“Sitting in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, with all those renowned people around me, I felt my spirit and my commitment to my country’s sporting glory renewed. I dedicated the award to my sons who were still too young to understand why their mother kept leaving them and going away. I hoped they would understand one day.” – M.C. Mary Kom (in her autobiography, Unbreakable).
Once again my belief that the airport bookstalls provide one with some interesting reading stuff to the book hunters in reiterated today. On my way to Kolkata, at the Delhi airport, after having a plain dosa from the series of eateries while wondering how the plain looking Indians could hog the KFC big meals (fried chicken and soda) and coming to conclusion that compared to the price of the food available inside the flight this could be much cheaper, and also after puffing a cigarette inside the smoking lounge sans an exhaust fan, fairly awakened with a heady concoction of nicotine and sambar, I ventured into the bookstall luckily reinstated by the authorities after a prolonged phase of renovation of the old terminal, and amongst many ‘picks of the month’ found something which I had been looking for quite some time; the autobiography of the sporting/boxing legend Mary Kom.
Mary Kom had shot up to fame, in a larger sense with her silver medal in women’s boxing, which was newly introduced to the Olympics events held in London in 2012. When she boxed way to the victory stand, people back in India stood up in ovation. The mainlanders in India generally think that the North Eastern people are good at sturdy sports; sports that demand stamina and enduring capacity from the player. This clichéd stereotyping has been there for quite some time. From Baichung Butia to Sunil Chettri and from Kunjarani to Mary Kom, stereotyped faces have the North Eastern looks. When Mary Kom was travelling with the Indian contingency of sportspeople, team members from other South Eastern countries used to ask about her nationality. When she said that she is from India, they told her that why she looked like ‘them’ and the other people in the Indian team looked different. Mary Kom knows why and what this distinction is all about; in Manipur and the other North Eastern states, people considers them as Manipuris or Assamese or Nagas or things like that and all the mainlanders, at least for the Manipuri’s are ‘Non-Manipuris’. When I read this, from Mary Kom’s own words, I remember the two girls who come from Manipur to join the Indian National Hockey Team, in the renowned film, Chak De India. They confront the person who questions their nationality and tell him that it is very painful to be a ‘guest’ in your own home.
(Mary Kom with Sushmita Sen at the book launch)
We have some fixation with medals; may be, it is with the silver medals. When P.T.Usha got her silver medal in Olympics in early 1980s, she was given the same treatment by the Indian media. Luckily, in those days we had only newspapers, radio and the state owned Doordarshan. Still she got a demi-goddess status. There were only very few people in this country who could get a letter addressed like ‘name and India’. Rabindranath Tagore was one, and so was Mahatma Gandhi. Those were the pre-mediatized days. But in 1980s too, India still struggling inside the national(ist) economy, P.T.Usha became another person who could get a letter addressed to her like ‘P.T.Usha, India’. It is interesting that we reward our sports people, when they really make the country proud with their victories, we make them police officers. P.T.Usha, Shainy Wilson, M.D.Valsamma and so many athletes had become police officers. Mary Kom too became a sub-inspector initially as she refused to accept a constable’s job after her World Championship victory almost ten years back. She was later offered a sub-inspector’s post which she accepted. Today, she is the Superintendent of Police (rank-sports) in Manipur. Mary Kom writes how she has been initially refused the Rajiv Khel Ratna Award as one of the jury members, the one and only Milkha Singh showed his ignorance by saying that he did not know what this Kom woman played in the field of sports. The intervention of the then sports minister, M.S.Gill finally assured her the deserving award.
Mary Kom’s story is fascinating. Born in 1982 to a landless farmer, whose forefathers were once the kings of the particular landholding where he worked as a labourer, Mary Kom had a very tough childhood. But the toughest of education, the lessons of developing stamina and endurance that nature provided her was zen like. She ran a few kilometres to the school every day, she went to cut trees in the nearby woods, she carried heavy weights from the farm to home. And when she put these daily labours together it became her exercise even without knowing she was preparing herself for a big challenge. Initially she did not know which sports genre she should consider as her specialisation. She was good at athletics; she hoped that one day she would get a job in sports quota and she would provide her parents with a good life. They were toiling day and night to make her dream come true. Going to Imphal to train at the Sport Authority of India was her first introduction to the larger world of sports. Kind hearted boxers who once represented India in many events helped her to learn the techniques. She realized the politics of the game and the game of politics while at SAI. She honed up her skills and started appearing in the state level tournaments and then national level tournaments.
One may find a faint similarity between the story of the character portrayed by Hilary Swank in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and that of Mary Kom. Perhaps the story of the underdogs is similar anywhere in the world; it could be Rocky, Hurricane Porter or a Raging Bull. It could be even the story of Evander Hollyfield and Mike Tyson or further back, that of Mohammed Ali. Boxers come from tough backgrounds; initially they fight with nature then with their ring time opponents. In fact, they do not fight with nature. They learn the lessons from nature. Had they been fighting nature they would have become just police constables. They flow with nature and realize the inner and outer strength of their lives and then they achieve what they want to achieve in their lives. Some get trapped. Mary Kom survived the traps by playing her game; she refused to take even the basic medicines for cough and cold out of the fear that she might get tested positive in narcotic tests. She was careful and she knew the traps of being in a competitive sport. Mary Kom’s life as a sports person was not smooth sailing. She had to face all the odds, even the jealous of her ring mates. But she survived because she had to survive for her parents, for her Kom community that had stood with her all the time, for her Manipur and above all for her India.
Marriages are made in heaven and human beings make it hell. The adage is beautiful. But for many sports people, especially for women, marriage is a death knell to their career. In Chak De India, you must remember how the forward player Preeti Sabarwal who is in love with one of the top cricket players in the Indian squad, decides to break up her engagement with him only because he wants her to be homebound after their marriage. In one of the most memorable moments in the movie, Chautala passes a ball to Sabarwal and tells her, ‘Dikhao woh launde ko’ (Show that guy (what you have)) and Sabarwal hits the goal. It is not just a goal, but an assertion of her individuality. Mary Kom found the right guy in Onler. He is a Kom who was a student in Delhi pursuing law studies and was looking after the welfare of Manipuri students. He happened to be a passport carrier for Mary Kom while she was training in Hisar, Haryana. Their friendship grew and finally they got married. The story has the material to be another ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ (that is why Mary Kom’s life is going to be a bio-pic soon, with a perfect miscast in Priyanka Chopra). She delivered a twins through Caesarean section in 2006. After two years, she got her form back with severe training and won a few medals both in national and international events. Post Olympics victory, she delivered one more child. But she has not yet hung her gloves. She is preparing for the next Olympics. In the meanwhile, she with the help of her husband, who has stood with her throughout by almost becoming a ‘house husband’, has started a boxing academy in Imphal where she trains kids from underprivileged sections of the society to become world boxing champions. Besides, she even walks the ramps in fashion shows and attends start events, which adds to her income to run the boxing academy. A girl once used to look at herself as if she were an ugly duckling today shares photo ops with super stars. Once Onler commented, if they spend these many hours on make-up, anybody could look beautiful. But he said it with a great pride.
Unbreakable is a book designed for a special purpose, I believe. This book is inspirational and self-help at the same time. Besides being the autobiography of Mary Kom, this book also prepares the readers to see the forthcoming bio-pic in perspective and context, though the book carefully avoids any mention about the impending movie. Mary Kom writes about her life and also writes about her future plans. She tells her students that if she could then they also could. She indirectly tells the readers, if she could then the readers also could. But one has to have a vision, a mission and enough conviction to pursue it. Also, achieving something is not everything. The show must go one and the role of the victor does not end with a victory. The fruits of it have to be distributed. One has to give it back to society; if possible selflessly. Mary Kom’s life tells us this story and it is a great reading material. That’s why, in a flight delayed by an hour, I could finish reading all those 155 pages. Thank you Mary Kom.