Boxer Sarita Devi made headlines after she refused to accept her bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon. Her dramatic protest against the judges' decision was deemed misconduct and punished with a yearlong ban. However, Sarita won the heart of many fans, and the entire nation, along with sporting legends like Sachin Tendulkar, rallied behind her.
In this biography, journalist Suprita Das chronicles Sarita's life before and after Incheon, her roots in a small village in Manipur, rivalry with fellow champion Mary Kom, and struggle to return to form after marriage and childbirth. Written with passion and flair, this is an important book for anyone interested in women's sports as well as the trials faced by sportspersons from the Northeast.
The excerpt below is an account of Ibomcha, the man who has revolutionised boxing and martial arts in Manipur and trained several world champions.
Close to six feet, and now in his sixties, [L. Ibomcha Singh] is bald but still very fit. Always clad in a tracksuit, he wore a thick gold chain and a chunky wrist watch that he kept looking at from time to time when we met. His boxing centre in Khuman Lampak Park has a couple of other coaches who taught the children now, but Singh, who has been in charge of the centre since 1999, has other things to take care of. 'I have no qualification. Nothing,' he told me. 'Only matriculation pass. But I know how to get things done. That's why I am still here.'
Ibomcha wanted to represent India in boxing internationally, and had worked his way up the hard way to get picked for the national squad. He had left his job in the Army to focus on boxing. But in 1996, fifty minutes before he was scheduled to board his flight to Jakarta for the prestigious President's Cup — it was going to be his first international tournament — Ibomcha was informed that he was not part of the team. No reason was stated, and despite being picked after trials, another boxer was favoured over him at the last minute. Ibomcha, in his early thirties then, returned to his room in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, and cried all night, wetting his pillows and sheets.
They may have wronged him, but no way in hell was he going to return to them begging for a spot in the national team. And just like that, Ibomcha Singh's dreams of winning medals for India went up in smoke. 'But I told myself, so what if I couldn't become a boxer? I will produce boxers of such high calibre that no selector in this country will be able to ignore or sideline them like they did with me,' Ibomcha said, pointing out the date the 'tragedy' occurred to him. '28 February 1996. It changed my life.'
After that mishap, boxing became Ibomcha's life, more than it already was. And that's the way it has remained. Referring to himself as a 'mad man', he remembered he didn't visit his in-laws when his father-in-law passed away because there were children to be trained at his centre for a competition. 'I know I did a bad thing, and more than anyone else, my wife felt bad about it,' he said. 'Can you be madder than this?' That madness, or streak of genius, if you'd like to call it, was what produced champion boxers like Dingko Singh, M.C. Mary Kom, Suranjoy Singh, Devendro Singh and Sarita Devi in the years to come. No wonder Ibomcha enjoyed a demi-god status in the state even now.
But to start women's boxing in Manipur, Ibomcha needed to brush up his persuasive skills. 'Manipuri women are extraordinary,' he said. 'Let me give you a small example. Have you seen any other market in this country that is run only by women?' Ibomcha was referring to the iconic Ima Market run entirely by women, mostly mothers. Even in the 1990s, more than 500 women entrepreneurs sold fresh fi sh, dry fish, bamboo, fabric and metal jewellery every single day at the 'Ima Keithel', making the place almost a beacon of women's empowerment in the state.
But the shift in role for Manipuri women from the domestic to the social sphere happened earlier than that, around the 1970s. Women came out as parts of various vigilante groups against alcohol and drug use, and later, of course, to fight human rights violations that were done in the name of countering insurgency operations. In 2004, defying curfew, women activists stripped during a demonstration before Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, protesting against the rape and killing of a young woman by security forces. 'Rape us, Indian Army. Take our flesh,' they shouted, and wrote on their banners, as they attempted to break open the historic fort's gates. By then, Irom Sharmila was already into the fourth year of her iconic fast, demanding the repeal of AFSPA from the state.
'I saw strong and brave women all around me, and that made me believe that they would make excellent boxers,' Ibomcha said. And every day when he passed by the Ima Keithel, this belief became stronger. Getting a nod from state federation offi cials took its own time, but Ibomcha was impatient. 'I wanted to bring about some sort of kranti, some revolution,' he said. 'So I couldn't wait.' Women's boxing had not taken off in other parts of the country either, so there was no example to follow as such, or any particular direction to go in. Everything was new, and unknown. In fact, Manipur didn't have any formal state association even for men's boxing though Ibomcha had started training boys. Eventually, what used to be the state's bodybuilding association was re-christened to a more formal boxing body. 'I went to schools, parents, kung fu and taekwondo classes,' Ibomcha said. 'I told them, send your children to me, they can try and learn a new sport. If they are any good, this could be the start of something great for us.' Ibomcha started spreading the word among other sports coaches he already knew, who in turn began getting prospective girl boxers to him, to start training with the boys. They put out advertisements for free boxing classes after school hours at the Imphal Polo Grounds.
Sarita was dragged to Ibomcha by Ibotombi straight from the kung fu competition. For the fi rst two days, Ibomcha simply asked her to watch and learn. 'I observed, found it interesting,' she remembered. 'I knew my legs were already strong from taekwondo and kung fu training, but I had to work on my fists.' But Sarita also didn't like a lot of what she saw, and hence decided to tell Ibomcha that boxing wasn't for her. 'There was too much sweat, and when it dripped off the red headgear that the boxers were wearing, it looked like blood to me,' she said. 'Many of the boys also told me that if I wore gum shields for too long, my mouth would become really big.' Ibomcha had a good laugh at this reasoning and sent her back.
However, two days later, Sarita returned. 'There was too much restlessness in my mind about home and family,' she said. 'Sports always kept me happy, I was sure of that. And there were many boys and girls in boxing, so I thought I would kill boredom and make some new friends.'
Excerpted from Shadow Fighter: Sarita Devi and Her Extraordinary Journey (paperback, 204 pages, Rs 299) with permission from HarperCollins India.
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