There’s never a dull moment around S. Sarjubala Devi, 23, given her impish smile. That smile was resplendent when she won her fourth Women’s Senior National Boxing Championship title in Haridwar on 24 November.
This title, though, was one of relief, as she reflected on her topsy-turvy life over the past few years and the fact that she could finally focus on her boxing once again.
“It’s an incredible feeling to know that your efforts have paid off, especially after I started training under coach Abhishek Malvia since the last one year. I had a few tough rounds in the pre-quarter-final (vs Lalinmawii of Mizoram) and the quarter-final (vs Pooja Tokas of Delhi). So to win gold is really satisfying," she says.
Sarjubala took to boxing while growing up in Imphal, idolizing Manipur’s boxer M.C. Mary Kom. There was a time her brother, S.H. Rakesh Singh, would drop her to training at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) facility on his bike.
But the family’s world came crashing down one day in 2009, when he met with an accident and was in coma for a month. A head injury meant that for the next six years Sarjubala’s life revolved around her elder sibling’s treatment. She spent close to Rs12 lakh from her own pocket with the hope that he could lead a normal life again.
At the time, Sarjubala was a rookie who had given a good account of her ability with two gold medals (2006, 2008) at the sub-junior Nationals, and a silver medal in the junior category (2009). The accident unsettled her routine, but the worst was yet to come.
After being crowned national champion and best boxer at the youth Nationals in Guwahati in 2010, Sarjubala came home to hear that her sister, S.H. Sunibala Devi, had committed suicide. The family kept the news from her, knowing that it would affect her emotionally. She still does not know the reason behind the suicide.
Her parents had a meagre income as farmers. Just like that, the family’s responsibility, that included her brother’s recovery, fell on Sarjubala—she was 16 years old then in 2009. Getting into the ring was both a responsibility and a release; her bubbly aura was lost, despite bagging golds at the youth and senior Nationals in 2011. On the world stage, she announced her arrival with gold at the World Youth Boxing Championships in Turkey the same year.
Sarjubala got some respite when the non-profit Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) decided to support her after her final bout at the senior Nationals in 2011 in Bhopal, when she got the better of Krishna Thapa, of Himachal Pradesh, by a unanimous decision. That still wasn’t enough to run the household.
Though the boxing continued alongside, out of sheer desperation, she took on a job with the East Coast Railway in June 2014, which would lead to more agony in a couple of years. “We really needed money, so when the opportunity arose, I thought it was a good way to support my family. My brother needed constant medication and it was impossible to manage things given my family’s situation," Sarjubala remembers.
Her posting in Visakhapatnam took her away from home, and while sportspersons are given leeway to skip duty in order to train, she was never at ease.
As a clerk, Sarjubala earned a low salary, and never got a promotion despite her performances as a sportsperson. To move back into her comfort zone, make better money and focus on training, she applied for and got a job with the income-tax department this year. What was meant to be a simple transition of jobs turned out to be anything but, because of complications in terminating her contract with the East Coast Railway.
The disturbed training routine showed during her performance at the World Championship in Kazakhstan in May, where she lost in the quarter-final to World No.1 Nazim Kyzaibai by a few points. “I was really hurt. I didn’t know what was happening. I have cried more because of frustration than sadness," she says.
After negotiations and with the help of OGQ, the sum owed to the East Coast Railway was brought down to Rs6.31 lakh from Rs15 lakh. She sold her mother’s jewellery and took a loan of Rs4 lakh from the bank. She finally moved back home after her new employers agreed to her request of being posted back in Imphal, and things got better for the fighter.
Early this year, Rakesh got off medicines. She started training at the SAI’s Centre of Excellence in Imphal, where after a long time, she could focus on training again.
With Mary Kom taking to other roles outside the ring—she is a member of Rajya Sabha and has started her own academy in Imphal—the 48kg category was now finally hers. With mentors like the Olympic bronze medallist and L. Sarita Devi, she found the perfect platform to launch a fresh start.
These days, her brother drives her to training whenever she visits home. The calm has returned in her life and the results have shown in the ring. Her smile is only going to get bigger.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.