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Wife, world beater
With her three-year-old twins demanding her every minute, MC Mary Kom is no ordinary mother. Or wife, for that matter. With husband Onler's support, she has shattered a glass ceiling few even know existed. This is the story of a five-time world champion, on a day when she hasn't been called to work.
The usual look that MC Mary Kom has on her face, bordering on sullenness, hides the fact that she loves to giggle. Whether she's recounting her childhood, the struggles she's faced in her life or talking about her favourite pastime, shopping - "I love shopping for clothes and bags. I keep buying new stuff, but my sisters keep taking it. "
Ten minutes into a conversation with her, which is interrupted briefly as she's distracted by a python - on the telly - wrapping itself around a human's head, you realise that giggling comes rather naturally to her.
The stone-faced exterior transforms into that of a carefree teenager when she begins talking about topics close to her heart, like her sons.
Mother to cherubic three-year-old twins with fat cheeks, Mary Kom's face takes on the unmistakable joy and her voice the softness a mother reserves for her children.
"I miss them a lot, " she says and a shy smile covers her face.
Staying away from Rechunvmei Var and Khupnei Var is one challenge that probably takes the most out of Mary Kom and if it weren't for her husband Onkholer Kom's - Onler for the familiar - support and encouragement, she might not have been able to achieve even a quarter of what she has, as she puts it.
"Onler has been very supportive of me and what I do and has been since the very beginning. At a time when others were making fun of me and what I do, he and his family stood by me and encouraged me to go and win. His support has meant a lot to me, " Mary Kom says, sounding quite like the dutiful wife.
It might not be an act, considering that support is something she has not often found on her side. Her father, Mangte Tonpa Kom, a farmer, was never in favour of his daughter, the eldest of five children the youngest of whom is 7, doing her thing, for fear of not having the resources to support her passion and probably also because he couldn't bear the thought of his daughter's face being disfigured - an occupational hazard.
"I hid what I was doing from my family. They got to know when they saw a newspaper report, and my papa called me from Imphal, where I was, and said, 'Come home, we need to talk. ' I was scared. He wasn't happy. Worried, in fact, but I managed to persuade him, " she giggles, as if finding the memory of it amusing.
Where words didn't change minds, feats did. Taunts by the village boys in Kangathei - where she was born and which she visits once in a while - ignited the fire on the flames of which Mary Kom has reached where she is today. Then came marriage, and issues of career versus matrimony were raised. When she became a mother, she was advised to throw in the towel, for who'd ever heard of athletes becoming champions after motherhood.
"Boys in the village made fun of me saying I won't be able to do anything because I'm a girl. Even the elders weren't much in favour. No one encouraged me. I so badly wanted to prove everyone wrong. That's what fired me up. It felt great when I won my first title and shut up all those who said I couldn't do it, " the pitch in Mary Kom's voice slowly rises, but she quickly looks down at her sparkly flip flops and resumes in her normal soft tone.
"When I got married, the barbs started again. People wanted me to quit and settle down saying married women are not successful. But where is it written that married women can't become champions? People just kept trying to bring me down and they wouldn't shut up even after marriage, " she laughs.
"So I saw this as another challenge. Making a comeback after giving birth to the boys was incredibly tough, tougher than I imagined. I had to use all my will power and determination. My husband has been there for me and behind me every step of the way, " she says, sounding grateful.
The dynamics between Mary Kom and Onler often fluctuate between that of a husband and wife and that of manager and famous client. He handles all the traffic for interviews, but she often looks at him before answering questions. Whenever she gets stuck at a point, his gentle prompting brings her back on track. He, a former footballer, is probably the only male who has never attempted to stop her from doing what she wants.
Ask them how they met and Mary Kom starts chuckling. "We met in 2002, " she says, only to be interrupted by Onler, "No, 2001. " They converse in Manipuri briefly before Onler proceeds with the love tale.
"We met in Delhi itself when I was studying here. I was involved in the student union. I heard about her, and was curious. I went to meet her and one thing led to another and we got married in 2005. "
Undoubtedly, without Onler's support Mary Kom wouldn't have managed to come as far as she did, but maybe it has something to do with the intrinsic qualities that have been for long the trademark of the women of Manipur. They say that once convinced of their purpose, Manipuri women never lack militancy, or readiness to fight.
Nupi Lan - women's war in Manipuri, an important movement in the history of women in the region, is an example. Started as a protest against the rice policy of the British Administration-controlled Maharaja in 1939, Nupi Lan later evolved into a movement of economic, political and social reforms in Manipur.
"I'm very short tempered, " Mary Kom reveals, "but I don't keep it in. Within a minute, I'm back to laughing again. " Does she feel any kinship with the women who took on the British? "I have heard stories about Nupi Lan. " Onler pips in with, "Even the men couldn't stop the women. "
Mary Kom picks up the thread of the conversation. "I think that has helped. In Manipur, women get more attention. They have more responsibility. They are the bread winners. They have the belief that they can do everything and do it well. And I'm no different. "
"Women are better than men, " says Onler, invoking yet another giggle from Mary Kom.
It's been quite some time since Mary Kom has seen her little boys and the mother is understandably eager to get home. She hates leaving them, but knows there's no other way if she wants to be on the podium at London 2012.
"They are too young to understand. They don't really know or comprehend what she does. They see her on TV, so I tell them that she's gone to office. If someone asks them where is your mum, they say she's gone to Delhi for work. Sometimes they really miss her and get cranky, " Onler, who becomes both father and mother to the twins, explains.
"But she makes up for it. "
Mary Kom is no different from a wife who keeps the house clean and stove warm when she's in Imphal. "When I'm at home, I love doing everything from cooking to washing to cleaning. I love pottering about in the garden. I don't get to do this on a daily basis, so whenever I get the chance I really enjoy doing it. I love cooking new dishes. One of my favourite dishes is this boiled pork dish. You just need ginger, garlic and a few vegetables like cauliflower and potatoes. Tasty and wholesome, " she beams.
Incredibly, she doesn't want the boys to follow in her footsteps. "They are very small now. When they grow up and if they do what I do, I will support them, " she says, though one can see the approval isn't wholehearted. "If you leave it up to me, I don't want them to box. I don't want them to get hurt. Now I can understand how my papa felt. " Having experienced what she has, she wouldn't wish a life of blows for her sons. Because even though she may be the world's best - five times over - she's a mother first.
MC Mary Kom, multiple world boxing champion.
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