Langol, India – After the usual morning warm-ups and some shadow boxing, the trainees form a semi-circle and listen intently to their instructor – a slightly-built lady in her early 30s.
“Boxing is much like life, it’s a continuous fight,” she tells them. “There will be obstacles, but you have to overcome them”
It is in Langol, a quiet suburb in west Imphal – the hilly capital of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur – where Olympic medalist and five-time world boxing champion Mary Kom is trying to create India’s future boxers.
Mary has fought many odds in her life. She defied her parents, bypassed the tradition, took on the system, and won. Not once, but five times in a row. Two of those world titles came after the birth of her twins. She was blessed with a third son in May, nine months after winning an Olympic bronze. And she’s not finished yet.
“My next target,” she says, “is gold at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “Motherhood only adds to your strength and inner peace. I want to prove that a mother of three can conquer the world.”
Mary, who was one of the inspirations behind the inclusion of women’s boxing for the first time ever at the 2012 London Olympics, will be 34 when Rio happens.
But then, hasn’t she always treaded the uncharted course?
Mary grew up in the small village of Kangathel, some 45kms from capital Imphal where her parents still live. Not much has changed in her village even today. Children still work in the paddy fields, do household chores, and go to school in their spare time. Mary did all that too, with her two younger sisters and a brother. But unlike others, she dared to look beyond.
I want to prove that a mother of three can conquer the world
She was not good at studies, but she could run. She could also throw a javelin long. And, when no one’s watching, punch hard.
In 1998, when Mary was just 15, a boxer of her state got home a gold medal from the Asian Games in Bangkok. Insurgency-ridden Manipur where a myriad of armed groups are battling Indian forces for varied reasons, erupted in joy at Dingko Singh’s feat. And suddenly, Mary knew what she wanted to be in life.
Soon she landed at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Imphal where Ibomcha Singh, a former boxer, coached male boxers.
“Ibomcha found ne too short and frail,” she recalls. “He shooed me away, but when he came out of the training centre in the evening, I was at the gate, weeping. He decided to train me.”
She never told her parents about her training. But they came to know after she won her first medal in a state-level tournament, courtesy a report in the local newspaper.
“They were shocked. They thought it would be difficult to get a good match. Who would marry a boxer? They would always tell me,” she says.
The mostly neglected north eastern part of India, more often than not, tends to escape the collective consciousness of a majority of Indians. Just after the London Olympics, soon after Mary’s bronze medal feat, there was a Twitter quiz to check the cartographic awareness of her fans. Only a few could identify Manipur on the Indian map.
Forget others, even top Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan got his geography all wrong when he sent in his congratulatory tweet: “Mary Kom!! Wins boxing bout, insured (sic) a Bronze! What a story! A Mother of two from Assam creates moment of pride for India!!” Bachchan later apologised for the faux pas.
Today, she is the beacon of hope for a state that has been in news for all the wrong reasons—armed rebellion, economic blockades, Irom Sharmila’s 12-year-long hunger strike, or women who once stripped naked to protest against Indian army atrocities.
Dodging the past
In December 2006, shortly after Christmas and just before New Year, when Manipuris were celebrating her third world title, Mary’s father-in-law was called out of his house and shot dead. The killers still remain untraced.
But Mary has always consciously tried to avoid the past.
“I am happy people now know I am from Manipur. We look like the Chinese, no? But our heart is Indian. There are so many good things about my state, about my tribe (Kom), why should we only talk about insurgency and extortion and killings? So much has changed… It is much more peaceful now,” she says.
Mary’s proud possession unlike many others of her ilk is her humility. The Olympic bronze made her the poster girl of Indian sports. From ‘Magnificent Mary’, she suddenly became ‘Brand Mary’.
Not too long back, she had to run from pillar to post to beg for sponsorships but today she charges $64,000 per endorsement.
From deputy superintendent, she has been promoted as superintendent of police (sports), a post specially created for her. She has been bestowed with the Khel Ratna award, the highest sporting honour in India. She is perhaps the first active sportsperson on whom a biopic is being made. Bollywood starlet Priyanka Chopra will play her role in reel life.
Drug abuse is rampant in the north east and Manipur is no exception. More than 35,000 HIV-positive cases have been detected in this state in recent years. Over 70% of them are believed to have caught the infection from intravenous drug abuse.
A concerned Mary is part of the Union health ministry’s campaign against drug abuse. She has been the face of awareness campaigns in her state, exhorting the youth to stay away from drugs.
Producing future boxers
Manipur has produced many great boxers, but no woman had stormed the predominantly male bastion before. Today more and more girls and willing parents are seeing boxing as a potential career.
Many are landing in her boxing academy, which she and her husband, Onler Kom, have been running, mostly on their own since 2006.
Take for example S Ningneihat Kom, Mary’s first student. She started getting trained in 2006. Today, she is the state champion in 48kg flyweight, and is ready to burst on to the senior ranks.
“I want to follow Didi’s (Mary) footsteps. I want to be the next Mary Kom,” Ningneihat,18, says.
Fifteen-year-old Monika Devi, daughter of a poor farmer, has similar dreams.
“We struggled to make ends meet but my father still managed to save some money to buy me boxing gloves. Like Mary he wants me to win medal at the Olympics,” she says.
Since her Olympics glory, the number of trainees in her boxing school has swelled to 62, from about 20-25 a year ago. More than half of them are girls and from poor background. Lodging, boarding and training is free for the promising ones.
Many of them like Ningneihat, Monika Devi, Merina Chiru, Kariakthai Rongmei, Pushpa Devi have already begun winning medals.
“They are all part of our family,” says Onler, who looks after the day-to-day affairs of the academy. “She doesn’t want them to struggle like she did. They needn’t worry; Mary is there to fight for them.”
This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.