KOLKATA GYMKHANA M12
‘You will get a
The Indian gymming experience
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
The first time I got on a cardio machine in Kolkata I realized I really was not in California any more. A trainer came rushing up to me.
“Sir, are you sure you want to use that machine?”
I looked at him quizzically.
He asked to see my chart. At my gym in Kolkata, everyone has a chart. It’s done when you join. A fitness evaluator
measured my height, weight, biceps, triceps, chest (“please
expand your chest, sir”) with a tape measure and then
wrote up a daily exercise regimen which I am not only supposed to carry around with me, but also get signed at the
end of each workout.
When the trainer in the cardio room demanded my chart,
I handed it over as if I was some shady immigrant asked to
show his documents.
“Aah,” he said, stabbing at it triumphantly with his finger.
“See. You are in the Weight Gain program.”
I’ve always been mystified by that. Not muscle gain. But
weight gain. I smiled weakly and said, “Well, I don’t want
all my weight gain to come from fat.”
The trainer was not amused.
“Sir, surely there will be some fat gain with muscle
gain,” he explained patiently. “But first you gain weight.
Then we can work on losing the fat.”
I stared at him wondering why I needed to gain the fat
to lose it.
Eventually we came to a compromise. I would be
allowed to do cardio, but I was not to let my heart rate
go over 127 and I would only do the running track and
the stationary bike, not the machine I had selected.
“That one will cause heavy calorie loss,” said the
trainer. I had a vision of all my weight gain disappearing into a puddle of sweat on the
machine itself. I should have been warned.
A friend of mine, also from the US, said
the first time she went to the gym and
someone came up waggling a chart at
her, she was annoyed. She was used to
going to gyms and slapping on her
headphones and working at her own
“Do I have to listen to you?” she
asked the trainer.
But in time, she said, she actually came
to appreciate the trainers. It was nice to be
taken care of. It was good to be told what
to do. It gave you some motivation and
guilt tripping when they noticed you had
not come in a few days. They were eager to
help, forever fixing posture and hand grips.
Like waiters at an Indian restaurant, all
hovering around the table, they were ever
present and always on call.
My trainer however abandoned me mid-routine to go get something to eat.
“Biswajit, can you show sir the rest of the
routine?” he said, unceremoniously
dumping me into another trainer’s
Then when I went to get my workout
sheet signed, the trainer tried to make
me upgrade to a personal trainer or PT. “You have good tri-
ceps,” he said flatteringly. “Take a PT for a couple of
months. You will get a beautiful body.”
When the fantasy of a beautiful body failed to move me to
shell out few thousand extra rupees, he tried to sell me a
pair of gloves. “Don’t tell anyone. But I’ll get it for you for
Rs 50 less. Special,” he said.
Gyms in people’s living rooms where the attendant turns on
the fan and removes the covers off the machines when you
show up in the middle of the afternoon. Nowadays there’s
even a Gold’s Gym in Kolkata.
My gym is part of an India-wide chain. It’s air-conditioned and very clean, much cleaner than the gym I used to
go to in San Francisco where the locker room was always
dirty. There are signs everywhere here that say “Outside
shoes are not permitted.” I had to take off my shoes to even
tour the gym. Women with spray bottles and wipe cloths
lurk around the Stairmaster machines ready to attack them
as soon as you step off. A small dark man crouches next to
the pile of mats wiping each used mat down as you’re done
with it. At my American gym I had to pick through mats
carefully avoiding the ones with the sweat stains. Here
there are two neat piles – used and unused.
The machines are fairly new. But there’s only one of
everything. And some of the weights come in kilos and
some in pounds causing endless confusion. There are televisions everywhere. No one bothers with headphones. So
everyone on the cardio machines is listening to her own
channel. Since most of it is Bollywood music videos it all
somehow melds into one big dance number. The trainers
spend a lot of time staring at the televisions while their
clients huff and puff. Some days a barefoot deejay, who
looks about seventeen, spins his own mixes. The sound system is cranked up, Sheila ki jawaani ricocheting off the
I’ve learned to recognize the clientele. There are the
chubby housewives who come mid-morning. There are the
marriageable girls coming for that quick pre-wed-ding tune up. There are the wanna-be muscle
boys who spend all their time checking themselves out in the mirror. But it’s the trainers
that are the most interesting. Young men
and women from the outer suburbs of
the city – this is suddenly their ticket into a new world.
“You are a journalist in America?”
one said wonderingly. “So you do
everything in English?” And I realize that like many parts of Indian
society, the worlds of these men
and women would not cross the
upper middle class worlds of their
clients. At most they might
encounter each other in a departmental store or a grocery store in a
mall where one is purchasing and
the other is bagging groceries.
But in the gym their role changes.
They might call you “sir” but they are
still the trainer. They get to tell you what
you are doing wrong. They get to banter with you about your day. They get to
tell you that you need to lift that weight
one more time. They scold the pampered sons of the rich who get cars on
their 18th birthdays. For an hour or so, as
you work out, they get to tell you what to
do. And at the end of the hour, they get to
sign your card.
Something is being flexed at these gyms all
over India. And it’s not just muscle. ;
Sandip Roy is an editor and radio journalist
with New America Media, currently based in