It’s afternoon, but a cool moisture-laden breeze is blowing across the fields. Devendro Singh’s father, Jogindro, stands in front of his house, a shade better than a shanty, looking at the horizon, hoping that his son will come back from the London Olympic Games with a medal around his neck. He is old and no longer tills his land. His eldest son, L Chaoba Singh, has a back problem and can’t stand the rigours of farming for long.
Three-and-a-half rooms with kaccha floor are what they call their house. Sushila Devi, Devendro’s elder sister — a former national champion — has been called especially from her in-laws’ place to translate our conversation. No one other than Sushila speaks Hindi.
Young and popular
“He has already made us proud,” says the father. Devendro is a popular name in Yurembam Awang Leikai, Imphal West and locating his house isn’t much of a problem. Yet, he doesn’t have too many friends in Imphal. “Much of his life has been spent in the Army Sports Institute (ASI), Pune and the national camp in Patiala,” says Jogindro, the pain of staying away from his son very much in evidence.
“Though he had not even turned 10, Devendro used to cycle 12km every day to reach the Khuman Lampak Stadium for boxing practice,” recollects his father. “His feet barely reached the pedals, but he never missed a session,” he says. His mother, Manglembi Devi, sitting in the verandah smiles and proudly nods in unison. “Devendro loves to eat dishes prepared by me, but I haven’t been able to cook for him for long as he’s always been away.”
The 19-year-old is training in Patiala for the Olympics and his sister, Sushila, a two-time national champion in boxing, is keenly following his progress. So much so that Devendro leaves it to her to explain the intricacies of his training. “Please speak to my sister. She knows everything about my training and also speaks Hindi.”
Since Devendro was a toddler, Sushila has taken care of him. She is the one who inspired him to take up the sport even when he was just starting to read and write. By the time he was 10, he had the boxing gloves on. “He always used my old gloves,” says Sushila with pride.
“I used to see my sister train and fell in love with the sport,” says Devendro over phone from Patiala.
Pointing to their courtyard surrounded by tall bamboo trees, Sushila says, “This is the place we used to spar. Even now, when he comes back from the ASI, we spar here. Once, I remember Devendro landing a punch when he was just 11 or 12. I bled profusely from the nose all night.”What started as childhood fun, turned into an obsession for the brother-sister duo. Later, it turned into an opportunity to lift his family out of poverty. "I gave it my best shot during the Army’s scouting programme in Imphal and I was selected," says Devendro.
BB Mohanty, the ASI boxing coach, recollects the day in 2003 when he had come to recruit 25 children. “I had never seen so many children at one single venue. There were more than 800 of them. We had to call the police to control the crowd. Selecting a handful of children was tough, but Devendro, even though he was so young, was unstoppable.”
His indefatigable spirit reminds Mohanty of Asian Games gold-medallist Dingko Singh. “Dingko never said no and I see a lot of similarity between him and Devendro.” Devendro, who till last year was languishing in the junior circuit, suddenly found the poise to beat some of the better and more experienced boxers on way to the India team. “He always had talent,” says Mohanty. “His first medal was in the 2003 sub-junior Nationals, the year he joined us. He was too young then and we had to make an exception to admit him.”
At the World championships in Baku, Devendro waltzed into the quarters to book his London ticket in the light-fly weight category. “It was like a dream,” recollects Devendro. “Till last year, my only hope of witnessing the Games was on TV, but now I am going to London!” Though he will be competing with some of the best, Devendro says no one should underestimate him because of his age.
Coming from a humble background, Devendro’s approach too would be simple in the ring. “Nothing outlandish… I have a job to do inside the ring and I will try to keep a cool head,” he says.
A rush of blood had landed Sushila in trouble during her boxing days and forced her to give up her career. “I have learnt my lesson and tell him to focus on his game and stay away from controversies. I have realised that one cannot always have a good game. Then she changes the topic. “Devendro’s left hook and uppercut are his potent weapons.”
As dusk falls, Devendro’s brother ushers us in to show us his trophies. A small room, barely enough to accommodate a single bed and a closet — overflowing with medals and trophies — is exclusively marked for Devendro. “Every time he comes back, there are more medals and trophies to fill the closet,” says his mother. If he realises his dream at the Olympics, the closet will have a special corner for the medal. And who knows, Devendro might have a new upmarket address.