Chitra Ahanthem giggled in delight when I called her after Mary Kom’s win in the 51 kg women’s boxing quarter-final, which guaranteed her an Olympics medal. Chitra, a 30-something Imphal-based journalist, can be forgiven for behaving like a child who’s chanced upon a treat. She is among the handful of journalists who have tracked fellow Manipuri Mary Kom’s dogged, arduous climb to the top of the boxing world, rightfully pointing out that no other Indian athlete has been more deserving of recognition but denied it all the same.
Before Mary Kom left for London, she told Chitra that she hoped she would get land for the boxing academy that is her dream. She started a makeshift training camp at a ground near her home on the outskirts of Imphal, intending to move it to the academy once the government made good on its promise of land. That promise was never fulfilled.
Mary Kom’s husband, Onler Kom, told the ‘Telegraph’ newspaper a few days ago: “She does not touch her salary of Rs 31,000 [she holds the post of deputy superintendent of police, awarded to her for her achievements in the ring]. She keeps it for the students. But it isn’t enough and she has to provide another Rs 20,000 to Rs30,000.” Onler said that the Okram Ibobi Singh government had promised her land a while ago, and asked her to identify the site. The couple did so, but the land was never handed over.
“Let’s see how you do in London. Then we’ll talk about the land,” a senior Manipur government functionary sniggered, Mary Kom claimed to Chitra.
Chitra brushed aside my argument that at least now Mary Kom’s claims can’t be ignored. Don’t underestimate official apathy, she said. “You know what the government will be thinking?” she laughed ironically. “With Mary Kom doing well and another Manipuri, Devendro Singh Laishram, on course for a medal, they’ll be fretting about how much money they’ll have to shell out to both in state awards. Other states would lavish crores on such athletes.”
Could it be that the Manipur government will be somewhat upset at their showing? It sounds incredible, but Chitra is convinced about it.
“Do you know when it was time to give her a home, they gave her one at the distant Langol Games Village?” she said.
Mary Kom, Chitra said, has nearly 30 students, including girls, to whom she provides food and kits. The girls stay with her, while the boys make do with a rented house nearby. Since there is no space for the training equipment – which is in short supply anyway – it lies in a ramshackle structure, exposed to the rain and the sun.
“Most people don’t understand the magnitude of Mary Kom’s achievement,” said Chitra. “She won her five world championships in lower weight categories, while she’s powered her way into the Olympics semi-finals in the 51 kg category. It’s a huge adjustment.”
“The good thing,” Chitra laughed, “is that the Manipuris’ performance has forced the government to ensure we get electricity for a few hours more than we normally do so that we can watch them in the ring. [India recently suffered from two major power outages that left half the population in the dark, literally.] My mother asked why we can’t have the Olympics every day for the rest of our lives!”