Saturday, November 29, 2014


Joe's Neighborhood

The champion of Punjab

9/18/2013

joes1The counter must be the problem. The lilting music in the background and the four-foot-tall goddess perched next to the napkins certainly add to the problem. But I’m thinking it’s the counter that prevents you from seeing the waiter clearly.

Paramjeet Singh is on the other side of the counter at India Star restaurant. Placidly he stands. Stolidly. With the hint of a Sumo wrestler. You need to narrow your eyes to take him in without distraction. But you’re soon distracted. Sag paneer. Bengan barth. Chicken Makhany. Self-consciously I place my carryout order. Singh listens patiently. Does he understand English? Can he hear my low voice? Is he writing down that the customer has unusually large ears? He smiles at me. Singh’s smile radiates to his eyes and cheek bones but doesn’t quite make it to his lips.

Raised in Ludhiana, a large city in the Indian state of Punjab, Singh was brought up just like any kid in America. Although, his life did take an unusual turn as a young adult.

“I was around 19 or 20 when I began bodybuilding,” Singh says. “It was my father’s dream that I be a bodybuilder.”

Singh’s father worked in a factory to support his wife and three children. A coworker was a bodybuilder. Singh’s father wanted this for his son.

Des Moines Finest

“Indian men are really small. I was very small. Very skinny. So my father sent me to a gym,” Singh explains softly.

And then, like every story of father and son, both are not on the same page at the same time. Or, as Singh simply states, “I wasn’t interested in bodybuilding.”

Back at India Star, Singh is folding napkins, taking orders on the phone and seating customers. Behind him on the shelf is his personal supply of protein powders and supplements. “Combat Protein Powder” is tucked next to porcelain statutes of Indian gods. Singh has covered all the bases.

As I sip my Taj Mahal, a beer that comes in a bottle the size of the Ruan Center, I ask Singh to join me.

joes2“I don’t drink,” he says. “I have 10 eggs a day. Chicken. Good food. In India, I used to eat 30 eggs. I was so big in India. Sweet potatoes. Fruits.”

So, Singh ignored his father’s request to become a bodybuilder, ignored the coach his father had arranged for him at the gym and started doing “bad things.”

Bad things?

Singh came to America with no English. His sister is married to the talented chef Parvinder (“Baba”) Singh, who owns India Star. For the last six years, he has worked for Baba.

“Baba helped me a lot,” Singh says with real gratitude. Working six days a week at the restaurant, Singh has taught himself English — an amazing feat.

Bad things?

Singh briefly struggled for words and then settled on “fighting with guys.” That works. I get it. It was a troubled time for Singh back in India. The coach at the gym saw Singh heading down this wrong path.

“My coach called me, and I started talking to him,” he explains. “He made me understand so many things.”

To this day, Singh talks frequently to his old coach.

“We talk about old days, bodybuilding and old bodybuilders,” he says. But, 10 years ago, it was this coach who got Singh off the street and devoted to the gym.

“I started regularly at the gym. My mother helped me a lot,” he says. “She woke up at 5 or 6 and cook food all the time. And then I did my study.”

The hard work and devotion paid off. Singh won the Beginner Mr. Ludhiana Bodybuilding Competition. Remember, Ludhiana is a city of over a million and a half people.

“I stood first in that competition. I saw tears in my father’s eyes,” he shares.

joes3Singh became even more dedicated to bodybuilding. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 2005. His father died from a heart attack. This caused Singh to buckle down even more. In 2006, it all paid off. Singh won the Mr. Punjab Bodybuilding Competition. Yes, that’s him with number 94.

ig deal? Well, the State of Punjab is more than 25 million people. This win was serious stuff but also filled with sadness.

“My father’s death made me cry on the stage when they announced,” he says.

After the competition, Singh settled down to coach other bodybuilders. Unfortunately, there was little money to be made in either coaching or selling supplements or any aspect of bodybuilding. So, he followed his sister to Des Moines. And this is where he has been for the last six years.

But now he’s training again. He started four months ago. Six days a week, up to two hours a day. Working at the restaurant and training is all he does. He does not go out. He does not party. He has no romantic interests. Instead, he’s starting to consider competitions.

“Maybe October, I will compete,” he says. And now his smile makes it to his lips. Barely.

And his dream?

joes4“I will stay here the rest of my life. In two and a half years, I will get my citizenship,” he says. “Bodybuilding is for my life. As for money, I need just enough. Just enough for my family and me.”

Every month, Singh sends part of his earnings home to his mother. But the mention of his mother causes Singh to look away and then look back up, giving me that enigmatic smile.

“I am homesick sometimes. Old days, old friends,” he says.

A bell rings. My food is ready. I collect my carryout from my side of the counter. And the champion of Punjab? He is on to the next customer. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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