WHEN Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom was born to Mangte Tonpa Kom and Mangte Akham Kom, a tribal subsistence farmer in Kangathai village in Manipur’s Churachandpur district in 1983, little did they realise their first child would one day transform their lives.They affectionately named her Chungneijang, meaning “Abode of wealth” in their Kom dialect — spoken by some 30,000 fellow Kom tribesmen of Manipur — but it was her Christian name, Mary, that would later transform into “Magnificent Mary” and make her famous the world over.
Chungneijang’s metamorphosis into Magnificent Mary is almost Cinderella-like except her’s is the real deal, for all to see, read and hear about. Speaking to The Statesman, this five-time world boxing champion shared with others how, being the eldest, she was looked upon more like a boy by her father. And she did her best to help make both ends meet, given their marginalised existence, helping her father in paddy cultivation, doing everything in the field except ploughing, collecting firewood, making charcoal, fishing and helping her mother to weave clothes that were sold in the market.
In spite of her hectic schedules, she found time to go to school and, along with her schoolmates, played all the games and everyone thought there was a fine athlete in the making in this girl. It was, however, her decision to pursue further studies at Imphal’s Adimjati High School that propelled her into bigger waters.
At that poiint of time, Manipur was celebrating the arrival of Dingko Singh in the international boxing arena, especially after he boxed his way to bagging the gold in the Bangkok Asiad. This, coupled with the demonstration of women boxing in the Fifth national Games in Imphal in 1999, spurred her into the boxing ring. She contacted the Sports Authority of India at Imphal and was baptised into the sport by Dronacharya Awardee Ibomcha Singh and, later, two state coaches, Ranjit Singh and Kishen Singh, took her under their wing and polished her into the fighting machine she now is.
But the training period was hard. She saved the Rs 50 she received as pocket money every month from her mother to buy a pair of boxing gloves and had no money to supplement her dietary requirements. Mary Kom almost did not make it to the limelight. In 2001, while going to Hissar camp (Haryana), her luggage cointaining her passport was stolen on the train. A distraught Mary thought of ending her life then and there. But being a Christian, she prayed and “the Lord appeared before me and told me to take things in my stride and all will be well in the end”. Thus inspired, she phoned home and her fellow Kom tribesmen led by chief judicial magistrate Shongboi Kom collected money to get her a new passport and enable her to make the journey to Pennsylvania in the USA to take part in the First Women’s Boxing Championship. She won a silver in that opening tourney and has never since looked back.
In the next meet at Turkey, she emerged champion, clinching the gold. That was when the Manipur government took notice of her achievement and offered her a constable’s post in the state police. Her family then decided that a world champion should not settle for a constable’s post and politely declined. After she bagged her second world title in Russia, the state offered her a sub-inspector’s post, which she quietly accepted. Then after her third gold world title, she was promoted to inspector. There followed her fourth gold in the Fifth World Boxing Championship in China in 2008 and she was promoted to deputy superintendent of police. Following her latest triumph at Barbados, Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh announced, during a public reception in Imphal, that his government was promoting her to additional superintendent of police plus an incentive of Rs 10 lakh and a two-acre plot for her Mary Kom Boxing Academy.
In all, she has won 11 national titles and 17 international and world titles. And in between she has been conferred with the Arjuna Award, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award and the Padmashree by the government of India, and has been feted by the who’s who of India. A picture hung on her wall shows her flanked by Nita Ambani holding one of her twin sons and Aamir Khan of Bollywood fame.
But Mary Kom, who has been compared to Sugar Ray Robinson by the Imphal Free Press, is not one to rest on her laurels. Her boxing academy is where her heart is at the moment. She has 15 boys and 15 girls staying at her residence and being trained under her watchful eyes and whose board and lodge is being provided by her as a cost of Rs 45,000 per month. She is amply supported by her husband Onkholer Kom who manages the academy and minds their twin sons while she is away on her boxing circuits. As she said in Delhi upon arrival from Barbados, “I am a living example of nothing is impossible.” Magnificent Mary is now setting her sights on winning the gold in the forthcoming Asiad in China and later the Olympics in London in 2012. All said and done, this shy tribal girl from Manipur has done India proud.
The writer is an Imphal-based former Special Correspondent of The Statesman