After his record-breaking overall lift of 405 kg in the 109 kg-plus category of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, Pakistan’s Muhammad Nooh Dastgir Butt, 25, looked around for the bronze medallist, India’s Gurdeep Singh. This wasn’t the winner of Pakistan’s first gold at these Games being gracious for the camera, but friends wanting to share their moment of glory.
Much later, away from the media gaze, the two would party into the night, sharing their joy with their favourite Sidhu Moosewala songs playing in the background.
The same taste in music as well as a common culture and mother tongue had resulted in the two strongmen, from the two Punjabs on either side of the India-Pakistan border, bonding while competing against each other on the international circuit.
The lifters born 250 km apart — Nooh in Pakistan’s Gujranwala and Gurdeep in Majri Rasulra village in Khanna district — go back a long way. They might have been trying to out-lift each other since their junior days but haven’t allowed cut-throat competition to affect their friendship.
“Gurdeep and I have been very good friends. After the gold, I first congratulated Gurdeep and later we did a small celebration where we danced to Moosewala’s songs,” Nooh tells The Indian Express from Birmingham.
Gurdeep, too, shared the same sentiment. “Nooh and I first met in junior championships six years ago and would share tips about diet. Conversing in Punjabi obviously helped our friendship,” he said.
When not competing, they still remain in touch. Like in May this year, when a worried Nooh called up Gurdeep.
“When I saw the news of Sidhu Moosewala’s death, I messaged Gurdeep to confirm. At my home gym, where I train, I played songs like Jatt Da Muqabla and the recently released Song 295 to set the tempo for my training,” says Nooh, who hails from a family of weightlifters.
From an early age, Nooh had heard stories from his father, Ghulam Dastgir Butt, a 16-time Pakistan national champion, about his travels around the world and the friends he had made in the land they were told was enemy territory.
He would often mention India as a friendly nation where Pakistan players always got a warm welcome. It didn’t conform to the more prevalent narrative of acrimony peddled by the media of the two nations that have fought several wars since Partition.
Butt Senior had visited India in 1987 for the South Asian Federation Games in Kolkata, where he won the gold medal. He is excited to get a call from the other side of the border on a day his son won gold in a competition where India won bronze. The elder Butt takes time from talking to the local media to come on the phone and express his joy in Punjabi.
“I get surprised when people talk that India and Pakistan are born enemies. The amount of love and respect India has given to me, we also love Indian players and Hindustan the same. I often talk with my Indian friends like Manjeet Singh and former Indian Weightlifting Federation secretary Balbir Singh. Actually, my day starts with reading their ‘good morning’ messages,” he says.
Nooh’s India experience, too, wasn’t different from that of his father. “I visited India twice and competed in Pune and Guwahati. The kind of love India has given me, no other country has given me. I have more fans from India than Pakistan in the weightlifting community. When I was leaving the hotel in Guwahati, the staff and volunteers were crying. It made me emotional,” says Nooh.
The father, whose brother Babar Butt too was a reputed weightlifter, says it is unfortunate that stories of Indo-Pak bonhomie don’t get highlighted. “If there is some incident of hate, it gets played up but rarely people talk about stories of friendship between people of two nations.”
On their big day, the Butt household is busy narrating the story about the son.
“Nooh was 12 years old and his younger brother was eight when I made them start weightlifting. Whatever tantrums they put up or how much they cried, I acted as a coach and not as a father. I remember Nooh competed in a tournament at the age of 14 and the barbell fell on his feet and broke the bone. I made him train in a sitting position and do bench press and front press as I did not want him to miss training,” remembers the elder Butt.
Mother Firdaus Dastgir and her two daughters Unsa Dastgir and Sajda Dastgir would never complain. Since Firdaus’s brother Ijaz Butt was also a serious weightlifter, she encouraged her two sons. “My wife understood my coaching and she would never complain as I would take both the boys to training. Later I decided to make the gym at the ground floor of our home as Nooh fell from the motorcycle once,” says the father.
Nooh’s younger brother, Hanzala Dastgir Butt, also competed in the same category as him at the CWG but finished outside the medal bracket.
As for the hard taskmaster father, the goal is to see his son win an Olympic medal. “Inshallah, he can win an Olympic medal but for that he needs to do all the hard work. He can relax by having his favourite biryani for a day in the week apart from having Lays (potato chips) post every meal but we can’t forget the goal,” says the proud father.
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Nooh is also a big fan of Olympic silver medallist Mirabai Chanu. “Apart from my father, I idolise Olympic silver medallist Mirabai Chanu. She is the torchbearer for the whole South Asia and the kind of impact she has made in world weightlifting makes us proud too.”