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The boy from Bhiwani

A regular villager to a million-dollar brand, boxing champ Vijender Singh straddles two very different worlds, writes Praveen Donthi.

delhi Updated: Nov 21, 2009 22:36 IST
Praveen Donthi

I’m gonna drive down Walnut Street in a Caddy on Derby Day… Oh, I’m cool then, man... The girls are looking at me, and I’m looking away. I’m wanting to know them worse than they want to know me — only they don’t know it.” That was Muhammad Ali’s dream, a year before he became the world heavyweight champion. Like Ali’s Louisville, dreams came easy in Vijender Singh Beniwal’s village.

The Beniwals are so simple a family that even their dreams don’t dare betray them. Mahipal Singh Beniwal, the 49-year-old patriarch, is a bus driver with Haryana Roadways. He wanted his two sons Manoj, 29, and Vijender, 25, to get a job in either the army or the police.

His dream was also the family’s dream. One that almost came true in 2001, the year Vijender won a gold at the national boxing junior championship which qualified him for the post of an army hawaldar. Coach Jagdish Singh, 48, suggested to the father that his talented son be allowed to pursue the sport. The father wasn’t sure what it meant, apart from doing ‘overtime’ driving long-distance buses, but agreed.

Then Vijender’s talent announced itself in 2003, when the left hook he landed on the cheek of the then national champ assured him the gold. “At 18, he was already competing at the senior level. The local crowd was stunned,” gushes the coach.

But the family became confident only when they first saw him on Doordarshan, winning the silver at the Afro-Asian games in Hyderabad in 2003. “We started seeing a new dream from that day,” says his father. But Vijender still had to work as a railway ticket collector in Jaipur. Then he won bronze at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and to his family’s utter delight, the Haryana government promptly made him a Deputy Superintendent of Police.

Life in the fast lane

Recently, a day after he was ranked the world number one in middleweight boxing, Vijender was busy living his family dream at the Haryana Police Academy on the outskirts of Karnal. He sat in an air-conditioned room and had attendants at his beck and call. “His doors are open, anyone can walk in,” said one of his junior colleagues, dispelling the apprehension that all that page-3 coverage might have had an effect on the man.

Vijender is an engaging combination of confidence and innocence. All the stardust that’s been rubbing off on him has added a bit of flamboyance. But the path of his dreams still remains simple. “I will become the DGP of Haryana one day,” he says as if it was a prophecy.

As a kid, he loved watching films in Liberty and Prabhat theatres of Bhiwani. Today with offers pouring in, the possibility of seeing himself on those screens is tantalisingly close. What more? He promotes Tag Heuer with Shahrukh Khan and is close enough to Akshay Kumar, whom he fondly calls Akshay paaji, to train with him whenever he is in Mumbai. “Mazaa aata hai, andar se feel aati hai, I am happy that such big stars are my friends.” Would he want to star in films too? “Of course, if I get a good offer. I can’t be boxing for the rest of my life.”

Cricket’s celebrity status in India seemed as static as a painted ship on a painted ocean. And then Vijender came along and created ripples, giving glamour to a tough sport. Pepsi, which has always chosen film and cricket personalities as brand ambassadors, has picked him. “Vijender has many firsts to his credit. He has an aspirational imagery and has great youth appeal which cuts across demographics,” explains Sandeep Singh Arora, executive vice-president, Pepsico India.

Have the modeling assignments made him wary of facial injuries? “If I don’t get any blows for sometime, I intentionally get beaten up, otherwise you’ll lose the habit.” Aren’t filmy dreams and modeling deals a distraction? “If Pepsi signed me up or I walked the ramp, it’s all because of boxing. Without it, I wouldn’t be anywhere. I know that.”

Recently, Vijender signed a multi-million deal with Percept Ltd, despite his contract till 2015 with another firm — Infinity Optimal Solutions. It turned into a corporate bout. The court stepped in. Contracts and clauses are fast becoming part of his life that was defined by hooks and cuts. “I am slowly learning about these things.”

Simple man, simple dreams

A conservative estimate puts his career earnings at around Rs 10 crore. But it’s not easy to say how much money and fame might have changed him. “He used to sit to my left in the classroom. Recently when he came to meet me, he was still the same shy boy he was,” says Gargi Panwar, 32, who taught him Sanskrit in class five.

For the family, however, not much has changed. Ninety kilometers away from Karnal, in the village of Kaluwas, his mother Krishna Singh, 46, was getting ready for his arrival. She had gone to milk the buffaloes even as the camel herds were heading home. His father, the son of an armyman, was busy with domestic chores in their two-storeyed house, the only one in this tiny sleepy village. “More than anything else, meeting the president of the country was the greatest honour for me,” says the father.

What about the female fans? “Bahut hain,” says Vijender, “Hum bhi kisiko chahte hain (I have many fans. I also love someone). So I respect their feelings and ask them to focus on their career.” Do rumours worry the family? “It will only make him more responsible,” the father says.

But it’s the latest entry in Vijender’s diary — “Will I be able to change the colour of the medal this time? (from bronze to gold in the coming commonwealth games) ” — that says it all.

So when he says something responsible and mature, you want to take it seriously. “Abhi to ek hi saal hua hai yeh stardom dekhte dekhte. (It’s just been one year of stardom). Now I am a policeman, but I still have a lot to achieve.”