THE ROOMÂ 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 kidâs room. Whoâd 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 Komâs only distractions in this comatose compound are phone calls with her family in Manipur, occasional saas-bahuÂ 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, Maryâs 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 Maryâs cheerleader whoâd escort her on daunting bus and train journeys for tournaments. Later, heâd tend to their home and kids while Mary trained for 250 days a year. Mary added another feather in her mutineerâs cap when she returned to the ring â in the same weight category of 46 kg â 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, itâs 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 âMary is world-class only because she is unaffected by her successâ â but thatâs 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 donât comprehend the phenomenon of Mary âonly because she lives like one of usâ.
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 â her parents, her immediate family and her husbandâs extended family.