Mumbai She's visibly uncomfortable in these surroundings - the blast of AC for starters, then the sheer number of people milling about in this Mumbai suburban hotel -- a far blaring cry from the laconic peace of the Manipur hills where she comes from. All these years, she hardly found an occasion to leave her idyllic home, let alone speak more than half a dozen sentences to inquisitive strangers. For Akham Kom, an invitation to Mumbai to attend a sponsor event with a mum-theme alongside daughter Mary Kom - who has now trained herself to speak those more than half a dozen sentences, thanks to posers on her punches - is quite a unique experience. One she might want to get used to, for the organisers are facilitating the reticent mum's presence in London where Mary Kom - should she qualify for the Olympics - will fight for a medal when women's boxing debuts at the quadrennial.
Dramatic sacrifices aren't a part of this tale, and the mother doesn't hog even a shred of credit for what her now-famous daughter achieved, or tom-tom about her own contribution. She barely understands boxing, though in recent years, while watching a movie on the sport she is prone to excitedly jump and point out a hook or an uppercut, and wait for her daughter's wry affirmation. Yet in her routine day-to-day plodding to provide the basics for her children including the famed eldest lies the story of unquestioned support for an Indian woman athlete, who London or not, has emerged the most-recognisable boxing figure for this nation.
It's an oft-quoted story of how Mary's father opposed her taking up the duelling sport; that's just half the legend. For when push came to shove, nay, a punch - and he finally relented, he did all that he could to support her: going up in the hills to bring cattle to sell to a slaughterhouse, and disappear for months deep down in the forested valleys looking to collect saleable timber. Akham Kom, as Mary says now, did the crucial bit of letting her daughter pursue precisely what she pleased. To be sure, boxing wasn't the most natural option for girls in her growing-up years. The mother simply followed football as most Manipuris do, but more so enjoyed the one sport that Manipuris rever - Kang. It's a sport that accompanies Manipuri New Year's day celebration where a 'Kang' - flat, oblong ring of lac or ivory is thrown at targets, and engaged in in the backyards in congenial groups. There's much merriment to it, and also some superstitions. So nothing could have prepared Mary's family for their daughter sneaking out, donning oversized gloves and occasionally punching a few boys in the face.
"My mother had no idea of women learning boxing. But whatever my interest, she supported," Mary remembers. Now a mother of twins herself, Mary is doubly reliant on Akham Kom to tend to the kids. "She takes care of them since I can't be home always. And she's told me to focus on competition only," the 28-year-old adds. There was something even more elementary that Mary learnt from her mum. "She taught me hard work," she says. A life of hardships in Manipur was par for the rough course, but it still needed some rule-setting in the house that saw all children share responsibility, irrespective of the gender. "She was always like a boy," Akham remembers, adding, "but she would do every work that a girl would do at home, and also what the men were expected to." Mary still cleans her house, scrubs, cooks and washes, when at home in Manipur.
The mother is appreciative of her daughter's determination. "Once she decided she wanted to do something, she wouldn't let anything come in her way," she recalls.
It wasn't just when the father found out, and threw a giant fit - eventually making peace with his daughter's wishes. Akham had to bear the sniggers of the neighbours too. "They would earlier make fun of my boxing. And mum would get very, very angry. So both of us without saying much to each other I knew I had to prove a point," Mary recalls.
"We were against it initially, but Mary promised that she would not burden us with the costs," the mother, recalls. "She told us that when her friends would spend Rs 10, she would only spend Rs 5.. we had told her earlier on that we might not be able to support her financially. But eventually I decided to support her because she was really keen," says Akham, sitting ramrod straight in her chair, a few inches taller than Mary, looking fit enough to pass off as her sister. As she instinctively puts her arm around Mary's shoulder while pictures are taken, never once preening, nor posing, the frame has the likeness of a family portrait not quite the glitzy Mumbai showy photo-op.
She's watched her fight once in 2006 at the Worlds in Talkatora stadium in Delhi, but never abroad. The sponsor event - happily - is the first time in 2-3 months that mother and daughter meet, owing to Mary's strict training stints, cocooned as she is in Patiala or Pune.
Life's changed at home, but not her mother's blinking eyes everytime one of Mary's opponents have a go at her in the ring, when her meets get televised. "Dad's not afraid, mom always scared. Though she's trying to get interested now. She keeps praying for me," Mary points out. Watching her mother cringe when bouts get a tad aggressive has been easy to comprehend now that Mary herself leaps out protectively when her own kids fight. She claims she will not encourage them to take up her craft. "I don't think I want my kids to take up boxing. I don't know how I took to it!" Mary wonders. "It's very hard," she adds softly, "When winning also, you get punched!" she laughs.
Mary - in the course of her five world championship titles - has borne all manners of punches descending on her, since she moved from 46kg to 48 and eventually 51kg now. "I'm in good shape now. There's always pressure on me. But boxers from other countries are a little scared of me," she says, not quite giving away her exact state of mind ahead of the Olympic qualifiers next month. She's up against a very competitive field in clinching her passage to London, and visibly nervous. Thankfully some things will remain unchanged. " Like the eromba my mother cooks. It's the best," Mary says, dropping all her worries briefly as she thinks of the spicy, soft vegetable stew with a smattering of red chillies - a little like her own game, and finally her personality, which she claims is a more talkative reflection of her mother's.