Pathfinding mother redefines her Komfort zone

Pathfinding mother redefines her Komfort zone
This file photo taken on April 20, 2012 shows Indian boxer Mary Kom working out during a training session for the 2012 London Olympics at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune.

There's an Indian mother in the Incheon boxing ring handing out colourful pain.

Blue vest, maroon socks and a left hook of black rage. Her rival, Kim Ye Ji from Korea, is 22 and in front of Mary Kom, who is 31, she's a baby.

And Kom knows how to deal with babies. She has three of them - seven-year-old twins and a 15-month-old boy.

His name is Prince.

And his mother is now royalty in India.

Kom might lose in Incheon one of these days - this was the fourth round - but she's a story that can't be beaten. She makes fiction seem tame. Parents worked in the fields, father - wrote the Indian writer Rahul Bhattacharya - sells the family cow to fund her, coach turns her away for being too small, yet she wins five world championship golds, a 2010 Asian Games bronze and a 2012 Olympic bronze.

Between having those babies.

Just in case you forgot.

Kom, lean, stringy, arms like cables, giggle like a girl, is like no else at these Games. Many athletes have medals. Many, like her, even have a book written on them.

But no one has a just-released Bollywood biopic, starring one of India's top stars, Priyanka Chopra.

Yesterday, Mary Kom the real one, says of Mary Kom the movie:

"I can't walk around freely now. Too famous. I have to hide my face."

Of course, she is giggling.

Kom will tap her opponent in gentle respect at the end of every round. But she will start every round by coming at her opponent as if she suspects her of trying to take her children away.She bounces, she darts, her body weight insistently forward in this ancient sport of giving and taking pain.

Maybe if you've struggled for so long with life, this organised fisticuffs can't scare you. Mary Kom is a movie because Mary Kom is much more than an athlete. She's an Indian education.

Here's one lesson. In the stands in Incheon, local Indians are a tuneless band hailing "Mary, Mary, Mary". They swarm her for photos, they thrust a baby in her arms. Mary is a mummy, of course she kisses it.

But here's the thing. Kom is from Manipur, a state in India's north-east, which to be polite is the area that India neglects. People from there, with oriental features, are often derided in Delhi, for instance, with racist jibes of "chinki". Yet here is India calling her name. Making a movie in her name. Offering what they forgot to give - respect.

Athletes do not set out to trigger revolutions or engender change. They want to play, yet it's where they come from to play, what they play, how they play, which alters us. Kom is only 158cm but you don't have to be a specific height to mock Asian stereotypes and kick down misogynistic nonsense.

In so many parts of our continent, the girl stays at home, the girl dresses suitably, the girl knows her place. Yet Mary Kom arrived to tell her nation and a wider audience: Girls wear shorts and vests. Women do box. Mummies can fight. This woman's place might be in her kitchen where she cooks for her family, but it's also in the ring.

Between rounds yesterday, in a fight where she jokes that her rival hits more with "love" than intent, her boxing seconds flap a towel in her face to manufacture a breeze. But there's a contained fury to Mary Kom beyond easy cooling.

When women's boxing found its way into the 2012 Olympics, it was late for her. She was 29, her last world championships gold won in 2010, forced to rise from her natural weight of 46kg to an Olympic category of 51kg, a journey where you lose reach and power. She won bronze.

And still for her it's not enough. Still she boxes because that's who Mary Kom is, not some film script, not some celebrity, just an unpretentious woman who loves the dancing, clattering art of pugilism. Still, this Bible-reading woman, who untapes her wrists and then speaks to her children every night, chases Olympic gold in 2016.

She'll be 33 then, her reflexes duller, her power eroded, her rivals younger, her chances slimmer. But really, you look at this woman, sweating, smiling, incomparable, and you think: Nope. There's so much you can say to Mary Kom, but not this. Not that she can't do it. Not that it's beyond her. Not that she might fail because she isn't scared of failing so why is anyone else. No, all you want to say to Mary Kom is simple.

Box on, mummy.

This article was first published on September 28, 2014.
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