I had been away from home for two years by now. As supportive as my parents had been, they were simple folk. I often wished for someone I could turn to for support and guidance when things got complicated or lonely – personally as well as professionally. I was spending more and more time away from home. Very often, I couldn’t return even for Christmas. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make, but it did get lonely. My only friends were from the world of boxing.
I had given up my studies for the sport. The only languages I knew were Manipuri and my own Kom language. Outside Manipur, I became acutely conscious of my inability to communicate effectively in either Hindi or English.
It was at just such a time that I met Onler Kom, and though I didn’t know it then, it was a meeting that would change my life completely. I was in Delhi during a training session in 2000 when Onler and a friend of his came to see me. He was then the president of the Kom-Rem Students’ Union in Delhi and was pursuing a degree in Law. He was responsible for the welfare of Kom students in Delhi, one of the most popular destinations for students from the Northeast. Onler had been entrusted with the charge of looking me up and informing me about the union and its activities.
I was quite surprised to hear that I had a visitor, because I didn’t know anybody in Delhi. We shook hands and spoke a little. He was much older than me, and I thought of him almost as a concerned, older brother. Before he left, he told me that I must get in touch with him if I needed any help.
When there was a break in the camp, I called Onler to let him know that I was going home. I asked him if he wanted anything from Manipur. He was surprised that I had called, and with an offer not a request. I brought back some homemade food and dry fish, and went to the house he had rented in Munirka to give it to him. At the time, I was only repaying his gesture of friendship to me in a strange city where I knew no one.
But what really deepened our friendship was his concern about my lost passport when I was in Hisar. He followed up the progress back in Manipur, and as soon as the passport reached Delhi, set off to deliver it to me. I came to regard him truly as an older brother and guardian then.
I began confiding in him and sharing my worries, and explained to him how my parents struggled to send me Rs 1,000 every month. I told him how they would sometimes neglect my siblings’ school fees to send me the money I needed. My brother and sister would have to face the humiliation of standing outside their classrooms and not being able to appear for their exams.
Onler advised me to be frugal and suggested ways in which I could save money. Being a sports lover himself, Onler understood the depth of my passion for boxing and encouraged me to do my best. I looked forward to meeting him now and then. I also met his friends Benhur, Ahao and Paul, his cousin Boite and several others every time I visited Delhi for training camps or on the way to tournaments elsewhere. In the company of Onler and his friends, I felt less homesick.
Onler’s support before I left for Pennsylvania in 2001 was another strong base for our friendship. When I returned with the silver, we grew closer. I knew that his concern for my well being was sincere. I liked the attention he showered on me and often sought his advice. He was my emotional anchor.
My life was an unending series of tours and training sessions. I had little time to socialize. On Sundays, when I had a little free time, Onler and I would meet, and we’d eat a home-cooked meal with friends and relatives. It was very de-stressing for me. We shared a language and background, which helped me relax in Onler’s company. He was closely following my career and wanted to help me reach as far as I could. Onler only had sage advice and cautionary words for me.
He was nursing a broken heart those days after a long-term relationship ended, and told me as much frankly. There were times he wanted to return home, because his mother had passed away. But his father urged him to pursue higher studies, so he had enrolled in the Law course.
Meanwhile, women’s boxing was becoming a popular sport. In 2003, I received the Arjuna Award, which was a huge boost for my career. With this, my ratings in the marriage market shot up too. Back home, young and old suitors began to approach my parents. In my work sphere too, I began to get a lot of unwanted attention from admirers. All of this made me restless and uncomfortable. I spoke to Onler about the situation.
‘Mary, why are you getting all these proposals? Are you interested in marriage?’ he asked me.
I was stuck for an answer. Marriage was not on my agenda; all I wanted to do was to play and win. I also wanted with all my heart to participate in the Olympics, whenever women’s boxing became a recognized sport there.
Onler was worried that I would give up my career once I got married, as was common among women sportspersons. I was startled that he would say such a thing. I thought he, of all people, understood that the ‘gold medal haul’ (as people were calling it those days) was not easy at all. I had put everything else in my life aside to spend five or six hours every day working out and keeping fit. I practised my techniques with single-minded devotion, fought bouts in the ring with different sparring partners, threw punches on the bags to perfect my jabs. Then there was the fact that I was constantly travelling, getting ready for one championship or the other. The level of competition rose with every tournament. I couldn’t afford to be caught off-guard even for the National Championships. Where was the time for romance?
I did not realize that Onler was being updated with news from home. He was upset with the fact that so many proposals were coming in for me. I began to sense a change in his attitude. He was worried that my parents would accept a proposal without my consent and force me into a marriage. His imagination went wild. He even believed that someone might use black magic to charm me. That particular fear was rooted in the fact that Koms were believed to be experts in black magic. Before the advent of Christianity, using charms and magic was the way of life among our tribe. While we do brush aside these stories as just folklore, traces of the old culture linger. Onler felt compelled by the need to protect me. A wrong partner would definitely be the end of my career. Since I was young and quite naïve, he feared that I would be swayed by the attentions of these suitors. It wasn’t unheard of for sportspeople to have romantic affairs.
I was touched by his concern. We had been close for a few years, and he understood my temperament, my whims and fears, my passion for boxing, my need to defend my title. Simply put, he felt he knew me best.
What I didn’t realise was that Onler’s feelings for me had gone through a sudden transformation, almost like the switching on of a light. He wanted to be more than a friend or an older brother. Having made up his mind to reveal his feelings for me, he invited Jenny and me to lunch on Sunday. Jenny is a boxer from Mizoram and a good friend of mine. We were always together in most camps. Like any other lunch get-together at his place, we cooked our favourite dishes. After a great meal, we chatted and joked until it was time for Jenny and me to leave. When I returned to the hostel, Onler called, which was highly unusual. I wondered if I’d left something behind.
‘Have you reached the hostel safely?’ he asked.
‘Yes? Did you have something to say?’
Long pause. ‘May I say something?’
‘Yes, of course, Onler. Do say what you need to.’
Long pause again.
By now, I was beginning to feel very impatient. ‘Say it. What is it? I am all ready to listen.’ Maybe he wants to make a declaration of love, I thought to myself, smiling. But I was also beginning to get tired of holding a silent phone.
Then, mustering all the courage he had, Onler said, ‘I think you should understand what I’m trying to say even if I don’t speak the words out loud.’
With that he put the phone down. I was very surprised. When Onler was quiet and hesitant, I had an inkling of what he wanted to say. I expected him to say the magic words – ‘I love you’ – but they never came. I would later joke with Onler that he proposed to me on the phone, that too without actually saying anything.
But this sudden change in him threw me off. Now that I was conscious of his feelings for me, I was embarrassed about meeting him. I avoided him for a long time. Finally, he rang up Jenny to enquire about me and invited us both for lunch. Blissfully ignorant, Jenny happily accepted. I was reluctant to go, but she was so insistent that I had to tag along eventually. I was nervous because I’d be seeing Onler after a long time. I felt my heart beating loudly like a drum and wondered whether people could actually hear it. Through lunch, I was mostly quiet. I no longer felt as free as I did before. Once we were done with lunch, Jenny and I prepared to leave. Onler whispered to me, ‘Please think about my proposal.’
It certainly did keep me thinking. I played out various scenarios in my head, like I would with my boxing matches – the moves, hits, punches, perfect deliveries. I did not doubt Onler’s affection and care. He helped me in every way he could. He understood and supported my passion for sports. He knew about my humble background and did not put me down for it. Onler understood the world around us better than I did. We were from the same community. Everything blended well with my own ideas and aspirations. What more do I need, I asked myself.
Then one day, he visited me alone and took me out for a ‘talk’. Over a cup of tea, he explained why he had proposed to me. ‘I want to protect your career, and that is one of the main reasons for my proposal,’ he declared. I didn’t say anything, and he took that for a yes: ‘I want to meet your parents. Will they accept me? If I go and ask for your hand in marriage, will they agree? If I offer to boil tea for them, will your father drink it in acceptance of the proposal?’ He said it all so rapidly that it took me a while to understand the full import of what he was saying. He was proposing marriage.
For a while I was stumped. Then my mind was racing. A friendship and a relationship I could handle, but I didn’t think I was ready for marriage then, or to make a lifetime commitment. I was in my early twenties. My career looked promising. I had a busy schedule of tours and training. It was hard for me to think beyond boxing. How would marriage fit into my life?
On the other hand, in Onler I had found a soul mate who understood my ambition. I did need someone by my side to help me and anchor me emotionally. Someone like him. As I thought about it, my feelings too took a complete U-turn. It just happened.
Onler had not taken the trouble to woo me with roses. There were no romantic dinners, long walks and chit-chats. He was a straightforward person who laid out facts, like a boxer delivering punches to the face. Perhaps that’s what won me over. His actions spoke louder than his words. I had to give him an answer. Then I had to tell my parents.
If Onler’s proposal was unromantic, my response was just as prosaic. ‘Will you let me continue playing?’
He took my hand and, holding it, looked into my eyes as he made a promise. ‘I will never come between you and your career.’
Onler called his father to share the news with him. He asked if his dad knew ‘Mary Kom, the woman boxer from Kangathei’. Onler’s father said he knew my grandparents, and that Onler’s mother was closely related to my grandfather. We realized then that we shared a common root and fate had brought us together.
Onler’s father was against the idea of our relationship. And my parents would be another matter altogether. I had known Onler since 2001, but my parents had never met him. Our courtship was conducted in Delhi.
Knowing my father’s temper, I was scared to break the news to him. My career was beginning to look up and my financial situation had improved. My parents were bound to think that marriage would be the end of my ambition. So, even though Onler kept pressuring me to meet my parents, I kept putting it off.
Sure enough, when I finally mustered the courage to tell them, Apa told me stop seeing Onler and concentrate on my sport without the bother and hindrance of a marriage. I pleaded with him to meet Onler before he passed judgement on him.
So far, when the many proposals kept pouring in, Apa had resolutely turned them down. He wanted me to focus only on my boxing and to improve my ratings. Naturally, he wasn’t happy with Onler’s proposal either.
Finally in 2004, Onler and I decided to go to Manipur and face the music. He wanted to meet my parents first, before his father went to meet them. What if they refuse, I asked him. He paid no heed and prepared to meet them by himself. I informed my parents that he would be visiting.
He took a public transport bus from his village to Moirang and walked two-and-a-half kilometres to my house in Kangathei. He describes it as a long, hot journey. Anu received him at the gate and brought him in. But Apa’s countenance changed to a ‘deathly look’ (as Onler puts it) upon seeing him.
‘Who are you?’ Apa asked.
‘I am Onler, son of Rekhupthang Karong, chief of Samu Lamlan village.’
‘You …,’ my father paused to control his rage, ‘are you thinking of putting an end to my daughter’s career? Why are you disturbing her? Are you showing me disrespect?’ My father was not pleased with Onler’s visit and did not bother with playing the gracious host. Without even looking at the visitor’s face, he continued, ‘Don’t follow my daughter around. If you don’t help her, there will be others who will. I don’t want you acting smart, trying to convince me.’
I felt sorry for Onler, because my father did not give him a chance to speak. Finally, patiently, he explained that he truly loved and cared for me. He wanted to marry me and take care of me, even if it meant putting his own career on the line. He had even given up his job in Customs and Excise to be near me.
Apa was not convinced by all this. As Onler stood up to leave, my father coldly told him not to send his parents across for any negotiations. Anu was very upset with Apa’s behaviour, and so was I. But I knew better than to expect anything else of him. Anu and I walked a short distance with Onler, who pleaded with her once again to understand his true intentions. He wanted to be by my side, especially because I was often travelling by bus or train and it could be unsafe for a young girl. ‘What if someone forcibly abducts her and marries her?’ he asked. Anu was supportive and asked him to send his parents to our house for the ‘talk’. She promised that she would do her best to convince Apa. Her kind words lifted his spirits as he made his way back to his own village.
The traditional manner in which a boy’s family asks for a girl’s hand in marriage is by boiling tea in the girl’s house This is done thrice before the date of the wedding is finalized. The first time Onler’s parents came, my maternal uncle welcomed them warmly. The first boiling-tea session is usually a hush-hush affair, to be done only by two or three members of the boy’s family – usually only the parents. If the girl’s parents accept the proposal, they drink the tea. When Onler’s father came to my house with a few family members, Apa did not even allow them to enter the house.
Apa’s childish behaviour embarrassed, upset and angered me. I left home and went to a friend’s place. My parents searched all over, but couldn’t find me. They became frantic. Anu even called Onler to enquire. He was so worried that he borrowed a scooter and rushed to Moirang. Unable to enter my house, he sent someone to ask if I had returned. By then I had. He then went back to Imphal, where his sister lives.
Early next morning, I packed a few of my things and went to Imphal. I intended to elope with Onler. I was still angry and felt let down by my father.
‘Let’s get married, with or without my parents’ approval. And then let’s go to Delhi,’ I told Onler.
He calmed me down, and said, ‘Mary, you are the eldest. You should not act like this. I am also the last one in my family to get married. We should not disgrace our families.’
By then, my mother had come to take me back home. Anu knew that Onler was in Imphal, so his was the first house she checked at there. With Onler’s assurance that he would talk to my father again, I reluctantly followed Anu home. Another day, I made a second attempt to convince Onler to leave home, but he firmly refused.
Our family had endured many hardships together to let me follow my passion, and now Apa couldn’t understand why I was willing to lose everything just when things were finally looking up. But slowly he cooled down and began to see the honour in Onler’s intentions, and also that he did not take advantage of my vulnerability. Knowing my temperament, Apa knew I was unlikely to back down.
When I had calmed down somewhat, I had a heart-to-heart chat with him. ‘You cannot help me. Don’t you know how difficult it is to get things done without help?’
Apa relented and sent a messenger to Onler’s family to come and boil tea at our house.
Putting the previous episode behind them, Onler’s family came and boiled tea again in February 2004. This time, my parents drank gladly. The second time that tea was boiled, his parents came with prominent elders of the family. The most important is the third tea-boiling ceremony when there was a big gathering of relatives and friends from both families. Onler’s family brought sweets and delicacies to the event. This was a public declaration of our engagement. After the ceremony, held in November 2004, the elders fixed a date for our marriage. With that, I was officially betrothed to Onler.
Our community has a custom that requires the groom’s family to pay the bride price that the woman’s family demands. People expected that my father would quote a high price but all he asked for was the traditional cloth meant for the parents of the bride. Usually, parents of the bride demand a pair of bullocks or some money. But my father insisted that all he wanted was for the two families to come together in warmth and understanding, and wish for the love and happiness of the two children.
The wedding date was set for 12 March 2005.
* * *
Soon enough, it was time to go back to camp and begin training for the Asian Boxing Championships and World Championships. True to his word, Onler raised no objections. He dropped me off at the first camp. It was a great feeling to be travelling as husband and wife. I suffered separation pangs, of course, but in the years that followed, I left my husband to go from camp to camp.
Onler knew from the beginning that ours would be an unusual marriage. A wife who is absent for most of the year cannot run the home. In our society, the woman runs the house, even if she is a career woman. The kitchen is her domain; she is the one who shops for vegetables and groceries. In fact, the market is a place where women sell goods and other women buy them. Imphal’s Ima Market – or Mother’s Market – is fairly well known, even something of a tourist attraction. Women in salaried jobs have been known to augment their income by sitting in Ima Market in the evenings.
In our case, Onler runs the house and fulfils social obligations, like visiting ailing relatives or attending weddings and funerals. He tackled problems by himself, like when essential commodities – gas or baby formula –became unavailable. Onler had to cope with all this on his own.
The mobile phone is a crucial thread that keeps us going through our long-distance marriage. When I get lonely or miss home, he speaks loving, encouraging words to me. When I cry, he consoles me. When I need to talk, I know I can say what I want to, holding nothing back.
People often ask us about trust. I go globetrotting and spend my time with men, young and old. Does Onler never suspect my loyalty? I have only this to say: I grew up in a family where values were held in high esteem. Marriage is a sacred commitment. Onler knows that I would never do anything to blemish our marriage. If he felt otherwise, I have no doubt that he would have put an end to my globetrotting. People refer to Onler as ‘Mary’s husband’, but I know that behind Mary’s success, there is Onler.
He is the reason my medal hauls continued after the marriage, putting an end to doomsday predictions about the end of my career.
This is an edited excerpt from the book Unbreakable: An Autobiography, by Mary Kom, to be published by HarperCollins India.
Mary Kom is a boxer, a World Champion five times over and winner of an Olympic bronze medal in 2012 – the first time that women’s boxing was part of the Olympic Games.
Also read: Million Dollar Mary