Achinta Sheuli looks exactly how you would expect a Commonwealth Games men’s weightlifting champion to look like. Barrel-chested, with tree trunks for thighs and thick branches for arms, the 20-year-old from West Bengal won gold in the men’s 73 kg division at Birmingham on Sunday night with a total lift of 313kg (snatch 143kg + clean and jerk 170kg).
It’s hard to imagine that the calloused hands that hefted the iron bar with weights to give India its third weightlifting gold medal in Birmingham once deftly stitched delicate cotton embroidery on women’s salwars. That’s what Achinta had to do. His gold medal, indeed his weightlifting career, hangs from those very threads.
Basking in the Birmingham spotlight, his words to the media were simple. Among those words, is the expected dedication of the medal: "I dedicate this gold medal to my brother." Achinta wants the world to know the gold medal wouldn't have happened without his brother.
Growing up in Deulpur village, a two-hour bus journey from Howrah, Achinta wasn’t particularly interested in either weightlifting or embroidery as a child. For weightlifting, he has his brother Alok, seven years older, to thank. Alok was always interested in weightlifting. "There was a gym near our house. It was a home gym. I was the first one in our family to go. Achinta was a quiet boy. He was very shy, so, I took him to the gym to try and make him more confident,” says Alok.
Achinta was talented, winning medals at the district level. The talent, however, was not blazing enough then to make jaws drop. There was no real expectation that he had to be exceptional. His family wasn’t well off but got by on his father's work as a manual labourer in Howrah.
That world collapsed in April 2014 when his father, Pratik, died of heatstroke. “At once, it was as if the backbone of our family was gone. We were poor, but after our father’s death, we had nothing. I remember Achinta crying because we didn’t even have money to pay for the final rites. We had to borrow money from a relative,” recalls Alok.
Earlier this month, Achinta, already in Birmingham and training for his event, does not shy away from talking about this phase of his family's life, which became a struggle. “The only thing that mattered was how we get our next meal. It was hafte ka lao, hafte ka khao (earn for a week, eat for a week). Sometimes, it was din ka lao, din ka khao (earn for a day, eat for the day),” Achinta recalls.
To make ends meet, Achinta’s mother, Purnima, took up a job as a needleworker. Alok and Achinta would join her soon after. “Bhaiyya aur mummy ne pehle start kiya (my brother and mother were the ones who started) and I joined as well. We would get contracts to embroider the necklines of ladies' churidars from a merchant in Kolkata. She would give us a few blank churidars and the design, then we would sit and work to complete it. It’s work that a machine can’t do,” says Achinta.
The work was hard. Alok shares the relentless nature of the work. “It was 12 hours a day, seven days a week. On a very good week, with the three of us working, we would make 1,200 rupees. On an average week, it was less,” says Alok.
It wasn’t just embroidery; the family took up every tiny opportunity that came along. “No job was too small for us to do,” says Alok. “Achinta and I worked in the fields; we harvested crops and carried the loads on our heads. We have carried paddy for 1 rupee a bag. We didn’t always do it for money either. We did manual labour in a field for a week at one point because we were given an egg a day and a kilo of chicken at the end of it,” recalls Alok.
The family’s financial situation remained precarious, and Alok, then 20, felt he had the bigger responsibility as the older brother. A talented weightlifter himself, with gold medals at the state level, Alok gave up his weightlifting career and began working as an unskilled labourer in Howrah’s mills and warehouses. “I loved weightlifting but it was not possible (to continue weightlifting) because I had to provide for Achinta and my mum. I was working the entire day loading and unloading stuff. My day started at 8 in the morning. I got back at 6pm and then I would start the embroidery work. I was completely exhausted by the evening. I had no energy left to train. So I had to leave,” he says.
Achinta, though, was encouraged to stick to weightlifting. “I thought he could make a future for himself with the sport. I knew people could get jobs through it. I used to tell him we don’t have anything. The only place where we count for something is through sport. If you play well, you can make a name for yourself. If you work hard and perform, people will remember who you are,” says Alok.
The embroidery though was non-negotiable.
Achinta recalls the desperation that makes decisions simple when there aren't choices. “My routine was very simple. Subah utho, thoda kaam karo, training jao (wake up in the morning, do some embroidery, then go and train) till 10am. Then go to school, come back. Train again, come home, do some more embroidery work, then go to sleep,” he says.
There was little to spare, but Achinta’s mother and brother stretched to help him. “There was a time when Achinta needed some money because he was travelling for a competition. Despite my best effort, I could only arrange 300 rupees. I was wondering how he would manage, but he saved 150 rupees from that as well,” says Alok. Their coach Astom Das, at whose home they trained, helped as much as he could, often providing food when the boys couldn’t afford it.
Achinta would get his break at the 2014 national championships in which he came fourth in the youth category. He didn’t get a medal, but a coach who worked with the Army Sports institute asked if he would go to Pune to train. For Alok, this was a no-brainer. “For us, this was a great opportunity. Achinta was guaranteed three meals a day and proper training.”
The move to the Army Sports Institute was perhaps the most critical moment of Achinta’s career. Achinta says of that point in his life, “I used to compete in the 50kg (class) before I went to ASI, Pune. I wasn’t very strong because, at home, there wasn’t any decent diet. It’s difficult to have decent strength when you are coming from the circumstances I did. If you want to medal at the nationals, you need a decent diet. At that time, I was lucky if I ate roti, dal, sabji. I would be happy.”
Even then, there were moments when Achinta would despair, Alok shares. “He called me once crying because he didn’t have money to buy a protein supplement. At that time, I was doing a job loading and unloading goods at a warehouse, and after that, I used to do embroidery till 10pm. Whatever money I made, I’d send some to him so that he could buy what he needed,” says Alok.
By 2018 he had grown strong enough to move up two weight divisions and win a silver at the Asian Youth Championships. In 2019, while still a junior, he won gold at the Commonwealth Championships, and in 2021 he created history by becoming the first Indian man to win a medal – a silver — at the Junior World championships.
Now, he is marked out as a weightlifter to watch. Achinta’s finances have improved, too. After winning gold at the Khelo India Games, he started receiving a stipend of Rs 10,000 a month. Also, his job as Havildar with the Indian Army has eased matters further. He’s still extremely cautious with money, though, says Alok. “I got his first phone for him when he moved to ASI. He continued to use it even when the screen was cracked and the keypad started falling out. It was only three years ago that he bought an Android phone. He’s not changed that yet,” says Alok.
As his brother has settled into a groove in his career, Alok too has tried to make something of his life. “Once Achinta was part of the national team, I also tried to restart my life. I completed my graduation. I’ve got a contractual job in the fire brigade and now I’m trying to start weightlifting again. I want to compete at the National championships this year, “ he says.
For Achinta, while the glory of winning medals for the country is satisfying, what’s perhaps as important is the financial security his sport has been able to provide his family. “The biggest happiness for me is that I have been able to contribute to the security of my family. With the money I’m making, I have been able to let my mother finally leave her job doing embroidery. I did embroidery myself when I had to help my family. But it feels very good that I can help them through my weightlifting now,” he says.