This five-time world champion hand-fed her twin sons, did the dishes, and mopped her hands before she shook mine. Her handshake was self-assured and heart-warm, with just a touch of lingering moistness. It spoke reams about Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom.In the year that women boxed for the first time at the Olympics, we haven’t stopped gushing about Mary’s hard-won bronze. London 2012 threw her an unsettling gauntlet: the lowest admitted weight category in the Olympics was 51 kg. Mary, who had won one silver and five gold world championship titles in the now defunct pinweight (below 46 kg) and light flyweight (45-48 kg) categories, weighed in at a shade under 51. And this after she had beefed up to add three kilograms to her petite, 5’2” frame. She had boxed in the 51-kg flyweight category once before – at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China – and won bronze.
In London this August she gamely took on opponents naturally taller and heavier than herself, outpunching them with the traits for which she is feared and respected in the ring – inherent aggression, lithe footwork, and organic power. First she wore down Karolina Michalczuk of Poland 19-14 and then routed Maroua Rahali of Tunisia 15-6 in the quarter-finals. In the semis the southpaw from India met her old nemesis Nicola Adams of Great Britain, who had subdued her challenge at the 2012 AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championship in Qinhuangdao, China. That, incidentally, was the first year since the championship began that Mary returned without a medal. August 8, 2012, India’s hopes for a maiden gold in women’s boxing sank as the bigger, stronger Briton overwhelmed Mary. We bit back tears when she exhaled a prayer of gratitude to Jesus Christ. We broke down when she apologized for not winning gold. But our hearts thumped with joy, our chests swelled with pride. Magnificent Mary, our invincible Spartan who had returned to the ring only a year after she was delivered of twins by Caesarean section, who had boxed three kilos above her weight category, who had risen leagues above humble birth and grinding poverty, was victorious even in defeat.
Olympic glory sits light on the feisty 29-year-old heroine for whom home, like the ring, is an equal fief. This Mary takes on household chores bare-knuckled. This Mary is wife, mother and woman of the house. This Mary buzzes with the inexhaustible vitality of an Energizer bunny, her clear, high voice crooning hosannas in her vernacular Kom dialect.
This is the Mary we have come to discover.
Indian Standard Time seems an unfair imposition on Manipur, one of India’s most easterly states where night falls at 5 pm. Rameshwar, our taxi driver, keeps up a continuous socio-political commentary that shifts fluidly from broken Hindi to broken English as he pilots the battered Maruti Omni through ink-dark streets pocked with pale circles of light from low-voltage emergency lamps. In April power supply went prepaid but rationing is erratic. As we bump along in darkness, the air is suddenly damp, a whiff of stale garbage assaults us, and there is an acrid reek of smouldering plastic. The taxi’s headlamps sweep past a landfill in a swamp. Approaching a police checkpoint ahead, Rameshwar turns on the lights in the car. Duty guards with guns shine flashlights into our faces, peer into the car, and nod for us to pass.
Mary’s government quarters at Langol Games Village, on the fringe of Imphal, is not hard to locate. It is the sole building in the locality to benefit from round-the-clock power supply; the rest of the neighbourhood roils in darkness. Electricity is a hard-earned reward for Mary’s achievements; like the corrugated tin watchtower and the heavily armed policemen outside her home, it is also a drastic security measure in the wake of the uneasy political situation prevailing in Manipur.
We wait in the drawing room, glancing in anticipation at the diaphanous white curtain that screens the kitchen from view. The clatter of dishes we hear is her doing, as is the gentle chiding to her sons as they fuss over dinner. The aroma of food – tantalising, pungent and unidentifiable to our untrained palates – wafts to the modest living room where we sip scalding, milky tea gratefully on a December evening that creeps deep into our bones. The chill is endurable; the tension less so. But wait we must, for Mommy is stirring up something delicious.
“When Mary is at home, I can relax,” her husband Onkholer Kom, 38, tells us with a confiding smile. “I can get up at 8 or 9 if I want. When she is away, I’m up by 5:30 AM to feed the kids and send them to school.”
Onler to his friends, this slightly built, reflective, Buddha-like man is the cornerstone of Mary’s support system. “I am the Home Minister,” he describes himself proudly, giving in to an uncustomary expression of mirth.
Freed from the dinner table, their five-year-old identical twins troop into the living room and eye us with interest. “Say hello to Uncle,” Onler goads them. Rechungvar and Khupneivar slip their shy little hands in mine. The walls are festooned with their pencil scrawls – we pick out Ben 10, X-Men and one rather impressive portrait of Wolverine with claws drawn menacingly. With a little encouragement they produce others scribbled in their school exercise books. Clearly, their study hours have been spent productively.
“So sorry... it was their dinner time. And they have exam day after tomorrow...”
Muttering apologies in halting but confident English, Mary appears in the doorway in a short-sleeved powder-blue tee and an ankle-length, leaf-green phanek – a length of handwoven cloth that Manipuri women wrap elegantly around the waist. In the flesh, she is the antithesis of our expectations. This is not the sinewy, pugnacious warrior of the ring or the keen-eyed, jaw-clenching pugilist whose every hook and jab we cheered on television. This is a youthful, cheerful lady of the house, all hospitality and grace, urging us to have another cookie. Her broad, frank smile glows with relaxed pride. Her smooth arms are toned, not muscle-bound. Her fingernails, painted a glossy, brilliant scarlet, have enjoyed the undivided attention of a most diligent manicurist – herself. She looks content as would any mother who has just stuffed her children to satiation.
And why shouldn’t she? Any homemaker in Imphal with a functioning cooking gas cylinder in her kitchen would feel the way she does. Last year, when rebels enforced a blockade in Manipur and cut off essential supplies, Mary joined thousands of misfortunate but determined mothers in cooking their family’s meals over woodfires.
With that knowledge it’s hard to utter a platitude when Mary asks casually, “What do you think of Imphal?”
To fathom the depth of Mary’s achievement we must unearth her roots to Imphal, to Manipur, to her pastoral village of Kangathei with its jhum (slash-and-burn) paddy fields, to her barely known Kom tribe. We hit our first impediment in our profound ignorance of not just Manipur but the seven northeast states.
While training in Delhi or just walking the streets, athletes from the northeast encounter racist jibes. Sometimes they are taken to be Nepali housemaids. Their Mongoloid features invite taunts of “Oi chinki!”
“They don’t understand who we are,” Mary says, rather charitably. “Sometimes they say things like ching-chong-ching-chong – I don’t know what that means. Yes, our face is different, our language is different. But we are not Chinese. We are Indian.”
Perhaps, Mary wonders, these attitudes might change just a little after her Olympic medal. “Maybe they will respect Northeast people. Maybe they will understand,” she says.
It’s a malaise that ails the best of us. Recall that shortly after Mary won her Olympic bronze, none less than Amitabh Bachchan tweeted his congratulations to the “Mother of two from Assam.”