Superwomen: Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives

003SmartQ Superwomen is an attempt to unravel the stories of rightful role models, not only for women, but for people everywhere – stories of underdogs, small fish, who have risen against the odds to carve their names on the milestones of history, where they will forever remain.

By retelling these stories, we hope to highlight that ambition and determination are the only assets that are really required to reach a goal, and indeed, make a difference.

To kick-start this series, we could think of no one as appropriate as a woman who pursued her passion, and worked doubly hard to get where she is. She was able to achieve her dreams despite a tribal background, protests from her family, and perhaps also her culture, being at odds with her vocation.

The Magnificence of Manipur

Picture this: Year 1983 – Kangathei was a sleepy town like any other in Manipur. M Tonpa Kom and M Akham Kom gave birth to their first daughter who could have perhaps been a normal girl, with regular dreams. It wasn’t immediately clear what was destined for that child when she quit school before her matriculation and joined NIOS, Imphal. Although she eventually graduated from Churachandpur College, her destiny awaited elsewhere.

While she willingly lent her parents a hand fishing, in the fields and chopping wood, there was something she particularly enjoyed. What started with a love for 400-m and javelin, was soon kindled by Indian boxer Dingko Singh (who returned from the Asian Games at Bangkok with a gold), to become a full-blown love for boxing. We now know her as Mary Kom, the second Indian to win an individual Olympic gold for a sport other than hockey.

Consumed by the sport, Mary started training to become a pugilist around year 2000. It quickly became clear that she was not only picking up the nuances of the game like a natural (in just about two weeks), but that she could indeed keep up with the boys.

Things weren’t as easy at home though. Indian parents don’t easily abide with sports as a profession. Secondly, her parents worried how someone who was so battered and bruised from boxing could ever hope to secure a husband.

Things were bleak as she could not afford basic sports gear on one hand, or let her family know about this guilty pleasure on the other. In fact, her father was once extremely angry to find a picture of her winning the state boxing championship in the newspaper. As it happened, however, their reluctance eventually did give way to her determination.

With their blessings, Mary joined the Sports Authority of India, Khuman Lampak and trained under her mentor, Ibomcha Singh. She flourished under his guidance, and results were instantaneous. Mary bagged the silver in the 46 kg weight category on her debut at the first Women World Boxing Championship in Pennsylvania, USA, after only a year of training. She was 18.

Victories then followed thick and fast. After a year, she went on to win the gold at the second Association Internationale de Boxe Amateur (AIBA) World Women’s Senior Boxing Championship in Antalya, Turkey. Her drive remained strong even as she returned after a two-month maternity break (having had twin boys) to bag her fourth gold at the World Championships. She has won the event five times in a decade.

This much would have perhaps sufficed for Magnificent Mary, as she is now called, had she been simply a superb athlete. She has a Padma Bhushan, Padma Shree and an Arjuna Award to show for it. But she didn’t stop there. Her elevation to ‘Super-womanhood’ was a result of her efforts in establishing the Mary Kom Boxing Academy in 2006.

A brief knowledge of Manipur explains why this is a significant achievement. In a politically-troubled region where government jobs are the only avenue for a comfortable life, the academy is a ray of hope.

Manipur is birthplace to several athletes of international acclaim, such as Thokchom Nanao Singh and Laishram Sarita Devi (both Manipuri pugilists). It is particularly known for the numerous athletes it produces for football, who play in the national pool, across divisions, and in prestigious teams such as the Navy, Air India and Mahindra and Mahindra. In a region that produces so many athletes, yet so few opportunities; the academy enables local sporting prodigies to shine in Indian sports, on the same footing as their mainland counterparts.

Mary Kom’s struggle to her Olympic gold proves that she is the stuff of legends. Yet, we believe that she is special not only because she is the only Indian woman to have bagged that distinction, but also because her efforts in Manipur will inspire a better life for several Indian children. We hope that the Priyanka Chopra-starrer bio-pic on Mary, which is in the offing, can do justice to her remarkable story and inspire many more to fight for their dreams.