An Indian and a Pakistani meet over a bar, bond over Sidhu Moose Wala, finish on CWG podium

“You know how it is,” Gurdeep, who won bronze, tells Sportstar from Birmingham. “You put two Punjabis in the same room and baat to ho hi jati hai (they will find something to talk about). And of course, we are friends from before.”

Pakistan’s Nooh Dastgir Butt and India’s Gurdeep Singh secured podium finishes in the men’s 109+kg weightlifting event at the Commonwealth Games.

Pakistan’s Nooh Dastgir Butt and India’s Gurdeep Singh secured podium finishes in the men’s 109+kg weightlifting event at the Commonwealth Games. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

“You know how it is,” Gurdeep, who won bronze, tells Sportstar from Birmingham. “You put two Punjabis in the same room and baat to ho hi jati hai (they will find something to talk about). And of course, we are friends from before.”

After winning gold in the men’s 109+kg competition on Wednesday, Pakistan’s Nooh Dastgir Butt strolled around the warm-up hall at the Birmingham weightlifting center on Wednesday with the swagger you would have if you were officially the strongest man in the Commonwealth Games. As he stomped around, he stopped where India’s Gurdeep Singh was taking off his wrist wraps and wrapped him in a hug followed by a long handshake. Within seconds, the two giant men who weigh in the region of 160kg, throwing hundreds of kilos skyward in a hard-fought battle for the medals just a few minutes ago, were chatting away like the old friends they are.

“You know how it is,” Gurdeep, who won bronze, tells Sportstar from Birmingham. “You put two Punjabis in the same room and baat to ho hi jati hai (they will find something to talk about). And of course, we are friends from before.”

From the time they first met as teenagers, the two have bonded around being Punjabi, the music of Sidhu Moose Wala and that they are amongst the small group of men on the planet who can hoist 220 kilos (Gurdeep’s personal best in the clean and jerk is 223kg while Nooh has lifted 232kg) over their head. “We have been competing together for the last seven years. When we meet, I call him mere Sikh paaji (my Sikh brother) because he’s two years older than me, and he calls me veere,” says the 24-year-old from Gujranwala in Pakistan.

Nooh says he’s friends with most of the Indian team. “I’m also friends with Vikas Thakur and Jerry (Jeremy Lalrinnunga). Most of us follow each other on Instagram. And we all follow each other and appreciate each other,” he says. He’s a fan of Olympic silver medallist Mirabai Chanu too. “Everyone from South Asia in weightlifting is a fan of Mirabai Chanu because she’s the only athlete from here who is a world and Olympic medallist. The feeling is that people from our region don’t do well in weightlifting at the Olympics. They can’t get a medal. But Mirabai did that. She is an inspiration. After I won my gold medal, she came up to me and congratulated me. And I got a picture with her,” he says.

Nooh is a fan of most things Indian. He has been to India twice — for the 2014 Youth Commonwealth Games in Pune and then the South Asian Games in Guwahati in 2016. “I loved coming to India both times. I won gold in both competitions, and the support I got from the crowd was incredible. I wasn’t expecting that I’ll get so much love from India,” he says.

It is Guwahati that he has particularly fond memories of. “Pune is nice, but Guwahati was special. Everything was great. I won the competition there, but I became really attached to the people in whose hotel we were staying. Whatever we would ask them to cook, they did what they could. After I won gold, they gave me the laddoos you get in prasad, the boondi kind. I still remember how good they were. Luckily, I compete in the super heavy category because I must have eaten 10 of them. I got so much love in that city. When we had to leave, the staff started crying,” he recalls.

While Nooh is friends with most of the Indian wrestling team, he has bonded best with fellow Punjabis Vikas Thakur and Gurdeep Singh Dullet.

While Nooh is friends with most of the Indian wrestling team, he has bonded best with fellow Punjabis Vikas Thakur and Gurdeep Singh Dullet. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Of course, there’s a different attachment to Gurdeep, who grew up in Khanna, potentially a five-hour drive from Gujrawanwala across the border where Nooh was born and raised.

“Ji Punjabi me aise baat hoti hai. We have a border running between us, but that’s another matter. Punjab used to be one. He’s from Punjab, and I’m also from Punjab. So, this bonding is easy. We are the same kind of people. Our blood is the same. Our people laugh a lot and are easy to get along. We eat the same things. That’s why it’s pretty easy to get along with each other,” he says.

It helps that they have the same taste in music – that of the late pop singer Sidhu Moose Wala.

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“I don’t think there’s anyone on either side of the border in Punjab who wasn’t a fan of his music,” says Gurdeep. “When we train, we only train to his music,” he says.

The same was true in Gujranwala. “ Ji bohot bada fan hu Sidhu Moose Wala ka. He is a huge inspiration for people in Punjab. He spoke the truth. The things he sang about are those that affected the common man. I was so sad when I heard that he was killed. I couldn’t believe it. The first thing I did when I heard he had passed away was ask Gurdeep what happened and why was he killed,” says Nooh.

Moose Wala though lives on, if only in Nooh and Gurdeep’s workout playlist and on their social media profiles. Multiple videos of practice lifts and competition clips are set to the late singer’s songs. Moose Wala’s 295, for instance, plays over Nooh’s victory in the 2021 Pakistan national championships, where he was coming back from an injury. “If you go through my TikTok, every song A to Z is Moose Wala ke songs. I don’t think I’ll listen to any other Punjabi singer,” says Nooh.

However, even music doesn’t unite them as much as their passion for the iron bar. Both have family in the sport. Gurdeep’s uncle was his first coach, while Nooh is still coached by his father, an international lifter. “There are a lot of people who may listen to the same music or be from the same region. Our weightlifting community is a small one,” says Gurdeep.

That’s pretty true. How many people in the world can honestly clean and jerk 220kg? “The average person doesn’t get why we are so passionate about it. You have to have a certain mind to lift that sort of weight,” says Gurdeep.

This is why while they might talk about music, it’s talking shop that they do most often over messaging apps. “Nooh and I have been competing for 7-8 years. We don’t get to meet very frequently unless it’s for competition. But even otherwise, we talk a lot; we check up on each other. We would ask where are you, and how your training is going along. After the competition, he asked me what happened to my snatch because he thought I could have lifted more,” says Gurdeep.

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And while it’s true that Gurdeep was just shy of his personal best in the snatch lift, for the most part, the two were satisfied with their performance. “In 2018, Gurdeep and I competed with each other (at the Gold Coast Games). Unfortunately, he didn’t get a medal, and I didn’t perform very well either. So, it was disappointing for both of us. This time both of us did our best, and got a medal together. Both of us were very close to our personal bests. When we hugged, I said, ‘finally both of us did it’,” says Nooh.

Nooh is aware that not everyone might be enthused about the fact that he hugged and shook hands with an Indian weightlifter. He doesn’t think there was much to it. “The Oceania countries – Polynesia, Australia and New Zealand – they all support each other a lot. I always think that India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka need to support each other,” he says.

“The problem in our two countries is that we always say ki India se nahi harna or for you Pakistan se nahi harna. (we say that you can’t lose to India or you can’t lose to Pakistan). That’s a wrong thing. Every player comes to win. And both of us came to do our personal best and we did. After that we are friends. Wahi pe baat khatam ho jani chahiye (that’s where the matter should end),” he says. “I want to compete at the Olympics, and so does Gurdeep, but we won’t go at the expense of each other. Each of us has our own fight with the weight on the bar. We are all trying to do our best. Hamari fight ek dusre se nahi hai. Lohe se hi hai” (our fight isn’t with each other, it’s with the iron),” says Nooh.

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For all of that idealism, the fact is that relations are strained between the two countries, which means sporting ties are restricted. Nooh, though, is hopeful he can come and compete in India once again. “Definitely. Definitely, I want to come and compete in India. If I had the chance, I’d really like to come to Punjab,” he says.

Similarly, he too hopes Gurdeep can visit him in Gujranwala. “Once when we were talking, Gurdeep said that near my home in Gujranwala, there were some Sikh Gurdwaras that he wanted to visit. I’ve told him many times - ‘you get over the border, and I’ll bring you here’. You will stay at our house. I’ll feed you also. Inshallah, if he comes here, I’ll take him around Pakistan. Where ever he wants to go, I’ll take him. I’ve told him ki sab kuch karunga but tera kaam hai aana (I’ll do everything. You just get over the border).”

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