It’s a humid Saturday afternoon when we set out to meet Chitharesh Natesan, the first ever Indian to be crowned Mr Universe. We don’t know exactly where he lives—all we have is a vague idea of where his house might be in the city of Ernakulam in Kerala. When we ask his manager for a more specific location, he laughs. “You are coming to meet Mr Universe! What else do you need to know?,”
When we stop at a small tea shop to ask them whether they know Chitharesh’s house, we discover the manager is right. The directions couldn’t be more specific. There are huge posters of Chitharesh lining either side of the street where he lives.
At his house, there are 75 of us, all waiting to meet the 33-year-old, who won the Mr Universe title at the World Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Federation’s (WBPF) Championship held in South Korea earlier this month. Most of the crowd comprise children from a local school in Vaduthala, the Ernakulam suburb where Chitharesh grew up and his parents still live. They’ve all come to see the man who has put Kerala on the map, one of their teachers says. The little boys carefully hold the bouquet they’ve brought along to give him.
When you say hello to Chitharesh, what strikes you the most are his bright, shiny eyes and the sparkle in them. He’s dressed casually in a white t-shirt and blue jeans, has an open smile and is gracious. He takes the time to speak to everyone and lets the children feel his 20-inch biceps. They ask him what he eats. “40 eggs, a kilogram of chicken, fish, protein shake, supplements and vegetables. All in a day,” he says.
He’s been on this diet for nearly a year now. “There’s only so much you can do with eggs—boil them, make an omelette or as bhurji or scrambled; chicken can only be had in so many ways,” he says. “Of course it’s difficult, and there are limitations to what you can and can’t eat, but there’s no option. I just have to do it”.
This is how much Chitharesh’s food intake has been since January this year. He has been in the gym three times a day working out for five hours, honing that Mr Universe physique. “I have a team of people who work with me,” he says.
The team includes head trainer Sagar MP, doctors, nutritionists, physiotherapists and masseuse. Such is his training regime that he has neither been out to a party for a year, nor eaten out even once in that time. “The consideration is what if I get a stomach bug? That’d mean missing a training session, which I’d hate to happen,” he says. He doesn’t drink either. “If you eat home-cooked, healthy food, you’ll be all right health-wise,” he says. “It’s when you eat and drink junk that your health suffers”.
Even when he isn’t getting ready for a competition, Chitharesh trains six days a week, an hour-and-a-half a day.
“You won’t believe how much I spend a month on training,” he says (the answer is Rs 1 lakh). “That’s how much it takes to train for Mr Universe, and most of it goes towards diet.”
Chitharesh wasn’t always a bodybuilder. He played hockey while studying for a BA in History from Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam. In fact, he was so competent as a player that he went on to represent Kerala in tournaments. It was while he was doing a second graduation in Physical Education (PE) at the Laxmibai National College of Physical Education in Thiruvananthapuram that things began to turn. “After graduating, I got a job as a personal trainer in Delhi. I couldn’t play hockey any longer”.
That was 2007, the year he started to take weight training seriously.
He has come a long way since then. He’s got the nickname the Indian Monster, for starters. He has celebrity fans in cricketers such as Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir, who have both tweeted their support for him after the Mr Universe win in the 90 kg category. “That has to be the highlight moment of this win—the cricketing God himself posting about me,” he laughs as he shows off the shoutout.
Chitharesh’s father Natesan KK pulls us away from the conversation. His mother, Nirmala has made us orange squash. We’re all sweaty and thirsty in the humidity. The low tin ceiling of the house makes the heat worse.
“I want to build my parents a new house as soon as possible,” says Chitharesh.
The house was once a cowshed. Now, a part of it has been turned into living quarters for the family, which consists of five people—Chitharesh’s parents, uncle and two aunts. In the backyard are six cows.
“I was a peon in a private firm for 28 years,” his father Natesan says. “But we have also always sold milk. That helped financially”.
Chitharesh’s mother remembers that as a boy, he used to help tend to the cows and deliver milk packets. “He was naughty and also sporty. He was focused on hockey,” she says. “He used to leave home early to play. He wasn’t good at studies but somehow managed to pass the exams,” she laughs.
The other thing Chitharesh is good is at is dancing. “I used to love dancing in college. I kept that up when I moved to Delhi,” he says. He shows us a quick Latin dance step. “My wife and I both love dancing”.
Chitharesh’s wife Nasiba Nurtaeva is from Uzbekistan. They married in 2016 after meeting in Delhi. You can see he is devoted to her. “Nasiba is my biggest motivator and support. She takes care of everything from my diet to my mental state,” he says.
Chitharesh is travelling from Delhi to Kerala and back on a very hectic schedule. “She comes everywhere with me,” he says. Today, however, she’s having a day off.
There are three very important things needed for a bodybuilder to become Mr Universe.
“Working out, eating well and no stress whatsoever,” Chitharesh lists them. His parents and his wife each play their role in a quiet way.
“While I was training for Mr Universe, I stayed put in Delhi. I didn’t travel to Kerala to see my parents,” he says. “Sometimes, I wasn’t able to send them money either. They never complained. They understand that I need peace of mind to stay focused on my goal”.
We talk about why it’s important for bodybuilders to stay positive and motivated. “I have a strong support system from my wife, my parents, friends, relatives, neighbours,” he says. “But I’ve also come across bodybuilders who have no support whatsoever; their parents don’t get what they’re doing”. It often ends in tragedy, he tells us. “I’ve seen talented people suffering from depression because nobody gets them. Or they start to drink heavily and fall off the wagon”.
Chitharesh’s father Natesan takes us around to have a look around at the neighbourhood where he grew up. There’s a Ganesha temple which is the centre of all activity in the community. The houses are off the road so there’s plenty of room for the children to play. As we walk around, some of Chitharesh’s friends laugh and joke with his dad. There’s an air of friendly familiarity.
“We used to swim in the temple pond,” says Sujith Sunil, who’s known Chitharesh since he was a boy. “What’s made him successful is that he always wanted to do well, raise his standard. Even as the school hockey team captain, he was a role model to us all. That mindset is really the crux of it.”
This ability to stay focused, extremely disciplined and work hard day after day is what made Chitharesh Mr Universe. This isn’t the first time either that he’s won a major title. He was Mr Delhi and Mr India from 2015 to 2018. In September this year, he won the prestigious International Bodybuilding and Fitness Foundation (IBFF) Mr Asia crown in Indonesia. He also won the Mr Asia Pacific 2019 title in Thailand in August.
But life hasn’t been rosy all the time. There have been failures along the way too. In 2012, a week before a major competition, he contracted a muscle infection. “It was so severe that I was bed-ridden for two months. I stopped training and gave up bodybuilding,” he says. “But somewhere deep down was this passion to do something and I couldn’t run away from that”.
Chitharesh is now posing for a television channel. He whips off his tight white t- shirt and is now doing a front double biceps pose. You know where you flex your biceps and point the elbows out. Yeah, that one.
“What the judges look for is your muscle size, body proportion, muscle conditioning and muscle sharpness,” he explains as he does a back double biceps pose, where we all get to see his back and triceps muscles. There are seven mandatory poses for body building competitions. We’ve seen two today.
Chitharesh has a hectic weekend ahead. He’s been invited to open gyms and to be felicitated by various organisations. Everybody is proud of him and his achievement. “I’d like to participate in the Mr Universe competition again next year, be part of the Indian team,” he says. “India has some of the finest bodybuilders in the world. We’re hardworking and take it seriously. That’s why Indian bodybuilders are now being recognised on the world stage”.
We take our leave. Just as we part, Chitharesh says that all he wants is a government job. “That is it really. A government job will make my life easier,” he says. “I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for my training or helping my parents because the money will come in regularly. I also know that they encourage you to train and participate in competitions while holding on to a job. That’s all I want.”