I had to smile when I read that. Kevin Mitchell, I imagine, is extrapolating stardom from Mary’s outstanding, near-magical career. After all, a malnourished, five-foot two woman surviving the threats and poverty of a pre-modern, battlefield life to win the World Boxing Championship five times is the stuff of sporty fairy tales.
Till four days ago, India didn’t know Mary Kom from pole vault. When the boxer from Manipur trains in Delhi, the common local assumption is that she’s an illegal Nepali immigrant, informally employed as a domestic help. Gendered harassment and ethnic jibes about her Mongoloid features are aided by the reassuring assumption of low socioeconomic class and a displaced, ‘foreigner’ status. In short, to many of her fellow citizens, Magnificent Mary is just another tiny poor immigrant woman, rootless and therefore utterly powerless, and can consequently be tossed about at will.
Oddly, though perhaps not surprisingly, Mary takes the harassment in her stride, and focuses on her harassers’ lack of geo-ethnic accuracy. Her chief response is corrective, not admonishary. “I tell them we are not Nepali, we are Manipuri, so don’t speak like that, this is very bad manners”, she says in an interviewe. In the face of blatant identity-based bullying and the gleeful othering of her ‘chinky’ peers, she asserts, “We are Indian. Ya, the face is different. But heart is Indian”.
Which is really sweet. It’s the sort of climactic sentence one wants to hear from an unlikely national hero. And if Mary impresses us further this Olympics, we shall certainly hail her as the triumph of Indian womanhood, doing her motherland proud in a truly Shaktiesque sport. But ‘India’ will have nothing to do with her victory.
If, however, she had quit the ring after the first year of boxing on a rice-and-vegetable diet, without proper shoes, clothes, equipment or coaches, India would have had everything to with it. The Indian state compels Mary to live a difficult life in a difficult terrain, without electricity, much personal security or enough food on the table, but with a surfeit of armed personnel who frequently use the locals as their personal entertainment. It is why Mary’s family has to find time to grow their own food, keep livestock, and cook over wood-fire. ‘India’ is the reason fellow-Manipuri Irom Sharmila holds the record for the world’s longest hunger striker, and why Kom’s friends and neighbours might feature in a gang-rape or be splattered on the streets tomorrow.
If Kom wins today, Indians will celebrate the victory as their own. But there will be nothing Indian in Kom’s victory, except the tricolour on her vest that allows her a viable label to compete in the Olympics. And some people from her state might feel that even that is too much.