IMPHAL IS A town so removed from the Indian growth story that aspiration is not even visible on its streets. It feels old, not from the presence of history, but from an absence of renewal. A new car is a rarer sight than a jeep of India’s security forces, which keep a deployment in the state of Manipur to combat a decades-long insurgency. In matters of infrastructure, government has excused itself altogether.
There is a road in Imphal West, over a kilometre long, flanked on either side by uncultivatable wetland. It is a shuddering stretch of stone and dust, with an enormous, open garbage dump at one end. It is officially called Mary Kom Road, but there is no sign to mark the fact, and Mary is glad of it.
She has lived in Manipur all her life. The daughter of landless agricultural labourers, she moved to Imphal in her mid-teens to make something of herself in track and field. Then a Manipuri boxer called Dingko Singh won gold at the Asian Games in Bangkok. Dingko too was poor. When he came back he was received as a hero; on the streets people collected money to give to him. Mary heard that women’s boxing had just been introduced in Manipur. She approached the head coach at the Sports Authority of India centre, Ibomcha Singh. He remembers her being so small and young that he turned her away. At the end of his working day, she was waiting for him at the gate. In the ring, her attitude struck him as “do or die”.
At Delhi airport, as she queues for security, the thousands around her who would stampede at the sight of a cricketer are oblivious to the champion in their midst. Before Beijing, Bindra was similarly anonymous. Then he won gold, and received 380,000 telegrams.
There is a more depressing aspect to this. The Indian consciousness does not extend to a peripheral state out by the Burmese border. The millions unacquainted with Mary would struggle to find Manipur on the map. They might finger India’s right ear, but which state exactly is it? What do the people eat, what language do they speak?
And how then are Indians going to appreciate the brilliance of Mary Kom’s achievement, to place it in context? In her defiance is an echo of the women of Manipur who waged two Women’s Wars against the British in 1904 and 1939. To protest at atrocities by Indian security forces, an activist named Irom Sharmila has been on hunger strike for 11 years, force-fed through a tube, and women of the Meira Paibi (“torch bearers”) group once stripped naked outside a military camp in Imphal waving the startling banner “Indian Army Rape Us”. Irom Sharmila protests; the women of Manipur run the biggest all-women’s market in South Asia; and Mary Kom boxes, fights, plays.
At Christmas 2006, returning home from [Mary’s husband] Onler’s village in Samulamlan Block, they received a series of phone calls and texts, saying that Onler’s father had been called out of the house by a group of men, taken a short distance away, and shot in the head at point-blank range. He was a parson and the village chief. There was no demand, no warning, no apparent motive. They had left him only hours earlier, and the mood was festive. The closest Onler can come to making sense of the murder is jealousy: of Mary’s success and his marriage to her.
When he recounts the incident, in harrowing detail, it is a journey into the heart of the Manipuri situation of UGs and C-in-Cs, underground groups and their commanders-in-chief. There are some 40 ethnic groups in Manipur, and about as many armed UGs which, though often rivals, together form a kind of parallel government. Two of the boys involved in the murder—there were eyewitnesses in the house—were apprehended by a UG two years later, says Onler, and even confessed in front of journalists. But Onler refused to make a “donation” to the UG; the C-in-C made sure the news was spiked, and the killers roam free.
The weight category is no small matter, especially for Indians, who, a national-level woman boxer tells me, are so insecure that from “15 till retirement” they look to fight in the same class. And so the national championships are full of starving boxers, surviving on glucose biscuits, reluctant even to drink a glass of water before their weigh-in.
With a champion’s cold fury, Mary worked her way up two weight classes in three years to 51kg. She had to bulk up without slowing down. She had to work on a tight defence against bigger boxers. Before Ulan Bator, she went into training in Pune with the veteran British coach Charles Atkinson—underwritten by Olympic Gold Quest and a ministry grant. She was the first woman Atkinson had coached, and her sparring partners in Pune were men.
Few Indians have ever seen Mary box, because barely any of her tournaments are televised or even streamed online. Her feats end up buried in the back pages, usually in the Sport in Brief. But when she returned from Qinhuangdao as the first and only Indian woman boxer to have qualified for the Olympics, the press was interested at last.
This is why Mary needs London: it is why every Indian athlete other than the cricketers and a handful of tennis stars needs the Olympics. It will define them. It could transform their fortunes, validate their efforts, their life. But unlike the weightlifters and archers and the growing contingent of male boxers who may confront their destiny two or three or four times over a career, London is Mary’s first and only chance. By Rio de Janeiro in 2016, she will be 33, and too old.
The article is worth reading in full.