What comes to mind when you think of bodybuilding? Chiselled pecs, washboard abs and hours of training in the place of that endless cycle of Netflix-and-Chill that us lesser mortals get ourselves trapped in? In the case of Soumen Halder, it’s all that and more—packaged into one big story of courage and ridiculous amounts of perseverance.
33-year-old Halder from the Indian city of Kolkata in West Bengal has had paralytic polio since he was a toddler, leaving him with no motor function below the waist. “I was given expired polio drops,” he tells VICE. India accounted for nearly half of all cases of polio in the world till as recently as 2009, and was considered one of the most difficult places in the world to eradicate the highly infectious viral disease. “I was just a year old at the time. I remember my mom telling me when I was young that I ran the risk of losing all my limbs. Luckily, I survived but lost my legs.”
When Halder turned 17, a friend called him over to a local gym he ran to show him photos of disabled bodybuilders pumping iron that he had chanced upon. “He told me I needed to defeat them, and I felt like I finally found my purpose. I started working out there, but my friends would ask me to leave the gym because they’d be embarrassed to see me working out next to them.” Halder’s mother advised him to carry on regardless of what others thought, so he just switched his training schedule and continued doing what most people around him couldn’t understand.
As he trained harder, Halder’s diet became more demanding. He required more protein in his diet, which was too expensive for him to afford. “My mother didn’t complain and started doing odd jobs to afford it. She was the only support I had,” he says. But just months before Halder would win a state championship in 2016, his mother passed away. “She is not around to see my success, and that stings me every day.” He went on to win second place in the Mr India championship by the World Fitness Federation in 2018, and the top spot at the Asia Pacific Championship in 2019.
Halder trains other people in bodybuilding as well. When his first student approached him in 2011 for training, he agreed and charged him a mere 50 rupees ($0.69). “That student won championships across India and Asia and later qualified in the Indian Armed Forces. After him, I was motivated to teach more students.”
Halder trains his students in traditional gyms called akharas. Over 20 students train with him for hours for almost all days of the week. “I try to give my students the kind of support I missed out on during training. I'd never want anyone to go through that.” To make ends meet, Halder works as a labour contractor for the state government too. “There’s a lack of support in India when it comes to sports, especially bodybuilding. Everybody seems to respect only cricketers,” he adds with a sigh, adding how his ultimate dream is to open his own gym someday. “I’d love to pass down all I’ve learnt over the years and help the next generation in this profession.”
To get a glimpse into his life, check out the works of Kolkata-based photographer and former sports player, Avijit Ghosh, who’s captured him as he goes about his day. “I have seen the struggle of sportsmen in India due to lack of resources up close,” Ghosh tells VICE. “I wanted to capture human resilience and then I found Soumen on Facebook. I knew right away that this was a project I wanted to cover. The months I spent with him taught me so much. His optimistic attitude possibly comes from seeing a lot of hardship early in his life. I hope I can show the world what he's been through and how he's changing the bodybuilding scene.”