INDIA'S SHOT AT GOLD

Rahul Bhattacharya profiles the phenomenal Mary Kom—five-times world champion and mother of twowho has had to battle against far more than just her opponents in the ring

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012

“One plays football. One does not play boxing.”
– Joyce Carol Oates, “On Boxing”

PLAY, OR ITS Hindi equivalent, khel, is the verb Mary Kom uses. She could be referring to a tournament, “when I played national”, her stance, “I play southpaw”, or her weight category, “I must play in 51kg in the Olympics.” But there is something deeper when Kom says it. Childbirth and child-rearing, that is life. Lifting yourself out of poverty, fulfilling the duties of a wife, a daughter, an eldest sister, that is life. Boxing is so much; but still it is play.

She is in the ring right now, and to be ringside when Mary Kom is in action is to feel the kinetic heat of boxing. It is molecular. She is padding against a man whom, a little while ago, in his spectacles, sweater and moustache, I took for a government officer. Now, shorn of the first two, he has transformed himself into a provocateur, a matador. He is baiting Mary, taunting her with words and jabs in the face. When their heads come together, their spit and sweat fall on each other, the blazing whites of their eyes are falling into each other’s. Kom is 5ft 2in officially, an inch more in her own estimate, but looks smaller—even more so in her headgear. Small, but taut: a packet of tensile strength.

Her muscles must be on fire. Counting her rounds against the bag, the mirror and the other women at the camp, national- and international-level boxers, she has completed the equivalent of two full-length competition bouts. Those girls were heavier and taller. This is just as well because when women’s boxing debuts at the 2012 Olympics, Mary must play taller opponents, who will have a longer reach. Most of her championship victories have come as a pinweight boxer, 46kg, whereas in London the lightest class, flyweight, is 51kg.

But next to Mary, these other girls were ponderous. Their feet were sluggish, their positioning not so clever. She could fight with her guard down, testing her reflexes by offering them her bare chin as a target, and counter-attacking in angles unfamiliar to boxers who take the orthodox stance.

All around the gym the girls furtively watched her. They covet her low-gravity wound-up springiness, her pure petite explosiveness. They would love to lunge so wide and fast, and never need to wrestle or go to the ropes. Aggression is her hallmark, and it makes her exhilarating to watch.

Yeh leh Mary,” Mr Bhaskar Bhatt goads her, “take this. And this.” This too is the play of boxing.

“He tries to make me angry,” she says later, “but I have to be cool.” Her grimace is hidden by her white gumshield. You can feel her burn; it’s been 80 minutes now.

Aaja Mary, sha-baash, come Mary, come.” This is a “specific training” session, devoted to feints and combination punches. He’s making her chase him, holding up his pad for her to pull out another series of rifling combination punches, which she does with sharp yelp-like breaths.

“Phoom.” That is the sound she wants from a punch. “When it’s tak, tak, like that, it is OK, not powerful,” she will say, throwing me a mock punch. “Phoom! That is powerful.”

At last the session is finished. “60%,” says Mr Bhatt, bespectacled again, assessing a fortnight’s progress. “She has not come into her original yet. Once she does that, when she gets back her automatisation, no one can stop her. See, Mary never gets puzzled in the ring. She has killer instinct.”

To cool off, this 29-year-old mother of two does cartwheels and somersaults in the ring, and looks suddenly adolescent—copper highlights in her hair, fluorescent laces on her shoes. When she lands awkwardly on an ankle that was recently injured, she just giggles. She lies on her stomach to be rubbed down by a physio provided by Olympic Gold Quest, a private non-profit organisation which began funding India’s elite athletes in 2007.

The gym is on the premises of an erstwhile palace in Patiala, Punjab, now India’s national sports institute. In its grounds the hedges are trim, the trees are labelled with numbers, and the kerb is painted in zebra stripes, but beneath the order it is still India, no country for athletes. Kom will return to shared accommodation in a hostel, where she will boil vegetables with fermented fish on her portable stove, because the mess food can leave her with indigestion. She will hand-wash her clothes, scrubbing the blood off her socks, as there is a single washing machine for an entire hostel of athletes. Two years ago, two female boxers, one a world-championship medallist, were asked to serve tea to visitors and wash up afterwards.

Only one Indian, the rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra, has ever won an individual Olympic gold medal. A chapter in his memoirs is entitled “Mr Indian Official: Thanks for Nothing”.

IMPHAL IS A town so removed from the Indian growth story that aspiration is not even visible on its streets. It feels old, not from the presence of history, but from an absence of renewal. A new car is a rarer sight than a jeep of India’s security forces, which keep a deployment in the state of Manipur to combat a decades-long insurgency. In matters of infrastructure, government has excused itself altogether.

There is a road in Imphal West, over a kilometre long, flanked on either side by uncultivatable wetland. It is a shuddering stretch of stone and dust, with an enormous, open garbage dump at one end. It is officially called Mary Kom Road, but there is no sign to mark the fact, and Mary is glad of it.

She has lived in Manipur all her life. The daughter of landless agricultural labourers, she moved to Imphal in her mid-teens to make something of herself in track and field. Then a Manipuri boxer called Dingko Singh won gold at the Asian Games in Bangkok. Dingko too was poor. When he came back he was received as a hero; on the streets people collected money to give to him. Mary heard that women’s boxing had just been introduced in Manipur. She approached the head coach at the Sports Authority of India centre, Ibomcha Singh. He remembers her being so small and young that he turned her away. At the end of his working day, she was waiting for him at the gate. In the ring, her attitude struck him as “do or die”.

The girl would go on to win five world championships. Five in a row, like Borg or Federer at Wimbledon. Two of these five she won after giving birth to twin boys. In a nation bereft of athletic achievement, she ought to be a household name. But most Indians have never heard of her. “Mary kaun?”, people say—Mary who? Some can manage a guess at her sport: “Archery, no, wrestling, wait… weightlifting?”

At Delhi airport, as she queues for security, the thousands around her who would stampede at the sight of a cricketer are oblivious to the champion in their midst. Before Beijing, Bindra was similarly anonymous. Then he won gold, and received 380,000 telegrams.

There is a more depressing aspect to this. The Indian consciousness does not extend to a peripheral state out by the Burmese border. The millions unacquainted with Mary would struggle to find Manipur on the map. They might finger India’s right ear, but which state exactly is it? What do the people eat, what language do they speak?

And how then are Indians going to appreciate the brilliance of Mary Kom’s achievement, to place it in context? In her defiance is an echo of the women of Manipur who waged two Women’s Wars against the British in 1904 and 1939. To protest at atrocities by Indian security forces, an activist named Irom Sharmila has been on hunger strike for 11 years, force-fed through a tube, and women of the Meira Paibi (“torch bearers”) group once stripped naked outside a military camp in Imphal waving the startling banner “Indian Army Rape Us”. Irom Sharmila protests; the women of Manipur run the biggest all-women’s market in South Asia; and Mary Kom boxes, fights, plays.

“SOMETIMES I HAVE to make people stop talking!” Mary laughs and says, though it is a point she often makes without laughter. “When I started, they say boxing is not for girls. After I get married, they say I cannot win after marriage. After I have baby, they say I cannot win after baby. So I want to prove, I want to show that I can make history for India.”

We are in her house off Mary Kom Road. She is in a t-shirt and phanek, the Manipuri wraparound skirt, watching her four-year-olds run amok in the yard with a toy helicopter, a ladybird and Spiderman action figures, sometimes yelling at them, sometimes smothering them with kisses. The house sits on a concrete plinth, has a concrete gabled front, and concrete walls on which the twins have scribbled so high up that their parents refuse to erase the marks, to “show them how naughty they are”. The house, in a colony built for a national games, was given to Mary by the state. It is one of the few in Imphal with 24-hour electricity: the average is below four hours a day.

These perks are needed. To make a living she must rely on state awards (which don’t always reach her) and the salary from a sports-quota position with the Manipur police. Offered the designation of constable on winning her first world championship, she declined it. A few years later she accepted the post of sub-inspector, on a monthly salary of 8,500 rupees (£100). Following two promotions and a landmark government pay-scale revision, she still only draws 31,000 rupees a month (£360), a trifle in inflationary times. Since 2009, when she signed up with a talent management firm, Infinity Optimal Solutions, a few modest sponsorship deals have come her way.

Against this are the multimillion-rupee endorsements for cricketers, and the player auctions for the Indian Premier League, where talent more ordinary than hers is bought for £1m for a six-week tournament. This astonishes Mary, and she pauses for thought, totting up the grants, awards and deals through five world championships. “In ten years I have not made total of even one crore (£125,000).”

In the front yard, below the tamarind tree in which little Rengpa and Nainai have managed to entangle their helicopter, is a small room made of bamboo and asbestos. Five girls live in this room, students at the mc (Mangte Chungneijang) Mary Kom Boxing Academy. Meant for poor Manipuri boys and girls, the academy is free.

The sanction of state land has been pending for five years, so it remains what in other parts of the world might be considered an anomaly: a boxing academy without a ring. Training in the denuded hills and the field opposite the house, strengthening their bodies on a modest set of donated equipment under a small tin shed in the domestic yard, 21 of the 30-odd students won a medal at the last state championships.

For the girls, especially, Mary is an inspiration; and because she is home for a few days, there is to be a minor presentation ceremony. They will receive training gear. The sports ministry donates these packs, 25 annually. By the time they reach the academy, pilfering has reduced it to about 18.

In her address to her students, Mary is animated, maternal, full of gestures and modulations. Freed from the constraints of English and Hindi, she talks for 25 minutes in Meiteilon, the lingua franca of Manipur. “You are lucky,” she tells them. “I can at least go and ask for support for you. Don’t ever look back in your life, that you are from a poor family—no. Go ahead in your life, ahead ahead ahead.”

Picture: Mary Kom at home in Manipur with her husband and manager, Onler, and their four-year-old twins 

Mary’s husband Onler manages the academy, along with her career—and, when she is away, their twins, with the help of his mother-in-law. He himself has a bantamweight’s physique. The two met in Delhi when Mary was a young athlete struggling on her visits to the big city. Onler, nine years older and then president of the Kom community club in Delhi, took her under his wing, and over time became a combination of mentor, motivator and manager, the man behind the woman.

Like all of Manipur’s hill tribes, the Koms, a tiny community, were converted by proselytising British missionaries, who first came to the region in the late 19th century. Both Mary and Onler are devout: “Jesus 100 percent” were the words they once printed on her boxing gown.

At Christmas 2006, returning home from Onler’s village in Samulamlan Block, they received a series of phone calls and texts, saying that Onler’s father had been called out of the house by a group of men, taken a short distance away, and shot in the head at point-blank range. He was a parson and the village chief. There was no demand, no warning, no apparent motive. They had left him only hours earlier, and the mood was festive. The closest Onler can come to making sense of the murder is jealousy: of Mary’s success and his marriage to her.

When he recounts the incident, in harrowing detail, it is a journey into the heart of the Manipuri situation of UGs and C-in-Cs, underground groups and their commanders-in-chief. There are some 40 ethnic groups in Manipur, and about as many armed UGs which, though often rivals, together form a kind of parallel government. Two of the boys involved in the murder—there were eyewitnesses in the house—were apprehended by a UG two years later, says Onler, and even confessed in front of journalists. But Onler refused to make a “donation” to the UG; the C-in-C made sure the news was spiked, and the killers roam free.

Shortly after the killing, Onler remembers thinking that “it is better I should leave my family and take the gun and go direct to the people who are doing this. There was a complete darkness in the family. We doesn’t want to eat anything, doesn’t want to drink, we are just quiet. Mary wanted to give up her glove. I convince her not to.”

“If I’m doing well and people are jealous, it is better to give up my glove, no?” Mary asked herself. “If there is another incident, what shall I do?” She was 23 at the time and had just won her third world championship. Her father-in-law had surprised her by supporting a married woman’s decision to box for a career, and she never forgot that.

A few weeks after the funeral, Mary felt unwell. At the clinic, the doctor told the couple that she had conceived. “My mind was blowing!” Onler says. “It was something like a miracle. I give up all the dirty thoughts I had for leaving the house.” His father too had been a twin.

Less than two years after her father-in-law was murdered, after she considered giving up the game, 15 months after she gave birth to twins by Caesarean section, Mary claimed her fourth world title. She remembers the utter weakness when she returned to training, the aches and pains that still persist four years later, in her knees and especially her back. In order to train, she stopped breastfeeding after a year. Sometimes sourcing Lactogen in Imphal would be difficult when insurgents enforced highway blockades that could run for weeks. A blockade in 2011 lasted four months: like many Manipuris, she cooked on a woodfire.

“I have to do it,” she told herself during her comeback. “My family is a big family. I’m looking after all of them. My father’s family, my sister also, cousin sister also. If we win gold medal, we are getting incentive from the state, the company side, sponsor side. So I tell myself, I can do, I can do, that’s it.”

The evenings in Manipur, which is far out east but follows Indian Standard Time, arrive absurdly early, and dusk brings a quickening emptiness to the streets of Imphal. The hills facing Mary Kom Road are taller and lovelier in the dark; the pig in her back yard – no pinweight, at least 60kg by Onler’s reckoning – is more vocal. If the family ever steps out after dusk it is with “two to three boys or cousins” who are boxers or martial artists. Onler has weapons for self-defence, but the private security officer assigned to them by the Manipur police does not: the state discontinued the practice after some officers let out their guns for hire.

For dinner Mary, the domestic provider, cooks in the Kom style: beef fry, pork with broccoli, fish and roe flavoured with desiccated citrus peels, and boiled mustard leaves. She stands by the table, listening, as a guest, a friend of theirs, says that his new tractor was captured a few hours ago by a ug for “tax collection”. Nainai, slung in a shawl, is strapped to Mary’s back; Rengpa has exhausted himself to sleep. Mary will eat once her guests have finished, and early in the morning she will train her students in the field across the road.

Picture: Local boys training in a field across from Mary Kom’s home

IT IS EARLY February, and the season is cold and dry. The fields, the day, are colourless but for the gorgeous phaneks and shawls of girls strolling or bicycling. In the village of Kangethei, in the front yard of the house where Mary grew up, are cacti and fern and croton, and tall bamboo whose lushness betrays the fallow fields. In the rear garden are peas, onion, garlic, mustard, beans, banana. There are two structures in the neatly groomed plot, neither permanent: a front shed of tin, and along one side, living quarters of bamboo and mud.

The roosters are running around, pecking at the grain that Mangte Akham Kom is spreading out to dry. She is a lady of handsome proportion: when she accompanied her daughter on a trip to Myanmar, it was she, not Mary, who found herself encased in a garland. The shock is meeting her husband, Mangte Ton-pa Kom, in the way it is shocking and moving to encounter a parent of the opposite gender so identical to their child. He has Mary’s small but uncreasable body, tight and tough, with similar definition on the arms, the same erectness of the back, and the body language of a doer. The bones on their face are alike, as is their expression of reserve – and of great reserves. Ask Akham Kom where Mary gets her fearlessness, and she will point to Tonpa Kom. 

“Yes, when I observe her,” Tonpa Kom says, “I can see she is very much my blood. After all she is my first daughter.” A village wrestling champion and an ace marksman in his youth, Tonpa Kom has been a farmhand since the age of 15.
He is a talkative, interesting man, full of long, precise anecdotes, which come to me translated from the Kom language by Jimmy, a young man who helps Onler manage Mary and the academy. On one aspect, however, Tonpa Kom is not keen to elaborate: his struggles to feed a poor family. This would be self-indulgent; he is not that kind of man. Mary’s younger brother and mother disagree, and in the family discussion that follows the English word “history” is thrown up often. “History is history,” that is what his wife and son tell him, “and you should not hide it.”

So Tonpa Kom tells his life story, as a woodcutter, a fisherman, a butcher and a charcoal burner. At one point he tried a business bringing cows from faraway to sell to villagers locally; when he had saved some money, he bought a cow and a cart, which he would hire out. Akham Kom, washing dishes by the well, adds that she wove shawls to boost their income. Mary helped, and also worked in the fields with her parents.

One day, after Mary had gone away to Imphal, Tonpa Kom saw an item in the newspaper about a young state boxing champion. The name was a mangled version of Mary’s, but the girl seemed to be of the Kom tribe, about Mary’s age. Could it be her? This was not a happy prospect: she had gone to pursue athletics, not to box. Boxing was not a sport for girls, and any bruising to her face would seriously hinder her chances of finding a good husband. Disturbed, he dispatched Akham Kom to Imphal to look into the matter. On the way she ran into Mary, returning home triumphant with her gold medal.

Her mother’s view, according to Mary, is “any time OK”. But Tonpa Kom was quiet for a few days. Mary cajoled him, explaining that, as an amateur, she wore headgear and would not get injured. After a while he decided that maybe she had chosen what was correct for her. But how would he support her financially? Mary told him, “Don’t worry. I will never trouble you. I will work hard. When other girls are spending ten rupees, I will spend one rupee.” From then on, he told himself, “I will do whatever I have to do. I will sacrifice myself if need be.”

To help fund her training, equipment and travel, he sold the family cow for 14,000 rupees (£175) and borrowed money. When Mary began winning, and incentives started coming her way, he paid off the loans. Now her career has reached a stage that he no longer needs to live the way he does. People tell him it does not become the father of a world champion. But this is the only way he knows. Besides, his other children – two girls and a boy, the youngest just nine – are not yet successful like Mary, and they need to learn their lessons.

MOST INDIANS HAVE never been abroad. Mary has fought in places that would seem extraordinary to them: Astana in Kazakhstan, Pecs in Hungary, Tonsberg in Norway, Hanoi in Vietnam, Antalya in Turkey. Once there, she adjusts the way she did on early trips to other parts of India, with sign language and improvisation. “Asia-side” she likes the food and manages fine; in Europe she finds it too sweet, but enjoys the breakfasts, usually skips dinner and makes do with the excellent variety of fruit. She fights against South-East Asians, Americans, eastern Europeans, athletes from vastly more sophisticated systems – in China, it’s one coach for every boxer.

In March she was in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, for the Asian women’s boxing championships. Her opponent in the final was Ren Cancan of China. “She is very clever,” Kom says, which is the highest praise she bestows upon a boxer, though here it comes with an edge. Cancan is 5ft 6in, and the reigning 51kg world champion. The first time Mary fought in this category, in the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, she met Cancan in the semi-final and lost 7-11. Tempestuous in defeat, she felt Cancan had fouled all through the bout and the referee didn’t catch her. The talk, subsequently, was whether it was possible for Mary to adapt to this weight class, whether, in fact, India’s entry would be better filled by her accomplished state-mate L. Sarita Devi, who has won a world championship at 52kg. Four of Mary’s five championships have come as a 46kg pinweight. At the Olympics there are only three weight categories for women, as opposed to ten for men.

The weight category is no small matter, especially for Indians, who, a national-level woman boxer tells me, are so insecure that from “15 till retirement” they look to fight in the same class. And so the national championships are full of starving boxers, surviving on glucose biscuits, reluctant even to drink a glass of water before their weigh-in.

With a champion’s cold fury, Mary worked her way up two weight classes in three years to 51kg. She had to bulk up without slowing down. She had to work on a tight defence against bigger boxers. Before Ulan Bator, she went into training in Pune with the veteran British coach Charles Atkinson—underwritten by Olympic Gold Quest and a ministry grant. She was the first woman Atkinson had coached, and her sparring partners in Pune were men.

In the final, she used her improved guard to negate Cancan’s reach. She pulled out combinations unusual for her, double jabs and a right, to go with the big left hook that is her signature. She won 14-8.

As a preparation for the Olympic qualifiers in May, this was excellent—though not quite enough. In her new weight category she had fought the Asians, but never faced the Europeans.

At the qualifiers in Qinhuangdao, China, seeded seventh, she reached the quarter-finals as expected and came up against the second seed, Nicola Adams from Leeds in England. Minutes after the fight, Mary was on the phone to Onler. “Papa,” she said, addressing him as mothers sometimes do the father of their children, “I have lost.” It was a close bout, 11-13. She was angry with the judging, as competitors often are in a sport where the scoring is subjective.

For the first time in the history of the women’s world boxing championships, there was no medal for Mary Kom. But she wasn’t thinking about that. Her qualification for London was in danger, and, worse, it was no longer in her hands. For Mary to go through, under the complex qualifying rules, Adams would have to win her semi-final, against a Russian.

For two days in Manipur, Onler sat tight, nervous. So much was riding on this. In China, Mary shopped recklessly. In the end, her conqueror got her off the hook (before losing the final to Cancan, and also complaining about the scoring).

“I can breathe again,” Onler said.

Mary, reverting to a winner’s mentality, said she had not had doubts. “Yes, I was sure I would qualify. The Russian, I knew she wasn’t so good, she would lose to Nicola.”

What about Nicola herself? “She is OK, quite good. She is quite defensive, she has a fast jab. Europeans are not so clever as Asians. I think I will beat her.” She points to her head with a playful gleam. “I have her in my mind now.”

Few Indians have ever seen Mary box, because barely any of her tournaments are televised or even streamed online. Her feats end up buried in the back pages, usually in the Sport in Brief. But when she returned from Qinhuangdao as the first and only Indian woman boxer to have qualified for the Olympics, the press was interested at last.

This is why Mary needs London: it is why every Indian athlete other than the cricketers and a handful of tennis stars needs the Olympics. It will define them. It could transform their fortunes, validate their efforts, their life. But unlike the weightlifters and archers and the growing contingent of male boxers who may confront their destiny two or three or four times over a career, London is Mary’s first and only chance. By Rio de Janeiro in 2016, she will be 33, and too old. 

When she walks the streets of Delhi with her fellow north-eastern athletes, they are sometimes mistaken for Nepali domestic help. “I tell them we are not Nepali, we are Manipuri, so don’t speak like that, this is very bad manners.” At other times they are taunted with the gibberish dispensed to those with oriental features: “Something ching ching ching ching they start speaking, I don’t know what. Even they don’t know what! We are feeling bad. We are Indian. Ya, the face is different. But heart is Indian.”

This sentiment could be attacked by the more extreme Manipuri insurgents. But if Mary retires as an Olympic gold-medallist, she knows her life will be forever changed; and with it, a little bit, her country’s standing in the world.

FOOTAGE OF HER fights is not easy to track down. The national broadcaster Doordarshan, private sports channels, her own agents, Olympic Gold Quest – nobody can supply it. After a fortnight of hard pursuit, a solitary bout emerges on an unlabelled cd in the boxing federation office from a mass of discs in a paper bag. Another is found on Jimmy’s hard disk in Manipur. They are from Podolsk, Russia, 2005, and Barbados, 2010, both world championships.

The bouts are shot on single hand-held cameras with no commentary. They have the air of an underground activity, like 19th-century prizefighting.

But amateur boxing—or Olympic-style boxing, as it is beginning to be called—is a very different beast from prizefighting, then or now. There is no prize money, no pounding music or showboating mcs, no showbiz bright lights blazing around the ancient glamour of blood. Nobody dies in these bouts; knock-outs are rare.

Especially in the lighter categories, the boxers dance on the dazzling borderline between fisticuffs and fencing. They feint and prance and lunge to find openings off which to score. Scoring is a subjective and contentious affair: at least three of the five judges must instantly concur that a punch is substantial and delivered by the “knuckle part” of a “closed glove” to the legitimate target zone, between the stomach and the head, on the front or sides of the body. Without an electronic scoreboard, the audience would be lost.

Even by the standards of pinweights, Mary is so quick that judges regard her bouts as about the hardest task in the women’s game. At Podolsk, her opponent is a Korean (the difficulty level of this bout she recalls with the Indianism “fifty-fifty”). To watch Mary, 22 years old and 46kg light, is to watch the physical equivalent of a raconteur of irrepressible wit and repartee. It feels like pugilism.

In the breaks, the women’s coach Anoop Kumar rubs down her arms and legs. There is something wonderful in this unselfconscious athletic intimacy among countrymen who might be segregated by gender on public transport; in a country, indeed, where women boxers were initially asked, in the interests of modesty, to wear t-shirts under their vests.

As the clock ticks on in the contest, something raw cracks through the balletic Brownian motion. Grunts can be heard, the odd wild haymaker appears. There is something more existential at stake: boxing, where metaphor is meaningless because here it is what it is. Mary has never felt pain in a ring, or fear; those are areas she forbids her mind to go. What she does sometimes feel is the title of her favourite song, “Lonely”, by the Senegalese pop star Akon. Early in the last round, she throws a strong right off-balance to the head of the Korean, which forces her into a standing eight-count. The vulnerability in her opponent flares like a rage in Mary’s movements; she stalks her nervous prey around the ring, showing the killer instinct that figures in every appraisal of her.

When she wins, she takes her bows and is carried aloft briefly by Anoop in celebration. “I thank God,” she says pointing upwards, as the camera follows her, “God.”

In Barbados, five years later, women’s boxing has come on. The referee is a woman; the number of rounds has increased from three to four, and Mary herself has had to move up to flyweight, 48kg, the new lightest category. For once she is taller than her opponent, a Romanian, whom, she recalls dismissively, she has defeated twice before. By this stage, she says, she is a smart boxer, an all-round boxer, she can dance around her opponent and study her for a whole round if required. She could finish a championship final without feeling spent.

There is another crucial difference: the women are both wearing skirts. It was the first tournament to feature skirts, and when the boxing association recommended them for the Olympics, it caused a furore. An online petition called it a “ludicrous recommendation [that] only serves to enforce gender stereotypes”, and collected 55,000 signatures. The skirt was made optional. Mary finds it comfortable and attractive, and if the Indian boxing federation had issued skirts for London, she would have liked to wear one.

“Men fighting men to determine worth (ie, masculinity) excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates. “Raw aggression is thought to be the peculiar province of men, as nurturing is the peculiar province of women. (The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously—she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous.)”

Mary Kom violates the stereotype of the violating stereotype. This is her extraordinary achievement. Raw aggression, childbirth, nurturing, teaching, are all her province. She enjoys doing her nails and visiting the beauty parlour, loves raising her children, and yes, she will fight with a skirt on. These aren’t contradictions. She is not closing worlds, she is expanding them.

As she wins, again Anoop holds her aloft, one hand briefly fanning out in the air to signify her fifth world title. Waiting her turn at the podium, she asks her team-mates to pass her the Indian flag, and wraps herself in it. The hand-held camera pans to the ascending flags as the Indian national anthem plays, and you think: the nation which recognises Mary Kom would be a better nation.

There is a video online, a tribute to Mary by a Manipuri rock band. In the montage of visuals is a shot of her weeping while addressing a gathering of young students. Why, I ask her, what made her emotional?

“I was giving a speech about my story, how I’m doing my boxing. So first when I start boxing, it’s very very hard, I’m doing a lot of struggle. My family cannot give me full financial support. As a player we are supposed to have good shoes, good dress, no? Whatever my family is getting for me, I used to wear and play. I’m fighting five years without any good diet. No supplement, no egg. No breakfast. Just lunch and dinner, vegetable only and rice. Sometimes when the relative I am staying with in Imphal, when he gets salary, then we get meat. Once a month, yes, exactly. So I get emotional.” She laughs at the thought of her tears, as she always laughs.

And if you ask the phenomenal Mary Kom what makes a world champion, she will say: “Boxer has to be smart. Boxer has to be strong. But main is will. Main is will.”

Picture: Mary training with the Indian women's coach Anoop Kumar. Her first boxing coach, Ibomcha Singh, initially rejected her for being too small. She has fought mostly at 46kg, but has had to adjust to 51kg for the Olympics

Olympic women’s boxing Excel, London, August 5th-9th.

Rahul Bhattacharya is a novelist based in Delhi. His first novel, "The Sly Company of People Who Care", won the 2011 Hindu Literary prize and the 2012 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize

Portrait Ian Winstanley, photographs Ragu Rai

Read Tim de Lisle's blog about watching Mary Kom's Olympic debut here