.”

*            *            *

Shiva spends most of the summer season at home in Vashisht. He helps Rosalba ready her restaurant, works with Namita on funding proposals, and, of course, trains. While abroad, Keshavan works alongside world-class athletes in world-class gyms. In Manali, he says, “I pay Rs. 500 per month for the gym. You can imagine what kind of a gym it is.”

As it turns out, I can’t. The Aryan Helth Club (on the sign inside it’s spelled “Heltah.” Curiously, it appears nowhere as “Health”) sits at the end of a narrow lane near the center of Manali. To reach it, we duck under drooping electrical wires, trudge over a pile of rubble, climb three rungs of a flimsy metal ladder, and descend into a musty basement. Posters of body builders and WWF wrestlers are plastered over peeling walls, decrepit pipes drop through the concrete ceilings and exposed ends of rebar turn doorways into hazards. The weight machines are broken down skeletons. It’s hard to imagine that the oilcan rusted to the edge of the stairs has ever been used.

It’s a Sunday afternoon when we arrive and the door is locked. When we meet the owner, a guy called Rinku, to get the key, Keshavan introduces us: “He just won Mr. Himachal for the second time,” he says. “He’s been sick with typhoid for a month.” Shiva claps Rinku on the shoulder; Rinku winces, smiles. Tall, handsome and pristine in his grey-and-white Reebok gym gear, Keshavan cuts an odd figure against the shattered bricks and sagging machinery.

One day, Keshavan hopes to see a proper winter sports complex open up the valley. Maybe even a luge track. Here in Rinku’s gym it all seems a bit outlandish.

“It’s not always about money,” Shiva tells me. “You create that synergy of collaboration just through organization. And for that, you need somebody at the head of affairs who’s thinking about the sport.”

We might just be looking at him.

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