Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

A trip to Manipur’s Kangathei, where a boxing star was born

M.C. Mary Kom may have moved away from Kangathei a long while ago, but her rise is inspiring kids in her village to follow in her footsteps

Kangathei, Manipur: The land on which her house once stood has no remnants of the family’s existence now. But everyone in this village, Kangathei in Imphal, knows where M.C. Mary Kom lived, and everyone, almost as if bound by habit, says she has made them proud. The site of her house is now an empty plot with a grove of banana trees on it. The house, villagers say, was just like theirs—made of mud, and a thatched or a tin roof. Then things changed for her.

In November, Mary Kom claimed her sixth AIBA (International Boxing Association) Women’s World Boxing Championships title, becoming the first woman in history to do so. The 35-year-old defeated Ukraine’s Hanna Okhota to win the 48kg light flyweight title at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in New Delhi. The victory put her on level with Cuban legend Felix Savon as the joint most successful boxer (men and women) in the history of World Championships with as many as six gold medals. The London 2012 Olympics bronze medallist has previously won the World Championship in 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010, besides getting a silver on her debut in 2001.

An aerial view of Kangathei, Mary Kom’s village in Manipur.
An aerial view of Kangathei, Mary Kom’s village in Manipur.

But before any of this, Kangathei is where the boxing star’s story started. There are anecdotes that the village remembers from her childhood. There is a sense of sympathy that runs across many who witnessed the hardships she went through when she was growing up. There is an unequivocal acknowledgement of the boxing champion’s achievements, but there are not many, in this village of around 250 people, who think they can be like Mary Kom.

“Not everyone can be like her. Even as a child she was different from the rest. Her strength was unparalleled. They don’t make girls or even boys like her now," says Henry Kom, a childhood friend, who is now the secretary of the American Baptist Church, the lone church in this village in the Churachandpur district, almost 50km from Manipur’s capital Imphal.

They don’t make girls or even boys like her now- Henry Kom, Mary Kom’s childhood friend in Kangathei

As a child, Mary Kom hung out, played and fought with boys more than girls. In fact, this was the reason why till she was in the village the Manipuri pugilist was called “second pasay" (pasay means boy in the local language)—a label that infuriated the boxing champion for a long time. But this is the “title" that most villagers remember her with. She was a wiry girl, “more bones, less fat", as the villagers recall, but she was strong. As they had seen her help her father, a landless agricultural labourer, in ploughing the fields, it didn’t surprise many of them that she managed to make a mark in a “man’s game".

Mary Kom was a wiry girl, “more bones, less fat, as the villagers recall, but she was strong

However, in this state, Mary is not the only woman breaking glass ceilings and entering territories that are largely perceived to be masculine. L. Sarita Devi, who won bronze medal at the Asian Championship last year, also belongs to Manipur.

Mary Kom isn’ the only woman pugilist from Manipur. L. Sarita Devi also hails from the state.
Mary Kom isn’ the only woman pugilist from Manipur. L. Sarita Devi also hails from the state.

Outside of the sports realm as well, the state has a history of women fighting for their own rights, and also for the larger struggle for human rights. It was in 1939 that Manipuri women launched “Nupi Lan" or the women’s agitation against the then ruler for his “oppressive policies". Again in 2004, the women of the state protested against draconian laws shielding the armed forces by stripping naked in front of an army barrack in Imphal, carrying banners reading: “Indian Army: Rape Us."

A group of naked Indian women hold a banner as they protest outside the Indian Army Assam Rifles anti-terrorism unit barracks in Imphal on 16 July 2004. Photo: Reuters
A group of naked Indian women hold a banner as they protest outside the Indian Army Assam Rifles anti-terrorism unit barracks in Imphal on 16 July 2004. Photo: Reuters

Manipur is the state that gave birth to the famous activist Irom Sharmila, who went on a hunger strike for more than a decade. The common thread running in all the stories of these women, including Mary Kom’s, is of courage and persistence.

Manipur is also the state that gave birth to the famous activist Irom Sharmila, who went on a hunger strike for more than a decade. Photo: AP
Manipur is also the state that gave birth to the famous activist Irom Sharmila, who went on a hunger strike for more than a decade. Photo: AP

Because of poverty, the initial years of her life were hard. Being the eldest child, Mary Kom felt the need to help her father whichever way she could. When she was in Class III, she saw that her father had many commitments, and her education was just adding to his burden. She dropped out and took a break, helping with domestic and field chores. The villagers say that in a way, at age 7 or 8, Mary Kom suddenly became an adult. When things got better at home, she went back to school, this time almost a kilometre from her village. Then, in her mid-teens, Mary left the village and moved to Imphal. It was a risk. At that time, she was playing football, like many other boys and girls in Kangathei do even today.

This was the time Dingko Singh, a fellow Manipuri, returned from the 1998 Bangkok Asian games with a gold medal in boxing. Mary Kom was inspired by him and thought of giving boxing a try. What she did in the following years changed her life. She didn’t look back and the rest is history now.

Kangathei was Mary Kom’s home, but it wasn’t where she could realize her dreams

Though her parents lived in the village till about three years ago, once Mary Kom left, she only came for short visits. Just like millions of Indians on the move, Mary Kom too migrated from the village to the city, chasing her aspirations. Kangathei was her home, but it wasn’t where she could realize her dreams.

Kangathei is like any other village in India. The bare fields are separated by plantations of bamboo. Banana and pomelo trees are in abundance. Roosters perched on walls take turns between observing the street and crowing, while ducks quack around the houses. There is a church and a graveyard. And life goes on, slowly. In 5 acres of land, there are 49 houses in total. While most are almost identical single-storey mud houses, the ones owned by the relatively rich are painted a screaming blue or pink. Most people work in the fields (according to census 2011, of the total population, 74 were engaged in work; 87.84% of these workers are employed or earn more for than six months in a year, while 12.16% were involved in marginal activity, providing livelihood for less than six months. Of the 74 workers engaged in main work, 37 were cultivators—either an owner or a co-owner—while 11 were agricultural labourers), some in the police, and others as teachers in schools nearby.

A seven-year-old boy from Mary Kom’s village Kangathei, giving boxing a try.
A seven-year-old boy from Mary Kom’s village Kangathei, giving boxing a try.

The village has one primary school; there is no hospital or even a dispensary, and no public transport crosses the village. Those who have to go to the city walk a kilometre to reach Moirang town, where most facilities such as hospitals and markets are readily available.

This is a village of only Koms, a Manipuri hill tribe that was among the many tribes in this northeastern state converted by proselytizing British missionaries. It is a very small tribe, spread over 57 villages across Manipur, and all the members of this tribe are Christians. Religion is important and everyone lives like one big family. At the time this reporter visited the village, preparations for Christmas and a wedding were underway. The church was being decorated, cleaned and whitewashed. However, no one from outside the village was brought in to do any of this. The villagers volunteered to do all of this work. “In the village, we have made ourselves self sufficient. It is hardly that someone from outside comes to help ever. The one painting the building could be a teacher, the one working as a carpenter could be the church secretary. Everyone is everything here, and everyone wants to help," says L. Achung Kom, 70, who served as a church pastor for 25 years.

Bilat Kom (13), an aspiring boxer, with his family in Kangathei. ‘Everyone is everything here, and everyone wants to help’, says L. Achung Kom, who served as church pastor for 25 years.
Bilat Kom (13), an aspiring boxer, with his family in Kangathei. ‘Everyone is everything here, and everyone wants to help’, says L. Achung Kom, who served as church pastor for 25 years.

Unlike many villages and small towns across India, the people here don’t have many dreams, borrowed or their own. Or at least don’t wear them on their sleeves. Somehow the pathos of small-town aspirations is more or less missing from this village. The village, which has a higher literacy rate (89.8%) than the state average (76.9%), has produced two PhDs, one male and one female. There are seven cars, a few bikes, colour televisions, and dish antennas—all markers of rising aspirations, but the villagers say they would rather prefer a life of contentment with their own people than be a part of a mad race in a city far, far away from home.

R. Levion Kom, 72, is the khul lakpa or the village head. Levion, in whose fields Mary and her father once worked, says there was a time when men in the village, like everywhere else, migrated to the cities but now the process has slowed. “Here, at least you are working on your own land, surrounded by your own people. Despite everything, we are more likely to be happy here than in a city," says Levion.

There was a time when men in the village, like everywhere else, migrated to the cities but now the process has slowed. ‘Here, at least you are working on your own land, surrounded by your own people. Despite everything, we are more likely to be happy here than in a city,’ says R. Levion Kom, the village head.
There was a time when men in the village, like everywhere else, migrated to the cities but now the process has slowed. ‘Here, at least you are working on your own land, surrounded by your own people. Despite everything, we are more likely to be happy here than in a city,’ says R. Levion Kom, the village head.

In many north Indian villages or districts such as Haryana’s Rohtak or Punjab’s Ludhiana, just after one person from there becomes a sporting star, almost like a herd, many others follow. This didn’t happen in Kangathei. In so many years after Mary left and made it big, there are only a few who even tried to aspire to be like her. There was a woman who joined a boxing academy, but gave up on it after a year and, instead, chose nursing.

Villagers say one of the reasons why not many followed in Mary’s footsteps was that she didn’t show them the way, and instead of opening an academy in the village, that could have increased the livelihood options here, she chose to start one in Imphal. After becoming a member of Parliament (In April 2016, she was nominated as a member of the Rajya Sabha), she built a community hall for the village, which is now being used for village meetings that were otherwise held inside a makeshift tent. Her husband, villagers say, helped a villager with a heart surgery. However, for the rest, like Levion says, “Kahaan Mary Kom, kahaan ham. Bohot dur ho gaye hain (Mary Kom and the villagers are worlds apart now)."

“Kahaan Mary Kom, kahaan ham. Bohot dur ho gaye hain (Mary Kom and the villagers are worlds apart now).- R. Levion Kom, village head of Kangathei

The misplaced sense of betrayal among some villagers seems to be coming from a place of expecting too much from their hero, whom they own, love, and are proud of. Mary might not have built the academy in her place of birth, but she has built one at the foot of Langol hills in Imphal West district. And it is there not just for people of one village, but for every Manipuri. Launched early this year, Mary Kom’s Regional Boxing Foundation is spread across 3.3 acres and houses 45 players, including 20 girls. Her husband Onler Karong, who is the managing director of the academy, was cited by PTI in February, saying: “Mary wanted to give back to the sport which has made her famous and this was her dream come true."

Bilat Kom, a 13-year-old boy from Kangathei, has joined Mary Kom’s Regional Boxing Foundation in Manipur. He doesn’t exactly know why he wants to box. The answer is because “Mary Kom madam did it”.
Bilat Kom, a 13-year-old boy from Kangathei, has joined Mary Kom’s Regional Boxing Foundation in Manipur. He doesn’t exactly know why he wants to box. The answer is because “Mary Kom madam did it”.

In Kangathei, a 13-year-old son of a farmer also joined Mary’s academy. Bilat Kom doesn’t exactly know why he wants to box. The answer is because “Mary Kom madam did it". Once in 2016, Bilat had seen Mary when she visited the village. He says all the kids in the village surrounded her. “She was so famous. I just wanted to see her face," says Bilat. When he told his father about his dream of becoming a boxer, Gokain Kom did what he could. He saved some money, bought him a pair of shoes, a boxing kit, and sent him to the city.

It has been a year since Bilat moved to Imphal and joined the academy. The academy, meant for poor Manipuri boys and girls, offers free coaching, free lodging and food, and also incurs additional expenses involved during competitions. The idea came out of Mary’s own background, because, as the academy website says, “Most sportspersons in Manipur come from poor and middle class families with little understanding of sporting careers and financial implications." And this academy is an attempt to try and fill the gap between dreams and their realization.

There have been three times when Mary has trained or was present when Bilat was being trained at the academy, but “at least she knows me by my name and face now", he says. By January, he will know whether he is good enough to continue in the academy or not.

Only time will tell if Bilat of Kangathei becomes the next great boxer from Manipur. Until then, Mary’s dream will bring more like Bilat to her academy, just like she brought Kangathei to the world stage.

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