Curling his biceps and wiping the sweat from his brow, Aditya ‘Romeo’ Dev is like any other bodybuilder working out in the gym. But in fact, Romeo isn’t. He’s officially the World’s Smallest Body Builder, standing a tiny 84 centimetres tall and weighing just 10 kilograms – the same as a year-old baby.
Instead of letting his lack of height and weight get in his way, Romeo has used it to his advantage. As Guinness World Records’ smallest muscleman, he is world famous for his extraordinary ability to lift weights considering his tiny frame and he now travels the globe touring theatres and appearing on television.
“I’m just like anyone else my age really,” Romeo shrugs. “I’m restricted in a lot of ways but I’m a fighter. I like to try and live a pretty normal life.”
Romeo was born a month premature and was just 15 centimetres long and weighed 800 grams. He spent his first two months in a hospital incubator while his father Anil Dev Sharma and mother Rakesh Bala from Phagwara, Punjab, India, kept a bedside vigil praying their first son would survive.
Anil, 53, who works as a government teacher, says: “He was too small to hold. We faced a lot of problems – he was very weak. We were absolutely devastated.”
After months confined to a hospital ward, Romeo began to show signs of good health and became stronger. Eventually the family was allowed to take their baby home. But a few months later Anil and Rakesh, 49, noticed Romeo wasn’t growing.
“We took him back to the doctor wondering what was wrong,” Anil says. “They did several tests and came to the conclusion that his mother had suffered a dengue attack – a viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes which can be life-threatening if shock sets in – during pregnancy and it had stopped his growth hormones from developing.”
It was now confirmed; Romeo was born a primordial dwarf, which meant he was in proportion but tiny, and would always be like that. His growth was stunted and nothing could cure it. It is a rare genetic disorder, with only 100 sufferers in the world. Worse was to come – his life expectancy was around 30 years.
“We didn’t really know how to feel,” Anil says. “At first we were devastated – what did the future hold? But then I had this belief that whatever God does is good and we must accept it happily.”
There were practical problems to deal with as well as their emotions. At first they couldn’t find any clothes to fit him and had to rely on pieces of material, hand stitched until they found a tailor to help. “We didn’t leave the house for a long time,” Anil adds. “We couldn’t face people’s stares or comments. We felt so isolated.”
As the years passed Romeo remained healthy but became a complete recluse. Even though he began to walk and talk normally at 18 months, people still saw him as a ‘freak’.
Restricted to his home, he spent his childhood watching hours of television and listening to music. He had a few friends, as well as his normally developed sister Meenakshi, now 25, and younger brother Ashish, now 18, but he feared he’d be taunted for being a dwarf if he left the house.
Anil says: “He began to love the Punjabi pop singer, Jazzy B. That’s all he listened to and so he decided to change his name after his song, Romeo. We thought ‘why not, if it keeps him happy?’”
Romeo’s parents sent him to school at the age of six and he attended for a few years but he found it hard to learn and integrate. He couldn’t pass any tests and had no interest in studying – but he did make a lot of friends and was popular among his peers.
“He went to school for five years but he didn’t develop,” Anil says. “He can barely read or write now. We wanted him to study and help better his future but it seemed it was beyond his mental capabilities.”
Taking the first step
So Romeo ended up watching TV all day, every day again, but his love for music ended up changing everything. In 2005 Anil’s friend, who runs a Punjabi folk-dancing group, saw Romeo dancing in his bedroom.
The friend asked Anil if Romeo wanted to join the group, and Romeo agreed. He loved nothing more than to dance to his favourite songs, and with an audience it was even better.
The members of the group were happy to let take centre stage. Soon, people were paying to come and see Romeo dance. He became an overnight celebrity in his hometown.
He began going to his local gym to keep fit so his dancing could improve. When gym owner Ranjeet Pal saw him he offered to help him train. For two months, Pal and Romeo worked hard doing basic exercises like aerobics, push-ups and gymnastics, even using lightweight 1.5-kilogram dumbbells to tone his little triceps, biceps, calves and thighs.
Romeo says, “I love going to the gym. I felt stronger and fit. It was good.”
Entering the record books
Romeo managed to gain one kilogram and it helped him feel good about himself.
His family realised how special his bodybuilding was and entered him into India’s Limca Book of Records. This attracted a lot of media attention and in 2006 Romeo made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s smallest bodybuilder.
He went on to travel to the UK, US, Japan, Finland and South Korea and was interviewed by all their television channels. His pictures also appeared in all the international newspapers.
“To date he’s had about 12 films made about him,” Anil says. “Our lives now revolve around Romeo. From looking after him to managing his clients, it’s a full-time job.”
The last six years have brought Romeo and his family fortune as well as fame. On average Romeo earns about seven lakh (Dh45,800) a year from his performances and appearances. Last year the family was able to build a new home worth 50 lakh with Romeo’s earnings from his new-found fame.
An unrequited wish
Anil says of Romeo, “He doesn’t talk much, he says a few words but he finds it hard due to his undeveloped brain. He likes to take care of himself where possible and chooses his own clothes and cleans his room. He’s God’s gift, very innocent.”
But at age 23 Romeo now sees his friends making marriage plans and building a future and he would also like to have a wife one day.
Rakesh says: “I would love him to marry eventually but it’s hard to find someone who will accept him. I need a wife for him who will care for him as I do and understand his needs, but it’s hard.”
Romeo says he likes foreign women with long hair but finds it hard to meet anyone. “It’s hard to find someone to marry me. I’d like someone like my mum, she looks after me well. But when, I don’t know.”
His parents aren’t sure if Romeo understands what marriage really is. “But he’s asked us to find him a wife so we’re trying,” Anil says.
Living with the threat of death
But behind Romeo’s success and popularity, there is a darker reality. Thanks to a documentary team. in 2008 Romeo went to a US specialist and found a cerebral aneurysm on his brain – a cerebrovascular disorder in which weakness in the wall of a cerebral artery or vein causes a localised dilation of the blood vessels.
They also diagnosed Moyamoya syndrome, – a disease where certain arteries in the brain are constricted. Blood flow is blocked by the constriction, causing blood clots.
Doctors have warned that the aneuyrism could burst without warning at any time, leading to a fatal stroke.
Romeo has been advised to avoid dancing and weightlifting but he continues because it’s his main enjoyment in life.
He still gets asked to make appearances at weddings and parties and sometimes he can be working for six days a month.
Anil says, “He had several tests in the US and doctors suggested he have brain surgery. But the chances of survival were slim; we couldn’t risk it… We know he could die any time but as long as he’s happy now we won’t stop him living life to the full. Life and death is in the hands of God. I want my son to live happily while he is still with us.”