The Feint Sainthood of Mary


Five-time world boxing champion, policewoman and coach Mary Kom tells Shobhita Naithani why her children will only learn tennis

Golden glove Mary Kom at a training camp near Bhopal
Golden glove Mary Kom at a training camp near Bhopal
Photo: Garima Jain

THE ROOM is deceptive. There are two double beds separated by a steel cupboard. A makeshift clothesline, drooping with the weight of hand-washed clothes, runs across the breadth of the room. A simmering rice cooker is preparing lunch. A few raw vegetables lie nearby. Some personal grooming items are kept on the bedside table. Barring a pair of clammy boxing gloves, this dank room could pass as any broke college kid’s room. Who’d think it houses a world boxing champion?

The inhabitant is also deceptive. A teeny, bony frame, mobile phone held in a notably dainty and well-manicured hand, lies face down on the bed. Mangte Chungneijang Merykom, better known as Mary Kom, is in a heated argument with her mother on the phone. Her mother is asking for Rs. 3.5 lakh. Mary wants to know what exactly the money is going to be spent on.

It was only a month ago that the 28-year-old won her fifth World Women’s Boxing title in the island nation of Barbados. And now she is back living ascetically at the Sports Authority of India hostel on the outskirts of Bhopal. Training for the November Asian Games in China, Mary Kom’s only distractions in this comatose compound are phone calls with her family in Manipur, occasional saas-bahu soaps, a self-executed manicure and cooking a daily meal.

Life otherwise has been fairly remarkable for this gentle rebel. The eldest daughter of a landless farmer couple in Manipur, Mary’s parents first learnt of her boxer avatar when she won the Manipur State Championship in 2000. Five years later, at 23, she chose a man and married him. Her parents protested, but Mary had decided. K Onler Kom, 10 years senior to her, became Mary’s cheerleader who’d escort her on daunting bus and train journeys for tournaments. Later, he’d tend to their home and kids while Mary trained for 250 days a year. Mary added another feather in her mutineer’s cap when she returned to the ring — in the same weight category of 46 kg — 18 months after giving birth to twin boys. Others, of course, include the Padma Shri, the Arjuna Award and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna.

When her exasperated phone call finally ends and Mary begins to chat, it’s like having stumbled upon an old school friend who is welcoming and unassuming. It is this last quality that has been the great dilemma of her professional life. Her coach Anoop Kumar explains that “Mary is world-class only because she is unaffected by her success” — but that’s precisely why junior women boxers find her too ordinary and accessible to be a pin-up icon. Boxer Preeti Beniwal, 23, says that a lot of young boxers don’t comprehend the phenomenon of Mary “only because she lives like one of us”.

Ten years of intense training and success have still left Mary preoccupied with financial insecurity. With her first prize money of Rs. 9 lakh in 2001, Mary had bought herself a two-wheeler, a plot of farming land for her parents, invested in fixed deposits for her siblings and put aside the remaining for her travels. But as she kept winning more medals, she involuntarily became an income-augmenter, often sharing her meagre rewards three ways — her parents, her immediate family and her husband’s extended family.

In the mid-1990s, when Mary, as a penniless farmer girl, first began to cultivate a sport, the endeavour was to not only find a “way out of a state torn by violence and despair but also grab the only opportunity available to be financially independent”. Winning a medal for the state, still, translates into a government job.

Today, by no standards is Mary impecunious. But it would be wrong to assume that she is as comfortable as her male contemporaries. For a Commonwealth Games advertisement shoot Mary was offered Rs. 60,000 while a male boxer commanded over Rs. 2 lakh. She turned down the offer. “Is this the kind of respect they have for me?” she bemoans. While the champion and her game survive on aid from a few sponsors, her family is dependent on her meagre Manipur Police force salary and the occasional prize money that she brings home. So when her mother seeks Rs. 3.5 lakh for Mary’s younger sister’s airhostess training programme, she is outraged.

Mary fasts till 12 every Sunday, prays before every meal and every bout. The Bible is the only book she has ever read

NONE OF Mary’s three younger siblings have taken after their sister or even their father who represented his village in Mukhna, a form of wrestling. As the sun sets, Mary heads for her last practice session of the day. One knows that her velvety footwork, stylish, swift punches and equally classy counter punches are not bereft of a subconscious worry to maintain a sound bank balance; incongruous for a sportswoman of her stature.

But what’s commendable about Mary Kom is the balance she strikes in life. Personal worries don’t seem to encumber her professional achievements. Coaches and colleagues say the boxer is magnificent to watch in the ring. “She is a born fighter,” says Coach Anoop Kumar of the seasoned boxer. “Her attacks, counter-attacks, feints are all very sharp.”

Apart from breaking into a dance, humming a popular Bollywood number and admiring her glowing face in the mirror, in between her practice sessions, Mary is famed for her hot temper. “I am a tigress in the ring,” she says. For a boxer, constructive anger could translate into winning a bout. Mary fasts till 12 every Sunday, prays before every meal and every bout. The Bible is the only book she has ever read, re-read and still continues to read. And because the Holy Book teaches you to be benevolent, Mary runs a boxing academy that provides free training to poor students in Imphal. The three-year-old academy houses 27 boarders, of which nine are girls, free of cost in her three-bedroom government-allotted house.

For her children though, Mary has different plans. “Boxing is good, but not as a career,” she says. Now 3, Rechungvar and Khupneivar, started school two weeks ago. In a few years time Mary and Onler want to send them to a boarding school away from Manipur and train them in tennis; a game more glitzy and lucrative — one Mary could never afford to train in.

She dreams of the Olympic gold. In 2012, for the first time, women boxers will compete in the Olympics. “I hope I become famous after that,” she laughs. If that recognition comes, her personal life will be peaceful. “I will become a coach and love my kids,” says the boxer, her hands rocking an imaginary baby.

with inputs from Kunal Majumder


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