The golden fairy lights strung around the facade of Vijender Singh’s ancestral house in Kaluwas in Haryana are flying wild in the wind. Singh, dressed in a fitted white kurta pyjama, looks at the dark clouds and shakes his head. “There’s no way it’s not going to pour,” he says.
He’s right—the air is thick with the smell of rain.
Singh’s elder brother Manoj, who introduced the now world No. 1 and world champion boxer to the sport more than 10 years ago, immediately resorts to cheeky Haryanvi wit: “I tried reasoning with it (the rain), but it just won’t listen. Maybe you should try.” “You obviously don’t have the right attitude. You need a convincing tone, not Jat aggression,” Singh tells him.
Despite the good-humoured banter, the rain can be a bit of a disaster for Singh’s gala wedding reception. On 18 May, a day after the boxer married Delhi-based software engineer Archana Singh in a small ceremony in New Delhi, a reception is being held—mostly in open air—on a large area on his father’s fields in Kaluwas, a small farming village in Haryana. It’s barely 5km from Bhiwani, the town famous for producing a long line of India’s most successful boxers, including 25-year-old Singh.
Also see Previous photo essays
One of Singh’s many uncles enters the courtyard and hugs him. He takes a good look at Singh and says, “Your shoulders look weak from lifting your wife.” “She’s not that heavy, tau!” Singh retorts.
Singh’s father enters next and looks at Manoj with worry. “We have to get some umbrellas to put next to the chairs...you know, for the VIPs.”
“Why?” asks Manoj, “The VIPs can’t move inside the shamianas? Are they infirm?” Singh’s father is not impressed. By this time, a light drizzle is taking the edge off the heat. Singh is enjoying the weather. “God is being good,” he says. “Maybe a little too good.”
There’s a steady drizzle now, accompanied by lightning, but the reception area is filling up with villagers heading straight for the food. On the menu are three kinds of chaat, pulao, matar paneer, dal makhani, chickpea, fresh fruit, naan doused with butter and a large variety of sweets. Almost everyone, including Singh’s family, is dressed in everyday clothes and a lot of villagers abandon the rows of chairs to settle down on the ground. The mood is celebratory and perhaps all the more jovial because there is clearly no pressure to dress up. Meanwhile, the large stage with the faux throne set up for the bride and groom, and lit brightly by stage lights, looks forlorn.
Singh peeks at the scene from the second-floor terrace. He gets a telephone call and goes down to the courtyard—the boxing fraternity has arrived. The Commonwealth Games 2010 gold medallists Manoj Kumar and Paramjeet Samota, bronze medallist Jai Bhagwan, Asian Games 2010 gold medallist Vikas Krishnan, silver medallist Dinesh Sangwan, Singh’s cousin and upcoming boxer Balwinder Beniwal, along with a string of coaches, trainers and physiotherapists, stream in, having driven down almost 200km from the Sports Authority of India training centre in Patiala.
“You haven’t changed? Are you going to go like this?” asks Sangwan, who, along with Bhagwan, used to train with Singh at the Bhiwani Boxing Club when they were all in their teens.
“I will! It’s not often that I get to wear something other than boxing shorts and a vest,” Singh says.
The boxers are used to helping each other in their training sessions, and it’s no different here. Bhagwan and Sangwan quickly and efficiently begin arranging chairs and refreshments for village elders. They ask Singh’s family if they need anything and politely, but firmly, keep media people from entering the house. The normally incessant talk about training, diet and boxing techniques and bouts is on the backburner. Tonight, it’s all about the wedding celebrations.
Singh’s wife Archana, her family, and Singh’s mother had gone up to the second floor of the sprawling two-storeyed house earlier to help Archana get ready. Now, a large gang of women, most of them with babies in their arms, enter the house and make straight for the stairs to the second floor and Archana’s room. Singh tries to stop them, but they pay no heed. He calls for his mother. “Ma,” he screams, “everyone’s going up to her room.”
By now, there’s a general consensus that there’s no point waiting for the rain to stop. Singh has changed into a sherwani and the couple, flanked by several hulking boxers, come down in their finery. They make their first stop at a room where all of Singh’s female relatives have gathered to bless the couple. Singh’s 90-year-old grandmother sits in the middle of the room, toothless but imperious, and watches the fun.
“I’ve been distributing Rs 500 notes to all the women of the house and some from my village too,” she says. “I’m happy Vijender is such a big shot now, but all these people, this chaos, it’s very strange to me. I’m an old woman.”
Singh’s grandfather is less shy. “If you see anyone getting drunk on the sly and acting funny, take a nice photograph and print it in your paper, ok?” he tells us.
When the bride and the groom finally enter the reception area at 9.30pm, press photographers make a rush for them, but come up against the beefy human wall set up by the boxers around Singh and his wife.
Mahabir Satpal Singh, world champion wrestler Sushil Kumar’s long-time coach and mentor, and now father-in-law, is also in attendance with a group of international wrestlers. He is the only one to introduce sports in the otherwise festive banter. “When an athlete finds a partner for life, it usually pushes them to greater heights in the sporting arena,” he says. “He (Singh) won bronze in the Beijing Olympics. Now, with his wife’s support, maybe it will be gold in London (the 2012 Olympics).”
Singh and Archana spend less than an hour on the stage before heading back in. There’s a lot of packing to be done because the boxers are leaving for a training tour to Cuba in five days.
Singh hopes he can take Archana along and turn it into “half a honeymoon”.