Blame it on Indian Standard Time. Six in the evening, and despite this being the month of the summer solstice, the last dregs of crimson have long dissolved into the darkness. Tiny droplets crash into our faces as we cruise along deserted roads full of potholes, one of which shakes us up particularly badly as coach Ibomcha Singh points to a silhouette.
There’s no power, but our destination, we are told, has an inverter.
If not for boxing, MC Mary Kom would have spent her life in darkness — perhaps, even, quite literally. In this part of the country, lack of electricity isn’t unusual, but the presence of an inverter sure is. We are in Imphal (Manipur’s capital) and headed to the home of the five-time world champion boxer. It isn’t hard to find — the well-furnished house was one of those built for the 1999 National Games and later allotted by the state government to outstanding performers. And the street in National Games Village, Langol, Zone II — on which her house is located — bears her name.
Mary’s neighbours include her old friend and teammate, Sarita Devi, and Dingko Singh. Coming from an impoverished background, Dingko gave hundreds of under-privileged children hope by winning a gold medal at the 1998 Asian Games. Among those children was Mary.
“She came with a dream. Not of becoming a world champion, but of helping herself and her family overcome poverty,” recalls Ibomcha, initially unwilling to train the frail and diminutive Mary, who used to watch boxers train under the coach at the Sports Authority of India’s boxing centre.
Her tenacity persuaded Ibomcha to change his mind and induct her into the same centre where Dingko had trained. Not that the coach had much of a choice. “She never gave up,” says Ibomcha as we enter the well-lit compound through a large green door and catch a rare glimpse of Mary in casuals.
Making her way through the verandah, her movement is nimble, just like in the ring where she spends more time than in the house. She bows to her coach and ushers us in. She might be the world champion, but to her, Ibomcha is still ‘The Coach’.
It’s the same coach she fought with, back when she was a hot-blooded youngster. The temperament is excusable given her background. “You can never imagine the pain of sleeping hungry,” says Mary as she flips through the pages of an album and points to a photograph of her in school uniform. “Class VI. Those were tough days.”
After all those struggles, the physical pain inside the ring never bothered her. Long before that, Mary had come to terms with the fact that in Manipur, if you don’t have a livelihood, you will struggle all your life. Born to jhum cultivators, Tonpa Kom and Akham Kom, in Kangathei village, some 20km from Imphal, she helped them till the field before shifting to the SAI hostel in Khuman Lampak Stadium. But, being the eldest, she had to look after her siblings (two sisters and a brother) too.
Now, 13 years and five World championships later, she’s a different person from the one who obstinately rejected a sub-inspector’s post in Manipur Police because she believed a world champion deserved better. From being a triple world champion who used to demand recognition, she has gone on to command respect by adding two more world titles and, crucially, patience to her CV.
The Balancing Act
Some of the credit for the tempering must go to her husband, Onler Kom, who has been her pillar of strength ever since they met in 2001.
Over the years, the two have forged a special bond. “She may be a five-time world champion but inside the house, she is a mother and a wife,” says Onler. “We share our happiness and disappointments. I have seen in her eyes the pain of losing and the ecstasy of winning. People might think she is tough because she is a boxer, but I know how emotional she is. She cries when she loses or gets hurt, but I tell her to take everything in her stride.” Says Mary, “If he is around, things are easy.”
Her routine, taxing as it ordinarily is, becomes all the more draining when Onler’s not around; regardless, she sticks to it. All three Ts of her life —training, teaching and, of course, the twins — get a dedicated slice of her time pie.
Mary’s morning rituals start at 7am sharp. In the ground bang opposite her house, she runs, skips and spars, not for a moment taking her eyes off the 25-odd students in her academy. At exactly 7.30am, the mother in her takes over for a bit, as she rushes into the house to wake her children up. “Once she’s done with the chores, she will come back for training,” says her secretary, Jimmy.
Passing It On
And come back she does. Soon, the gloves are on, but just when the sparring sessions start taking a serious turn, the heavens open up. With a frustrated look, she orders her wards into the house.
Established in 2006, the MC Mary Kom Boxing Foundation still doesn’t have a permanent address. The promised land was spoken about by the state government two years ago but so far, nothing has happened. “Kya karega? (What can one do?),” she asks, frustrated at being interrupted by rain —more than 1100mm of it annually —every now and then. “I hope we get the land soon. I want to build a shade so that we can train unhindered.”
Each month, Rs. 75,000 go from Mary’s own pocket towards the “residential” academy — the girls shack up under a tin roof within the premises of Mary’s house; the boys stay in a rented house. The gym, where the multiple world champion trains whenever she’s back home, is built in the open, covered only by a shed.
“Her dream is to produce future champions,” says Onler. “So, she spends all her prize winnings on the academy.”
During months of economic blockade, when a gas cylinder costs R1,500 and onion prices touch R50 per kg, the budget goes through the roof. But with the North East Council promising her help, and the SAI centre also “doing its bit to help” as per Onler, there is still hope of there being a permanent roof over Mary’s academy some rainy day.
Despite the fatigue of training, teaching and discharging household duties, there is warmth in her voice and her smiling face as she points to her twins, and says, “I train harder in national camps but it’s my twins who tire me more.”
Being a mother is tough; juggling motherhood and boxing is tougher, but she is not complaining — not just yet anyway. “I always want to be around them,” says Mary Kom, as she helps the four-year-olds with homework. “I miss them when I’m in the camp. I don’t know how long I can carry on like this,” the pain in her words betraying the smile on her face. Indeed, the unbearable thought of giving up the sport that has earned her name, fame and money has crossed her mind.
“I know the day is not too far. At 29, I am not getting any younger. But right now my focus is the Olympics. A billion hopes hinge on my fists. I cannot afford to waver at this moment.”
Though there will be just 12 boxers in her weight category, she is not leaving anything to chance. “I don’t care about the draw. All I know is there’s someone in the ring who I need to beat. And I will.”
The going will prove to be tough in a weight category she has never competed in before, but she is still confident. In 51kg, there will be more powerful boxers with better reach. But being a southpaw who is quick on her feet, she will be at an advantage.
That she has won the World championship in 45kg and 46kg, and Asian Championship and Asian Games medals in 48kg, and has now qualified for the London Olympics in 51kg, begets the question: why the numerous changes in her weight category? The answer, quite simply, is her love for food. “I love eating and this is what I do at home,” she says as she prepares a beef dish. Dried pork hangs in a basket above a gas stove. She loves meat and likes it hot.
For Mary, life outside the ring has never really been all that smooth. The Khel Ratna controversy is something she’d rather not talk about, neither is her father-in-law’s death — shot by ‘some’ insurgent group — just after her marriage.
“I don’t even want to talk about it,” says Onler, whose father was a pastor. “It was the saddest moment of our lives.” Ibomcha reminds us of a menace that Mary Kom is well aware of. “There are more than 33 insurgent groups and thousands of Army men around.” The Imphal night has entered the ‘danger zone’, and we have to reach the hotel without delay. “One cannot take the risk here,” adds the coach.
While escorting us to the car, Mary Kom shows us her ‘most valuable room’, her heart under an asbestos roof. Inside a glass showcase in this makeshift structure hangs her first World championship accreditation card; medals, trophies and awards jostle for space in a cupboard.As she bids goodbye and walks back to the house, Ibomcha breaks his silence. "I tell you, if someone has come this far from nothing, there is something in store for her." An Olympic medal, perhaps? Now that wouldn’t be asking for the moon from a five-time world champion, would it?