A steady stream of sympathisers, some of them enraged by what happened to Thoubal Khunou’s most famous daughter while she was far away in Incheon, made their way to Sarita Devi’s house in the village. There are only about 180 families in the village and the overrinding sentiment here is that Sarita has been robbed of a shot at a gold medal.
Sarita’s loss in a controversial decision in the semifinals to South Korea’s Ji-Na Park, has been no less painful than a death in the family for those in this part of the world. One of Sarita’s six brothers, Rakesh Laishram sums up the mood in the family home and the village. “After all our struggles… watching my sister cry on TV after that match made me very sad. The last time I felt so sad was when my brother died. She deserved to win that particular bout but they stole her chance of entering the final,” Rakesh says.
The struggles Rakesh refers to are many in the Laishram household. Rakesh is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Arts degree but there was a time when he had to stop studying because the family could not afford it. “We all used to play sports. Mostly martial arts. But Didi (elder sister) had the most potential. So we all dropped out. I dropped out of academics simply because we just could not afford it. It is Didi who encouraged me to get back to studying and helped me rejoin college,’’ Rakesh adds.
Sarita fought the odds to reach where she did. “She would go to Imphal every morning to train and return home in the evening. Sometimes her diet would not be sufficient, as we wouldn’t have enough food, so she would drink the starch water from the rice made that day. It’s because of her efforts that she has come this far and is now supporting all of us through her job with the Manipur police,’’he adds.
L Ibomcha Singh, who coached both Mary Kom and Sarita, says that 90 per cent of the young aspiring sportspersons who come to train at Imphal’s biggest stadium, the Khuman Lampak, hail from families below the poverty line. “Sports provides an opportunity for a better life in a state where the unemployment rate is high and job options both limited and scarce. The families of these children know that if they do well then they will in all likelihood get good government jobs,” says Singh.
There are similarities between Manipur’s two most famous women boxers. Like Mary, who started off as an athlete, for Sarita too boxing was not the first choice.
Sarita was a Kung Fu practitioner before she took up boxing at the age of 15. And like Mary Kom, Sarita too hails from a poor family. Her father, like Kom’s, was a landless farmer and worked hard to make both ends meet.
But while Kom’s career seems to be touching heights of glory, Sarita, who lost her father before she turned 18, will have to pick up the pieces after an emotionally draining two days.