A tree dies twice to yield charcoal. After the axe kills it, the kiln sucks it dry. But in double death it tells us we are not quite done even after we are felled and fired.
You need to live life in Manipur, where availability of cooking fuel is often dictated by highway blockades, to know how precious charcoal is. It ensures a decent meal, helps boil impurities out of water fetched from streams and provides warmth in winter. In Kangathei village (45km from state capital Imphal) where I grew up, it translated into money to sustain the family with.
As the eldest of four siblings, I was expected as a pre-teen to ease the burden on our hardworking parents. I helped my mother (M Saneikham Kom) with household chores, assisted her on our small farmland, wove punshi (shawl) and punvei (wraparound) on the loom for our requirements, went to catch fish, helped father fetch logs he chopped in the woods. And yes, made charcoal, most of it to sell in the village market.
But then, I didn’t do anything an average tribal girl in a Northeast Indian village didn’t. What you do, why you do is God’s wish, I was told. What you become is how you do what you decide to do, I was reminded.
I had this habit of running. Complete one errand. Run to the next. Do. Run. Do. Run… Maybe because I had restless legs, maybe I thought running helped finish work faster so I could play longer. I ran to school too, not to be late whenever I took a little more time to tidy up things at home.
People told me I was cut out to be a sprinter. Some said I would give PT Usha a run for her money. But father (M Pontinkhup Kom) always said my future was in my hands. Hands toughened by cooking, cleaning, sowing, sewing, weaving, washing and blackened by charcoal, I wondered. Boxing never came to mind, though I had punched boys in the face for teasing and mistreating me.
Running gave me many prizes in school sports. Running also took me to Imphal, by bus of course. As did the need to study in a school that offered classes higher than standard eight.
In Imphal, I learnt Manipuri athletes were doing well everywhere. I wanted to make a mark, like them. I learnt if I were good enough, I would get a job if not medals. And job meant financial security in a state where the battle to exist is fought on many fronts.
The kin I stayed with, in Imphal, barely managed to eke out a living. We had meat on pay day, rice and boiled vegetables the rest of the month. The same stuff at lunch and dinner. There was no breakfast, no eggs, no supplement.
No good shoes, no good sporting outfits too. But I had the will to be the best and think ahead, always. And aggression, to make the will leave its mark.
That possibly made athletics coach Kosana Meitei advice me to switch to pugilism when women’s boxing was introduced in the 1999 Imphal National Games. I let my aggression show on the punching bag. Soon enough, I learnt the key was in controlling it.
Aggression is like fire. The faster it bursts into a flame on limited fuel the faster it dies. The hands that handled charcoal needed to smolder like them – controlled and sustained – to make opponents feel the heat.
It didn’t take long to win my first medal, gold in state boxing championship. Father seemed worried when I went home to show it. Boxing wasn’t for girls, he said. Besides, it would be difficult to find a man to marry someone with bruises on her face. He relented when I told him we play with protective gear. “You train hard for greater glory, I’ll work harder to earn more to support you,” he said.
Working harder in a backward village didn’t necessarily mean extra money. I promised father not to spend more than I really needed to. He kept his promise too, but had to sell off the family cow for Rs 14,000 and borrowed money to fund my training, equipment and travel. The incentives following my first international women’s boxing championship gold at Pecs, Hungary in 2002, helped us repay the loan.
I keep reading about the Indian Premier League and how an average cricketer earns Rs 15-20 million for a six-week fixture. I haven’t earned a fraction of that amount in 10 years, and that includes my pay from the Manipur police department. I am grateful to God for that. He wanted me to make history – as the only Indian to qualify for the first Olympic women’s boxing event and win the bronze.
The medal is worth more than anything else. Perhaps more than all the money all the cricketers have made through all the editions of IPL. But I wish I hadn’t let 1.21 billion Indians down by failing to get the gold.
I possibly no longer invite a quizzical ‘Mary Kaun?’ I feel proud when community elders say I have put my minority tribe – the Koms number a tad more than 15,000 – on the world map. And I feel humbled when people say I am an inspiration for those who have nothing going for them.
I keep quiet because I am used to letting my fists do the talking. Often to prove a point – first when they said boxing was not for girls, then when they said I could not win after my marriage (with Onler), and later when they said my career was finished after giving birth to twins. I replied by winning my fourth world title.
I’ll be 33 when Rio de Janeiro (2016 Olympics) happens. I want to prove another point.
A village elder once said I needed the properties of coal to be a diamond. London probably made me a zircon, but I want to be a diamond like my idol Muhammad Ali. With the burning ambition of charcoal.
As told to Rahul Karmakar