Everyone in India today knows Mary Kom. I woke up this morning to a full-page coverage of her love and family life on Times Life! (the exclamation point is part of the name of the supplement, it is not my embellishment). On the page are photographs of Mary showing her Olympics bronze medal to her husband Onler Kom, of Mary playing the guitar, and of her holding her son in her arms. I also read recently that a director was making a movie on Mary Kom. Though he claims he has been researching on her for years, “how very convenient”, I found myself thinking, “to announce the film when the country is celebrating her”. Mary Kom is clearly the new Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone, the new girl on the block; and she is probably the first Indian sportswoman to be celebrated and celebritized to this extent in a long time.
And for good reason! She is the most successful woman boxer India has had till date. She is a five-time World Boxing champion, and the only woman boxer to have won a medal in each one of the six world championships. She recently won a bronze at the 2012 London Olympics. Even when she made it to the semi-finals, India erupted in joy. She was being written about in the papers, talked about on television. Her husband was being interviewed. Even her home state Manipur, a part of the country that does not find much presence in mainstream media, was being covered for the purpose. The only irony here is that Mary Kom systematically debunks every single dominant discourse and stereotype of India. Through her actions and accomplishments, Mary Kom has actually fought against the mores of the very country she hails from and represents.
To begin with, Mary Kom is a woman; and yes I know I will be pounced upon for playing this card, but trust me, the “modern Indian woman” is not as liberated as her counterparts in many other countries are or as she would like to believe she is. She is still much more answerable to her immediate family and larger society than her male counterparts are; she still has to deal with immense expectations of managing a home with little (or no) help; she still has to choose a career path that fits into her married and family life; she is still unsafe on the roads and subject to lewd remarks and “elbowing” if not constantly running the risk of rape; she still loses out on promotions and office memos because she does not join her male colleagues for smokes or goes to their drinking binges on Friday nights; she still has to cover her head and sit in the corner as a newly-wedded bride if that is the tradition of her husband’s family (noteworthy because there are no such oppressive traditions for the bridegroom imposed from the girl’s side). Under such circumstances, where Mary Kom is today speaks for the prejudices she has had to fight, the discouragements she has had to take in her stride, the remarks she has had to swallow.
Then, Mary Kom is married and a mother of two – and that is not an easy resume to keep up with for any woman who has made it big in any country, especially in the one that she resides in. Her fight for excellence and her commitment to her sport is as much a struggle against society as against herself. When her twins were born, she took a two-year hiatus and had put on weight. No one in the sports community had expected her to come back to the ring, but she did, and how! For a country that feeds itself every night with ample doses of soap operas in which women wear expensive clothes and jewelry and cut vegetables in the kitchen and quarrel about which shelf belongs to whom, Mary Kom represents the few that are fighting their daily battles to keep their identities alive and build a legacy for themselves. Onler Kom, her husband, is as worthy of credit and an aberration as she is. He is a slap on the face of all those Indian men who reject girls because they are plump or dark, who try to be “progressive” by “allowing” their wives a job in the neighborhood school, who still negotiate the amount of money and jewelry the girl’s parents need to pay for the wedding (and these are the educated forward ones. I am not including the ones getting female fetuses aborted in this conversation).
Finally, Mary Kom is from the North East of India. She is from Manipur, the capital of which is Imphal (I mention this for the knowledge of my fellow-Indians who, in all possibility, skipped this minor detail in their geography textbooks). To broaden their knowledge, maybe they should look up the states in North East India and try remembering their capitals; maybe they should stop poking fun at the Mongoloid features of the people of this region and look into the mirror at their own double chins and pot bellies; maybe they should visit the North East to know the natural beauty of the region, the talent of its youngsters when they play the guitar or football, the state of infrastructure development and how it feels to live under repressive military laws such as the AFSPA.
Mary Kom’s success is a glorious occasion, for herself and her family. Her elevation to cult status by India is nothing short of a chance pe dance. The biggest testament to that is the fact that even while Mary Kom was in London winning her medals, migrants from the North East parts were being driven out of our major cities with threats of attacks against them. Television channels were reporting the victory of the star from the North East and the eviction of people from the North East in parallel; and sadly, no one stopped to ask what if every single of those young people being driven out was a Mary Kom-in-the-making?
Mary Kom, quite silently, has placed some pretty fat slaps on mainland India’s face. She, and the others from the region, should now gather to crusade for their brothers and sisters who are discriminated against, made fun of, driven out of mainland India. She should leverage her newfound cult status to stand up for the people who made her who she is, and hopefully a few sensible people from among the rest of the 1.2 billion will join forces with her.