(Image courtesy Garima Jain)
I seldom played with the girls. I was rough and tough and was constantly looking to feed my fighting spirit. I was also a bad loser who would do anything to win a game. That at least has not changed. For me, a competition is meant to be won.
– Mary Kom, Unbreakable: An Autobiography
Call me a crybaby, but the sight of Mary Kom in a boxing ring is one that generally has me slinking away from the group gathered around the TV at home or the office or a friend’s house so I won’t have to pretend that I’m tearing at my eyes because of a dratted speck of dust. There’s something deeply liberating about watching Mary as we see her in the media – petite, well-groomed, smiley – morph in the ring into a grim, grunting competitor. Violent. Vicious. More frenzied than graceful. Her small, strong body framed in loose clothes, tinted hair knocked into disarray.
Mary’s autobiography Unbreakable, written with Dina Serto (a history lecturer at GP Women’s College, Imphal) possesses some of that grim resolve to get through an ordeal with as little fuss as possible. It’s a slender book that makes a small effort to dive behind the figure that is now a household name, telling the story of Mary’s life simply, without drama or sentimentality.
The richest part of Unbreakable lies in Chapter 2, amidst Mary’s recounting of her childhood in Kangathei, the village she grew up in. Named Chungneijang (chung – high, nei – wealthy, jang – agile) by parents with high hopes for their first child, hers was a childhood lived in very real poverty, with fields to plow and not enough food or warm clothing to go around. This section is packed with fascinating details such as the landscape of Kangathei and how night falls early there; Mary watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films with the others crammed into one of the few houses in the village with a TV and a new video cassette; how she would race the boys to school on her cycle – tomboy that she was – dreaming all the while of riding a motorbike.
The book has its endearing moments, such as the account of how her father found out she had become a boxer: he was cycling past a group of men reading a local newspaper which announced that the gold medal winner of the State Boxing Chapionship was a ‘Maki Kom’. Although Mary was unrecognizable in the paper’s grainy photograph, and her father didn’t know that she had taken on the name Mary because her friends at her training center couldn’t pronounce her name right, it placed in his head the uneasy suspicion that his daughter had taken to boxing.
And of course, there’s her romance with Onler Kom, her “emotional anchor” who went from friend to older-brother-figure to husband. In Mary’s telling of their courtship, Onler’s attention is intriguingly explained away not as love or attraction (or jealousy) but as the feelings of a guardian concerned for her wellbeing and her career: “He was worried that my parents would accept a proposal without my consent and force me into a marriage. His imagination went wild. He even believed that someone might use black magic to charm me…Onler felt compelled by his need to protect me.” And when Onler tried to reveal his love for her on the phone after he couldn’t bring himself to do so in person over lunch, Mary, smiling to herself as she waited for a declaration of love, had to make do with a “I think you should understand what I’m trying to say even if I don’t speak the words out loud.”
Apart from some wonderful passages, the book repeats much of what Mary has already said in several interviews, such as her deep faith in Christianity and her David-Goliath analogy (she, of course, is David). And for those who have been following her career since she began making headlines, some of the book’s later chapters will seem familiar, but with little depth to them. The narrative is straightforward and the language possessed of little style; however, there’s an honesty and restraint in Mary’s book that is truly endearing.
We have a canny way of chopping Mary – our “Million Dollar Baby meets Raging Bull” – into bite-size pieces wrapped in shiny packaging fit for quick consumption in advertisements and TV appearances, and most recently, a Bollywood film. This sometimes clunky autobiography resists the urge to lay Mary’s life bare while adding more layers to the woman the world would rather see: an attractive doting mother of three who loves nice clothes and nail polish when she isn’t boxing. A woman who can rise from poverty and a troubled state most of India knows little about, make her mark in a traditionally male sport and win the hearts of over a billion people who can claim her for their own. A woman whose dog days are over, and now rubs shoulders with celebrities.
Several articles and interviews with Mary Kom refer to her femininity, including her tiny stature, her appearance, her role as wife and mother. Part of Mary’s constructed appeal in the media lies in her ability to be a terrifying opponent in the ring but a girly girl outside it. Like many stories published before and since this one, her boxing prowess is necessarily juxtaposed with the supposed trappings of her gender: “This is a youthful, cheerful lady of the house, all hospitality and grace, urging us to have another cookie. Her broad, frank smile glows with relaxed pride. Her smooth arms are toned, not muscle-bound. Her fingernails, painted a glossy, brilliant scarlet, have enjoyed the undivided attention of a most diligent manicurist – herself. She looks content as would any mother who has just stuffed her children to satiation.” On the care she puts in to dressing and grooming in BBC World Olympic Dreams: Meeting Mary Kom, Mary tells presenter Emma Jane Kirby, “I just want to be identified myself as a woman (sic).”
Which begs the question: what of the Pinki Pramaniks and Santhi Soundarajans – sportswomen viewed and treated with prejudice because they weren’t girly enough? Is femininity a criterion for being lovable? Interestingly, Mary doesn’t care to discuss her dresses or her nails in her autobiography. Instead, she talks about her preference for boyish clothes in her youth, her self-consciousness about her boyish appearance (“[Q]uite frankly, neither my parents nor I thought I was particularly good-looking”), and how sports seemed “the only way forward” in that respect.
Seeing as how we expect Mary to have a name pronounceable enough (Mangte Chungneijang Kom just won’t cut it), to be feminine enough, Indian enough (in the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film to be based on her life, Priyanka Chopra will play Mary), and successful enough, Unbreakable is a quiet, confident reminder that it is enough to be Mary. And that she will have her say.