In December of 2012 I made a long domestic flight. In fact, two domestic flights. Bangalore to Kolkata. Then Kolkata to Imphal via Aizawl. The last two cities may be unfamiliar to some of you, but for the fact that they are in India’s northeast. You are forgiven, then, for yielding to any of these infelicities: a) Not having heard their names before; b) Mixing them up with each other; c) Asking if they are really in India. Yes, they are very much in India, like Darjeeling and Kalimpong and Sikkim and not Bhutan, which isn’t in India though we often make the mistake of assuming so. Aizawl is the capital of Mizoram. And Imphal is the capital of Manipur. And my final destination on a day that had begun at the crack of dawn.
Photojournalist Hari Adivarekar and I arrived in Imphal, where light was failing. Sundown at 4 pm. Darkness at 5 pm. Total darkness, brought on by power failures and power rationing. Then a smoky, creepy, inky darkness filled with the stench of kerosene and pig fat and the distant odour of singed plastic garbage. Armed military personnel stopped our Maruti Omni taxi and pointed flashlights in our faces as they would guns. We drove in darkness through streets we would barely recognize in the morning.
And then, in the evening of the day, I met Mary Kom. We shook hands. It was a memorable moment.
It was a champion’s handshake. Warm-hearted, confident. Slightly moist from a kitchen towel too damp to absorb all the wetness of the rinse. Here, she wasn’t the champion of the ring. She was a mother of twin sons (carrying a third inside her) and wife to a man whom I would return thinking and marveling much about.
This was not Mary Kom, the Bollywood icon that the nation is celebrating after a “biopic” bearing her name and starring a heavyweight Bollywood starlet has cashed big at the box office.
This was Chungneijang, the girl from Kangathei.
When talk comes round to the biopic that Bollywood’s Sanjay Leela Bhansali is producing with Priyanka Chopra playing Mary’s role, they smile and say little. “Maybe it will make Manipuri people watch Hindi movies again,” she says finally with an impish grin.
Then again, she is wary of the fame that may distract her from her path.
“Protect me, God, because now people see me as a celebrity,” Mary says, endearingly childlike as she covers her eyes with her hands. “I’m not a celebrity. I’m still Mary Kom. I want to live a humble and sincere life.”
View the story as it appeared on Yahoo India. Live link here: Million Dollar Mary
My story won an editorial award at Yahoo the following year. Mary Kom was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2013.
I haven’t watched the movie. I don’t think I will. I met the Mary Kom I wanted to know.
Photos: Hari Adivarekar and me (second gallery)
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