Meet the woman of substance

She is Indias sweetheart. The media loves her. Little girls want to be like her. Big brands are making her their ambassador. And a top Indian director is planning a movie on her. But through it all, MC Mary Kom hasnt changed.

She is India's sweetheart. The media loves her. Little girls want to be like her. Big brands are making her their ambassador. And a top Indian director is planning a movie on her. But through it all, MC Mary Kom hasn't changed. She remains the humble and hard-working Manipuri woman she is. Vanessa Fitter catches up with her and husband Onler, with their adorable twins Rechungvar and Khupneivar.

I was waiting in the hotel room to interview Mary Kom. Two days earlier, she had returned from the London Olympics with a bronze medal. Busloads of proud Manipuris gathered to welcome her at the Delhi airport. The champion delighted them by joining in a tribal dance. The scene perfectly captured her personality  a  five-time world-boxing champion, and now an Olympic medalist, but a woman who still remains grounded and gracious. At 5 feet 2 inches, Mary walked into the room with the typical boxers swagger. She had been meeting the press all day. Despite all the attention, she dressed for comfort: Track pants, a Team India jersey and minimal makeup. It was the first of two interviews I would do with her. In our second meeting, which we scheduled along with a photo shoot, Marys incredible grittiness in the ring came to the fore in an unrelated way.

A painful wisdom tooth had forced her to have an extraction just that morning. She could have rescheduled our meeting. But not Mary  she grinned and bore it, literally. She even encouraged her camera-shy sons  five-year-old twins Rechungvar and Khupneivar to join us. Onler, her husband, did some of the talking so she could rest her aching jaw. Marys story goes back to when her parents accidentally found out she had moved away from participating in track and field events. Mary and her brother had moved to Imphal from their village in Kangathei when she was a teenager to train in athletics at the Sports Authority of India academy. That's where she discovered boxing. She began training and competing and soon won a State Championship. The news made it to the papers and into her parents home. The Koms were not thrilled.

Her father, Mangte Tonpa Kom, was a farmer and her mother, Mangte Akham Kom, embroidered clothes and sold them. To them, boxing was not a safe sport for their young girl. It was important for me to make them understand that this is what I was meant to do. (She speaks slowly, thinking carefully about every word  English is not her first language  but her innate warmth is eloquent communication.) Eventually, Marys enthusiasm won out. Without their support Marys career would have gone nowhere. Traveling outside the northeast started with a 34-hour journey from Imphal to Guwahati. From there it was another two-day journey by train to Delhi. The Man Behind The Champ The other person who has been in her corner from day one is her husband Onler. He knows my dreams and is always encouraging me to go out and achieve them. Says Onler, When we decided to get married, it wasn't just to be man and wife. The promise was to be on her side always. The two met in Delhi in 2001, while she was training and he was at university. He would drop her to games venues. He recalls, In some way we were like brother and sister! That protective relationship changed to love somewhere along the way. Onler jokes, It is not that I am beautiful; I know my face! Or that I play guitar! Mary who is sitting just a few feet away laughs as he continues, She loves me for the person I am, because I care for her. I love her because of who she is.

The couple had decided to put having children on hold so Mary could focus on training. In just a few years she had bagged three world amateur boxing titles and two Asian championships. But then tragedy struck. Unidentified men shot dead Onlers father. Mary blamed her unconventional career choice for the murder  she thought conservatives objected. Her husband did his hardest to dispel such thoughts. It was around this time that Mary found out she was pregnant with twins. Onlers father was also a twin. The devoutly religious family, who are practicing Baptists, took the news as a sign from God.

The Mother

When the boys turned one, she decided it was time to re-enter the ring. Onler thought it was too soon and the physical strain would be too much for her. But she was determined. So Onler stood by his wife and the promise he had made to her on their wedding day. She traveled to the training camp in Visakhapatnam with her two babies, her mother and a friend. She would go running in the morning, come back, feed the babies and head out again during the day. Then again come back and feed the babies, Onler recalls her grueling regimen. When she returned from Visakhapatnam, Mary realised Onler was right and decided to defer her return by another year. Detractors were ready to write her off. Two more world championships would soon prove them wrong.

Although she loves boxing, Marys first priority remains her two sons, Rengpa and Nainai, as they are affectionately called . I try and spend every spare minute with them. They tell me what they want to eat, what they want to do. They manage when I am away. But when I am at home they want to be with me every second. There is an unmistakable change in Marys voice when she talks about her boys; a sentiment any mother can relate to. When she is away, Onler, her mother, and other relatives, help look after the boys. In fact Onler gave up a full-time job in customs and central excise to support his wife. When she travelled to London, the boys wanted action figures of all their heroes  Spiderman, Superman and Ben 10. She recalls. I also bought them scooters and skateboards; they dont know how to use the skateboard, so it is just lying there.

But I got the toys to make them happy, she says. While Mary was getting ready for her shoot, the boys entertained the crew by charging around the lobby area outside her room on their new toy scooters, occasionally falling over, laughing. I ask Mary to describe her parenting style. She looks across at her PR team and pleads for help. Patient, someone calls out. Okay, two more, she replies laughing. Then turning back to me she says, Someone called me Super Mom. Someone called me Magnificent Mary. I am happy they gave me these titles! she laughs. Onler, on the other hand, has no trouble describing her. Caring and hard-working, he says simply. With the boys, the couple do the old good cop-bad cop routine. If they want chocolate and I tell them after food, they listen to me.

They love me, no, she says. But my voice is very big. So when I shout (she raises her voice to explain) they are afraid and everyone is quiet. My husband will never speak to them loudly. (She mimics Onlers tone, much to our amusement.) Many times, Marys boxing and parenting duties have clashed; but never quite as painfully as last year. Shortly before she left for the Asian Womens Cup in China, her son Khupneivar had to undergo heart surgery. Once again, it was Onler who gave her the courage. He told her that whether she was at home or away, their son had to undergo surgery and that he would manage. The surgery was a success and Mary came back with a gold medal! It helps that the Koms live in a joint family  with her parents and siblings. Given Marys commitments and travel schedule, this way there is always someone to help Onler look after the boys.

The Champion

Women's boxing is not quite as glamorous as mens, but its place at the London Games owes a lot to Marys efforts. She is the ambassador of AIBA (International Boxing Association) and she used to push them to make women's boxing an Olympic sport, says Onler. And while she succeeded there and has become a household name in India, what is left to be seen is whether people will continue to support her once she steps back into the ring, or get caught up in the cricket frenzy that usually grips the nation. Praying helps her concentrate and keep a cool mind in the ring. God is giving the willpower. If I didn't have willpower, I could not do anything. This focus and determination helped

When the road seems blocked with obstacles, let passion and drive do the talking and knock them down

Mary zero in on her dream  winning an Olympic medal. Even when I was too tired to practice, I motivated myself thinking Olympic medal, Olympic medal, Olympic medal, she chuckles. Many people think boxing is an angry, violent sport. After all, the primary tactic is to punch your opponent. Onler challenges that assumption  he believes that the minute you lose your cool, is the minute you lose the bout. When you study it, boxing needs a calm mind. You should be wise, and your eyes should concentrate on your opponent, he explains; advice Mary used while competing against her bigger opponents at the Games. She was playing outside her usual weight categories of 46kg and 48kg. Womens boxing had three events in London: Middleweight (75kg), lightweight (60kg) and flyweight (51kg); Mary competed in the last category. Since her return from London, Mary has decided to take it easy till January. I will not do anything. I will just do light exercise. No proper training. I will go out with my friends, go shopping. I can eat everything. It is enjoyment time. I am going to do lots now. And she has been doing lots  travelling the length and breadth of the country, busy signing autographs and endorsements. She is cashing in on her success (And why not She declares with simple candour.), but remains focussed on her sport. My dream is a Gold. People are supporting me, and praying for me  even God will not say no! The Rio Games in 2016 wont be easy. I want to continue till Rio.

I want to change the colour (of the medal). I will give my best. If I qualify then okay, if I dont qualify, then lets see. The Person Sunday is usually Marys rest day. She used to enjoy going shopping or to the movies. But her new-found fame comes at a price. I went shopping in Manipur and a woman recognised me, my eyes. Are you Mary Kom she asked. I said to her, No, I am not. I am a relative. But you look like her, she insisted. I was covered fully, but still they can recognise, she laughs as she recalls the incident. So, what does she carry in her purse when out shopping Money, she laughs. If there is no money then a credit card. Then my kids photo. And Gods picture. No lipstick, nothing. The Family Has fame changed them As Onler puts it, Before, we used to wear cheap shoes and t-shirts which were `100-150. Now they can afford better products. He adds, Our love for doing what we do will not change. We are still the same. Yesterday you are wearing these clothes and today you are wearing something else. This simplicity is a quality the entire country has fallen in love with.

Onler isn't too threatened by the invasion into their privacy. Because the media people dont disturb us. They want to make a story for us. Which is good for motivating others. They are the messenger for us. The media is able to get more people to listen to their story, learn from their experience and get inspired to do more. The Koms say they are no different from the common man. They too have had their share of problems. But their faith and perseverance served them well. There is nobody in this world who doesnt have any problems. People who have lots of money have problems. People who have no money have problems, says Onler. What matters is how we deal with them. Perhaps this is Marys greatest lesson to all: When the road seems blocked with obstacles, let passion and drive do the talking and knock them down, as she did.