WHAT DOES a champion’s handshake feel like?
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.”
IN A TROUBLED LAND
The plush hotel where we are lodged is an oasis of unnatural opulence in a crumbling, polluted, impoverished city that is yet possessed of a decayed, harrowing beauty. Even at peace, Imphal dons the mien of a frontier town under relentless siege. Razor-wire barricades shield government buildings. Strikes and dharnas are watched over by machine-gun slinging commandos. Twice a day armoured trucks stage flag marches in the thoroughfares. Armed guards in fatigues stop vehicles at random, taking occupants aside to quiz them separately; if their accounts do not tally, they can count on a long, cold night in a police lockup.
In an unguarded moment, a Manipuri may refer to people from outside the state as “Indians”. The xenophobia is not hard to fathom, for as a people they subscribe to a singular identity and culture whose dilution by integration they have stoutly resisted. Add to that the age-old ethnic strife between the people of the valley – the Meitei (Hindu) and Meitei Pangal (Muslim) – and the Naga and Kuki tribal clans of the hills.
Separatism has a protracted history here, beginning with the frontier state’s reluctant induction to the Indian Union, sans consensus, in 1949. The United National Liberation Front first called for sovereignty for Manipur in 1964. With time the revolution splintered into many unallied rebel factions, by some counts as many as 32, all of which demand autonomy without agreeing on the terms thereof. New separatist groups are frequently reported. Some clash violently over ethnic and territorial differences while all bear animosity toward the Government of India. Since 2000, separatists have banned Hindi films, music and satellite channels, which are seen as India’s “imperialist” agents of integration. It gets more serious. Separatists routinely enforce economic blockades, preventing the movement of commodities into the landlocked state via three major roads – National Highways 2, 39 and 53. Last year’s blockade, called by the Nagas, lasted 121 days and sent grey-market prices of essential commodities spiralling – petrol from Rs 65 to Rs 200 a litre, LPG from Rs 415 to Rs 2,000 a cylinder, and cooking oil from Rs 13 to Rs 105 a litre.
The Indian government’s reply to separatism – the much feared and reviled Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 – has held Manipur in a draconian grip since 1980, three years before Mary was born. Its most notable opponent, 40-year-old Irom Sharmila Chanu, a prisoner of state, has been on an indefinite hunger strike since 2000 and is being kept alive by forced feeding through a nasal tube at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal. In 2004, in a stirring and much-televised protest against the alleged rape and murder of 32-year-old activist Thangjam Manorama Devi by armed forces personnel, over a dozen women paraded naked with placards that read “Indian Army Rape Us” outside the landmark Kangla Fort, headquarters of the Assam Rifles.
Not that any of this stops Manipuris from carrying on with their lives. Setting out for Langol Games Village next morning to watch young trainees slug it out at the MC Mary Kom Boxing Academy, we take in a landscape far cheerier than the bleakness presented to us the night before. Perhaps it’s the winter sunshine, which bathes this distraught city in limpid light and strains out colours of hope. Imphal thrums with life. Monday morning traffic jams the crowded streets – the honks and blares are an unexpectedly welcome testament of thriving humanity – and the vibrant markets are crowded with vendors selling fruit, fish and vegetables, cereals and flour, cloth and bamboo baskets. Handsome, dark-maned Manipuri ponies, discards from the impressive polo ground in the city centre, rummage languidly in trash heaps and carouse gracefully in fallow fields where smoke is rising from smouldering mounds of hay. Manipur may have given the world the game of polo, as a large banner near the ground proclaims, but it has left little for its vagrant ponies.
THERE’S SOMETHING ELSE ABOUT MARY
In November 1999, 17-year-old Chungneijang came to Imphal from her village of Kangathei, 54 km away in Churachandpur district in the municipal council of Moirang, with a dream to pursue a sport of her liking. The eldest of four children of hired farmhands who had barely enough for two square meals, she was an accomplished athlete at the village level, already famed for outrunning boys and hurling javelins further than they could. She didn’t care much for school, and she had watched so many Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies on her neighbours’ televisions that she routinely practised her chops on the boys who dared tease her younger siblings.
“I was good at so many sports but I had to find out what I really wanted to do,” she recalls. A friend, a state volleyball player, encouraged her to try boxing. Just after New Year’s Day, she turned up at the Sports Authority of India complex in Khuman Lampak, Imphal, where Leisangthem Ibomcha Singh, Manipur’s first bronze medallist at the 1981 National Games, was the boxing coach. He had trained Ngangom Dingko Singh, gold medallist at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games, and was the first coach in the country to train women though women’s boxing had not received official recognition. One of his wards, Sarita Devi, would win silver at the First Asian Women’s Boxing Championship in Bangkok the next year.
Oja Ibomcha, as trainees call him fondly, was in the midst of his morning routine when the petite, slightly built girl from Kangathei approached him. Even as she started to speak, he turned her away.
“I don’t talk to anyone during training sessions, I don’t take calls or entertain visitors,” recalls the coach, a burly, thick-necked man with a lightly grizzled French beard, warm, twinkling eyes, and enormous paw-like hands that are toying with the keys to his Suzuki SX4. “I told her: ‘You are very small, very thin and you are a girl. Boxing is not for you.’”
“I was scared,” she recalls. “He was a big man and he looked like [Mike] Tyson. He said if I took up boxing I would no longer look pretty.”
Nothing could dissuade her. The story goes that when standard methods of persuasion failed she bawled until Ibomcha yielded. To train at Khuman Lampak she stayed with an uncle’s family in Imphal. She made one more important change to her life, one that would have far-reaching consequences: since her fellow-trainees could not wrap their tongues around Chungneijang, she christened herself Mary, the name closest to her heart after Jesus.
Ibomcha was coaching trainees as young as 14. Mary, nearly 18, was a late starter. Yet, within months, when trainees who had started before her were still straightening their stances, she was punching focus mitts and going heavily at the bags.
“I was hungry to learn,” Mary reflects. “This is a talent that God had given me, and I chose it at the right time. I thought I was too late to start, but I learned quickly.”
She participated in the national championships and won gold, recalls Ibomcha, who trained her continuously for two years.
News of her achievement got around. Dina Serto, a lecturer in history at Imphal’s G P College who chronicles the Kom community, recalls, “When her father saw her photo in the paper, he wondered, ‘Who is this? It looks like my daughter. But this is not her name.’”
Pontinkhup (Tonpa) Kom is a sombre dignified man of 54. His short, taut frame and muscle tone bespeak a life spent in hard physical labour. He is no stranger to combat sport; in his time he was a champion mukna wrestler famed all over Moirang. Yet, when he learned that the boxing champion in the newspaper photograph was indeed his daughter, he expressed his reservation.
“I never told my parents I wanted to be a boxer,” says Mary. “I hid the fact that I was training. I was afraid my father wouldn’t let me continue. He asked me: ‘If you get injured on your face, who will marry you?’ I told him: ‘If I am injured, I will not trouble you about it.’”
Tonpa reflects: “We didn’t have our own field. We had barely enough to eat. It was hard to imagine how we would afford Mary’s training. We asked her, ‘Do you think we can see to all your needs in your sports career?’ She said, ‘When my friends spend ten rupees I will spend only five, and when they spend five rupees I will spend only three.’ We said if that’s your decision we will stand by you.”
Tonpa’s fears also stemmed from what he had seen of professional boxing on television: fighters without headgear slamming body blows, bloodshed in the ring, and knockouts. Mary reassured him of the relative safety of amateur boxing; unlike prizefighting, it offered better protection for the boxers.
“I also told him: Do you think I’m just going to stand there and let them hit me?” she says, laughing at the memory.
Tonpa offered a grain of Christian advice that has stayed with Mary. “I know how you fight in the ring but no matter who wins you must part with your opponent in grace. Give her a warm hug and forget what happened. Off the ring, you must love one other.”
Mary’s mother had no doubt at all that her firstborn would shine in her chosen field. “She’s like her dad,” says Saneikham (Akham) Kom. “She has inherited his spirit.” Radiant and youthful at 46, Akham is often mistaken for Mary’s elder sister when they travel together.
“She always supports me,” Mary says of her mother. “She is always with me in whatever I do.”
Buoyed by blessings Mary competed in 2001 at the Women's World Amateur Boxing Championships at Scranton, USA in the 45 kg category. She won silver. Laurels followed in rapid succession: gold in the pinweight category at the Witch Cup in 2002; gold at the first women’s world championships in Antalya, Turkey in 2002; gold in the Asian Women’s Boxing Championship in Hissar, Haryana in 2003.
A spate of awards followed, among them the Arjuna Award in 2004, the Padma Shree in 2009 and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2009.
Can Mary, who will be 33 in 2016, win gold in Rio?
“If her weight category is included, no question,” declares Ibomcha.
A LOVE SUPREME
After his mother’s death in 1999, Onler Kom wanted to return home and care for his ageing father. His then girlfriend pressured him to get engaged but his father, a government schoolteacher, insisted that he continue studying. Onler obeyed. Consequently, his relationship broke up.
Fortune, perhaps, favours the discerning. A year later Mary, nine years younger than him, filled the void in his life.
In 2001, in Delhi en route to the National Games in Punjab, Mary met Onler, then a student of law at Delhi University and president of the Kom student community. It was a brief meeting – more of chitchat between members of a tribe meeting outside their homeland. Their friendship grew. Soon, Mary looked him up on every visit, imposed on his willing hospitality, and every so often begged Onler to fix her a home-cooked meal.
“I found something very rare in her that I hadn’t seen in any other woman,” Onler remarks. “It was not like falling in love, but more like understanding her better – her background, her problems, her needs. I felt responsible for her, like a care-giver.”
Onler was moved by Mary’s struggle. “She was already a world champion when I met her,” he recalls, his voice fraying with tenderness. “I wanted her to be safe so that she could continue her career.”
Their wedding in March 2005 shocked the Kom community. Mary was 23, old enough to marry, but her quick decision prompted many elders to write off her career.
“Among the Kom people, 20 is almost the right age for girls to marry but a family will never pressure her even if she is 21,” says Dina Serto. “They’ll urge her to study, to be someone first.”
‘Being someone’ was the biggest thing on Mary’s mind. Onler promised that he would never stop her from boxing. It’s a promise he has kept diligently, making sacrifices of his own along the way.
“It’s never easy for a husband to watch his wife being hit,” Onler admits. “When I see her fall, I cry inside. But then, you give a push to your heart and say, ‘Chalo, this is a sport; you give sometimes and you get sometimes.’”
Those who had criticised Mary’s decision were silenced. The year she married, she won gold at the Asian Women’s Championship in Kaohsiung, Taiwan and triumphed at the AIBA Women’s World Championships in Podolsk, Russia.
Not everyone accepted Mary’s marriage ungrudgingly. Just after Christmas 2006, Onler’s father was abducted and shot dead by gunmen who claimed allegiance to a little-known group called the Manipur Komrem National Front. A note found on his body declared that the 67-year-old schoolmaster, Reikhupthang Kamang Kom, had been awarded capital punishment for acting against the interests of the organisation.
“It was like cutting my body with a knife,” Onler says as he reconstructs the episode. “When we saw my father lying on the road surrounded by blood, Mary broke down and started screaming. I didn’t know what to say for three or four hours. He had been a quiet schoolteacher, unconnected with politics. Why did they kill him?”
With fame Mary was flooded with proposals of marriage, all of which she had declined. Onler believes the killers were jilted suitors. “As soon as I heard the news of my father’s death, I guessed who the murderers were,” he says. “They couldn’t kill me or Mary; they wanted to see our tears.”
An FIR was filed with the police but no action was taken. “There are many pending cases in Manipur; this is now one of them,” Onler says with a note of resignation. “I don’t want to hunt them down now when Mary’s career needs attention. God will give us justice.”
Mary’s father-in-law had been her ardent supporter. Only a month earlier Reikhupthang had taken a plane to Delhi, flying for the first time in his life, to watch his daughter-in-law box to victory at the World Championships.
“For three months we couldn’t eat,” Onler recalls. “Everywhere, we saw my father before our eyes.”
It took an innocent man’s death to fray Mary’s spirit. Distraught, she thought of hanging up her gloves. But Onler, made of the same resilient fibre as his father, told her, “When people want to pull us down, we shouldn’t give up. Aagey badho! Forge ahead!”
It was a tearful New Year for Mary and Onler, but joy burst back in their lives when their twins were born a few months later. It was not an easy childbirth: Rechungvar and Khupneivar – Rengpa and Nainei – were delivered by Caesarean section. Mary embraced motherhood with enthusiasm. She also hit the pause button on her career. The champion, many thought, had called it a day.
Coaches Ibomcha Singh and Anoop Kumar knew how to draw the best out of Mary: she always exploded back fighting when they mocked, riled and taunted her. The world learned that lesson when it dared to write her off. Even motherhood couldn’t keep Mary from the ring. After a year she stopped breastfeeding and began training again.
Her parents were aghast. Her mother asked, “What if your stitches rupture when your opponents hit you in the belly?”
She brushed away the question, saying she had consulted doctors. But it was a difficult comeback, she admits. “My body had changed,” Mary recalls. “I was not as strong as I used to be. I tired easily. My legs hurt when I trained too long.”
She was strong enough for her opponents, though. She won the national championship and went on to win silver at the Asian Women’s Championships in Guwahati in 2008, losing the final to North Korean Jong Ok. Later that year, she wrested back her crown at the AIBA Women’s World Championships in Ningbo, China.
The champion was back in business. But it was heartbreaking to be away from her twins, and Mary would weep on the phone listening to their voices.
“We faced our problems together,” Onler says. “How hard it is to be with two babies sleeping on either side of the bed when their mother is away, to wake up in the middle of the night and feed them milk. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve faced.”
Often, Onler or Akham would accompany Mary with the twins. In March 2011, while Mary was training at Patiala, Punjab for the Asian Women’s Cup in Haikou, China, Onler visited with the twins. He had shown Rengpa, who had a cough, to a paediatrician in Imphal. Mary had insisted that Nainei be shown as well. The doctor delivered the disturbing prognosis: Nainei had a hole in the heart. He recommended a corrective surgery that could not be done in Imphal. He had to be taken to Chandigarh at the earliest.
“My hair stood on end. I felt shattered but I couldn’t show it,” Onler recalls. “What would happen to Mary when she heard this?”
Mary wanted to stay back but Onler reasoned with her: “Whether you go or not, our son will have to be operated. Go and participate; I will wait here.”
Reluctantly, she left for China, boxed her way to gold, and returned to Delhi. That very night she rushed to Chandigarh. Early next morning Nainei was operated at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research.
Watching him somersault on the divan, who can tell he is the protagonist of that heartrending tale?
THE CHAMPION FACTORIES
A skinny, spiky-haired teenager in a blue salwar-kameez serves us tea. Onler introduces her as national boxing champion S Nengneihat Kom. The 19-year-old had knocked the stuffing out of Haryana’s Neetu Chahal in the light flyweight final of the Federation Cup in Guwahati this February. She is among 30-odd trainees at the MC Mary Kom Boxing Academy, which has produced 21 state boxers.
Impressed, we ask to see the academy. Onler points wryly to an open field opposite their home in the shadow of the denuded Langol hills. Trainees, warmed up from running up and down the slopes, have gathered under the watchful gaze of a trainer. Gloves and mitts are placed on a cobbled pathway cutting through the field. Rookies in dark blue tracks are punching the air. To their right, working in pairs, experienced trainees in red-and-blue suits pummel their partners’ focus mitts, their faces shining with sweat on this frigid December morning. Mary’s mongrels Scubi and Steffi lope about, playing tag with the neighbours’ kids who have come to watch.
Followed at a pace by an armed policeman in fatigues, Mary enters the field. She is wearing a blue peaked woollen cap and a white track jumper with sleeve-bands of saffron and green. The trainees turn up the intensity; the punches raining on the mitts thunder like applause. Like a commandant she circles the group, her face set in an intent expression halfway between a frown and a scowl. The group heeds keenly as she demonstrates finger stretches and feints. Her message to them is lost on us but now and then the youngsters are in splits as she mimics their antics.
The Manipur state government, which promised three acres for Mary’s academy years ago, has been forced to step up the paperwork after her Olympic feat. Meanwhile, the house doubles as dormitory and cafeteria. “Seventeen of us stay here,” Onler informs us with quiet pride. Most trainees come from villages in the interior and are too poor to afford bed and board in the city. Onler has rented a place nearby for those who cannot be accommodated. It’s mostly rice and vegetables on the menu but twice a week the trainees are served a protein-rich meal of chicken or meat. The pigs lounging in the pen at the back of the house, Mary tells us slyly, are being saved for Christmas. Food and shelter are not the only perks; the academy also pays the trainees’ school fee, though a few older ones are dropouts.
Though there are no eligibility criteria, Mary is selective about who makes the cut. “Rich people learn boxing as a hobby, for exercise, or self defence,” she says. “Top players do it from their hearts – they want to be somebody.”
At the relatively upscale SAI centre in Khuman Lampak, Ibomcha Singh has coached 38 international medallists, including two Arjuna awardees, two Olympians and one world military games champion. Among his recent crop of winners is Sarjubala Devi, whom he considers the next Mary Kom. The 19-year-old with a blunt hairdo, who worships Mary’s every move in the ring, was the 2011 Youth World Women Boxing Champion in the 48-kg class. She is sponsored by Olympic Gold Quest, which also supports Mary and other Olympians.
“Our centre has produced the maximum number of Arjuna awardees.” Dronacharya awardee Ibomcha declares with undisguised pride. “Hindustan ka sabse best centre hai!”
Ibomcha’s international dreams were dashed in 1986 when he was bumped off the list for the President’s Cup in Jakarta. He turned to coaching, resolving to take others where he could not go. A compulsive archivist, he maintains stacks of photo albums and memorabilia and his most prized possession is a ledger in which he has chronicled every boxer he has trained. In it are more names than there are Olympic berths – Dingko Singh, Sarita Devi, Mary Kom, Suranjoy Singh, Devendro Singh, Nanao Singh Thokchom... Someday, that much-thumbed register will be a national treasure.
Though Manipur, along with Haryana, is the focal point of India’s boxing gold rush, the two states are studies in striking contrast. Shamya Dasgupta, author of Bhiwani Junction – The Untold Story of Boxing in India (Harper Sport, HarperCollins India, 2012), observes that while both are similar in having abundant talent, a sporting culture, poverty, and a lack of education – traits that have historically driven hunger and ambition in boxing – Manipur differs in one crucial aspect: support from the authorities. He also notes the irony that boxing in Manipur has thrived thanks to an otherwise dreaded benefactor: the Indian Army. Being in the army and boxing for the army, as boxer Nanao Singh asserts, is the only option for those who want to box and still make ends meet.
With Olympic Gold Quest stepping in, boxers with promise such as Mary and Sarjubala have gained access to world-class diet regimens, facilities and training. Mary declares that her British coach Charles Atkinson has boosted her confidence and made a world of difference to her mental preparedness. “He gave me a strong mind,” she says. “I never feel scared of the opponents I am going to fight. My senior boxers are nervous before a bout but I never get scared. I know God is with me, my coach is with me, my country is with me. I can give my best. Losing or winning are different things.”
Onler, who watched Mary train with Atkinson in Pune, vouches for the differences in his approach compared with her Indian coaches. To Atkinson the most important thing for a boxer is strength and stamina, he says. He used to tell Mary: “You might have skill but if you run out of stamina in the second round even a little boy can knock you out.” He also focused on building muscle mass to pack power into her punches.
Atkinson also insisted on sparring every day. Most Indian coaches, Onler says, schedule only one or two sparring sessions a week. “Which means you box only four times a month, effectively,” he says. “Atkinson disagreed with that. He insisted on fighting every day with different sparring partners. And since Mary tired out the girls in a day, she sparred with three men taller and stronger than herself.”
Ibomcha dreams equally big. “I want to send our boxers abroad for training but our Federation officials have not agreed,” he complains. “When I visited Cuba, I saw new facilities and training methods for boxing, which I want to introduce here. But I have not received permission. There are other constraints – we have plenty of lady boxers but no lady coach. It’s not appropriate for male coaches to travel with them everywhere.”
Manipur’s champion athletes draw their endurance and stamina from lives of poverty, hunger and hard labour. Transplanted to urban environs, they find themselves out of their depth. Ibomcha, Dingko, Sarita and Mary have all risen from dust. Mary’s eyes moisten when she recalls living on one meal a day and tilling the fields from daybreak to sundown, single-handedly managing a team of bullocks, or joining her father in hunting or fishing for the pot.
Besides spending on training and diet, Manipur’s athletes must also support their impoverished families. Mary’s visibility at the international level forced the state government to give her a job with the police department; yet, it was only after her Olympic medal that she was promoted to Superintendent of Police (Sports), a special post without precedent. For athletes, government departments are the only stable avenues for employment in a state devoid of business investment. But jobs in uniform come at a steep price.
“It costs four or five lakh rupees for a constable’s post,” says Ibomcha, whose job in the Assam Rifles helped sustain his career. “To be a sub-inspector of police, you need to pay 15 lakh as a bribe.”
As federation politics and corruption in administrative bodies sap the life out of Indian sport, it is the athletes who suffer. For whatever it is worth, officialdom suffered an embarrassing setback on December 6. Close on the heels of the Indian Olympic Association's suspension by the International Olympic Committee, the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation was handed a provisional ban by the International Boxing Association for possible manipulation in the IABF elections.
“I am confused and upset,” Mary reacted, worrying that the ban would upset the boxers’ focus. Other Olympians like shooter Abhinav Bindra hoped it would weed out corrupt officials from the sports administration.
Ibomcha, for his part, believes that Manipur must continue to produce outstanding talent in order to strengthen its bargaining power.
“I’m going to be a minister in a few years, just you see,” he says candidly, drawing our attention to enormous mounted photographs where he is pictured with state and national leaders. “There are no officials to represent our state,” he says, his usually sedate voice rising to a feverish pitch. “Forget that, we do not even have strong elected representatives in national politics. What can two MPs do? Bihar and UP outnumber our MPs by the hundred! Our chances are and always have been limited.”
It’s an hour to sundown and we are sipping tea in Kangathei, an idyllic hamlet of paddy fields and leafy clumps of green bamboo where the average village wench is a thing of heart-stopping beauty. Moirang, the nearest town, is on the shores of Loktak, the largest freshwater lake in northeast India known for its floating islands called phumdis. Moreh, the trading town on the border with Burma, is 125 km away, and our porcelain teacups are from there.
Mary’s father Tonpa and her brother Khupreng, 25, have just returned from the field and are mending a fence of green bamboo poles. Cows low in the barn and chickens peck in the yard. Her mother Akham scoops a dozen ash-grey ducklings into a wicker basket and spreads a warm blanket over them. As she waits for her husband to join her in the front yard, she tends a patch of dry skin on her arm with a sprig of aloe from the kitchen garden and nuzzles her youngest daughter Cindy, 11, on the cheek. Mary’s 27-year-old younger sister Singlennei (Annie), who is training to be a flight stewardess, is not there to complete the family portrait.
With us, in the role of interpreter, is Mary’s very capable media assistant Jimmy Leivon, who is also from the Kom community and speaks English and Kom with nearly equal fluency.
“Kom villages occupy the border of hills and valleys,” historian Dina Serto had told us, adding that her people numbered about 14,600 according to the last census. “Until recently, the Kom were part of Komrem, a group of six tribes – the others are Aimol, Kharam, Chiru, Purum and Koireng – which have similar culture, language and dress and usually live as neighbours in villages.”
Classified as nomads, the Kom have no political representatives or elected members in the state assembly. In Manipur, unlike in neighbouring Nagaland, there are no reservations for hill tribes. Most of them continue to toil in the jhum fields. Many of Mary’s trainees come from backgrounds similar to hers.
Kom society treats men and women on par, Dina tells us. They work side by side in the fields and share housework. In villages it is common to see young men and women walking together. Girls choose their husbands and their professions.
“Our women,” says Dina, “enjoy a lot of rights.”
Inevitably, Mary’s success has made her the de facto breadwinner for her extended family. While the many awards, grants and sponsorships have elevated them from poverty, her parents continue to live as they did. Nothing tempts them to move to the city.
“Mary has told us it’s time to rest, relax and enjoy life,” says Tonpa, who has changed into a sports tee emblazoned with the Indian sports team's insignia. His little eight-year-old Spitz, Sweety, snuggles for warmth between his palms. “For me and my wife, work is life. We enjoy life when we work. My daughter’s fame is a matter of pride for us but I don’t want that pride to get to us. It won’t change what I am to my friends. I have witnessed the consequences pride has brought to people’s lives, so I prefer this humble life.”
It is a sentiment that Mary and Onler echo.
“Earlier she didn’t have the money to buy branded shoes or a car,” observes Onler. “That’s the only thing in our lives that has changed.”
When talk comes round to the biopic that Bollywood’s Sanjay Leela Bhansali is producing with Priyanka Chopra playing Mary’s role, they smile and say little. “Maybe it will make Manipuri people watch Hindi movies again,” she says finally with an impish grin.
Then again, she is wary of the fame that may distract her from her path.
“Protect me, God, because now people see me as a celebrity,” Mary says, endearingly childlike as she covers her eyes with her hands. “I’m not a celebrity. I’m still Mary Kom. I want to live a humble and sincere life.”
The sun sinking behind the Thangjing Ching hills casts a warm afterglow on the white-and-grey facade of the Kangathei Baptist Church where Mary and her family have prayed for generations. Her family is deeply religious, but devout could be Mary’s middle name if she could accommodate another. Who can forget the “Jesus 100 percent” boxing gown she wore before one bout? On Sundays she fasts and prays till noon. She never forgets to say grace and abides by the parable of David and Goliath. Her favourite Biblical passage is Matthew 7:8: ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.’
When Onler sees Mary in her bright phanek and her painted nails, her hair tied back in a ponytail as she sweeps the yard, or feeds the pigs, or hoists the twins on her back, or tends the beanstalks in the kitchen garden, he feels reassured that the more things change, the more they will remain the same.