Birubari Bazaar is a tough neighbourhood, the kind where battles between local gangs lead to nasty fights. There is an unwritten rule of not crossing over to each other’s territory. As a teenager, Padam Thapa was often involved in one of those fist fights when he ventured into neighbouring Kaala Pahad.
To get an upper hand over rival gangs, Thapa and his cronies pooled in money and paid a karate instructor from Manipur to move to Birubari Bazaar and asked him to start a small academy. Thapa’s gang members were the first to sign-up for classes.
These days the Kaala Pahad gang do not cause much trouble because of the respect the Thapa family has earned in the area. Padam’s two sons, Gobind and Shiva, are poster boys here, the latter a world boxing championship bronze medalist and the youngest pugilist to participate in the Olympics from India.
Padam likes to show visitors the make-shift training shed at house No.87, which has a punching bag hanging from the metal hook on the tin-sheet roof and is adorned by posters displaying his youngest son Shiva’s exploits in the ring. He will tell you that there is a connection between his fight for survival on the streets and his sons’ boxing careers, which began before they turned 10.
Padam was all rolled into one – a doting father, trainer, coach, masseur, dietician and the mentor. The day started at 3 am for Gobind and Shiva.
Karate and the kids
He first talks about how karate played a role in him wanting the next generation to take up a contact sport.
“I took up karate for self defence. I participated in two national competitions but when I did not win a medal, I stopped competing. I decided when I have sons they will become Olympic champions in karate,” Padam says.
There were two factors Padam hadn’t accounted for when he had this dream. Karate is not part of the Olympic programme. He and his wife Goma had four girls, including a pair of twins, before Gobind and Thapa were born, two years apart.
“It is only after Thapa, the youngest of the six, was born did we decide to stop having children,” Padam says.
“I got married young because I wanted to have sons who I could mould into Olympians. I was 17 and she was 19,” Padam says before adding, “We were in love, but there were issues.”
The issues Padam is talking about forced him and Goma to elope. They were underground for two years because Goma’s Brahmin family disapproved of the love affair.
“They had threatened to hack me, so we ran away. Only when the children were born did they come around,” Padam says.
By the time they were four years old, the Thapa brothers had enrolled for Karate classes in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, where the family was based. But when Padam realised that karate was not an Olympic sport he decided to turn them into boxers.
Padam shut his metal fabrication business in Itanagar and moved to Guwahati, where the family hails from. His sons followed the karate black-belt holder’s ‘Olympic training programme’ without complaining. The daily schedule which began at 3 am gave them just five hours of sleep.
“They never complained because they loved contact sport and training. I don’t recall them ever slacking. I am not sure if they knew what the Olympic Games were about but they chased my dream,” Padam says.
From 3 am to 5.30 am, the Thapa brothers did their homework. This was followed by a training session at the Ulubari Boxing Club. School began at 8 am. The principal exempted the boys from attending the morning assembly. It was precious time saved, Padam recalls. The young boxers ate sprouted beans with almond and kishmish before and after their morning training session. Breakfast was vegetable soup and five boiled eggs. Lunch was at home and consisted of chicken soup or paya soup and dal and roti. Dinner was protein rich, as per a chart chalked up by the father.
“After lunch and a brief rest, I would take them for their afternoon training session to the boxing club. At 7 pm, they had mathematics tuition. They were allowed to watch television for half an hour but under no circumstances could they stay up after 10 pm,” Padam says, while detailing the daily schedule. Weekends were not ‘holidays’. The boys, who were nine and 11, ran up to 35 kilometres as part of cross-country training. On Sunday, they swam for a couple of hours too.
“I would use lahsun tel (garlic oil) and give them massages. They would laze around under the sun. Garlic oil has calcium and the sun helps the body produce Vitamin D. I am a simple man but I did follow scientifically-proven training methods,” Padam says.
Gobind and Shiva progressed steadily, winning medals in their age-group tournaments. They were good but Padam was waiting for the breakout moment. He had to be sure one of them would go on to become an Olympian.
The 21st sub-junior national boxing championships held in 2005 at Noida was the turning point in Shiva’s career. He was to fight in the 36-kg category. But a misinformed official told the young boxer that the tournament didn’t have that particular weight class.
A desperate Padam asked Shiva to drink two litres of water to ensure he makes the cut for the heavier 38-kg weigh-in.
“I was worried if my son would get hurt because the boys in the 38 kilogram category were stronger. But Shiva was determined and looked upon this challenge as an opportunity and not a hurdle,” Padam says.
There is a laminated photograph, one of the many on the walls of the house, in which Shiva is waiting to receive the gold medal while standing side-by-side with boys taller than him.
“He beat the champion from the Services team. He was much smaller than the other boxers in the category and I remember that he held his guard nearly over his head. But he fought like a tiger, he was fearless. There was a look of calmness in his eyes though he was in a tough situation. That day I knew this boy would fight for India at the Olympics.”
Shiva made an impression on the officials at the Noida event and was asked to come over to the dais to be felicitated.
18 and an Olympian
The Thapas also remember an April day in 2012 when Shiva, then 18, became the youngest boxer from India to qualify for the Olympics by reaching the final of the 56 kilogram category of the Asian Qualifiers in Kazakhstan.
“The road was lined with cars and vans and the house was full of people from the media. We did not even have time to eat or cook for nearly five days as the whole of Guwahati were in and out of our house. The national media were also here. That day, we knew Shiva had become a star,” his older sister Ganga says.
Shiva likes to make the journey back home after each tournament.
“He tells me that only if he comes home and spends time with us does he fully recover after a tournament. When he is here, he completely switches off. He does not even look at his phone because he wants to spend all his time with us. This house is where Shiva and Gobind were trained by our father. It is small and not modern but it will always be home for us and Shiva,” the sister adds.
After winning gold (56 kg) at the South Asian Games, Shiva made a stopover at home. This is an opportunity for him to catch up on all the news in the family, which shields him from distractions.
“When he is away training or participating in competitions, he gets to hear only good news from us. If someone in the family is ill or there are other problems we never let him know of it. We don’t want him to worry about anything when he is boxing. He once asked me, ‘how come everybody is always fine at home’,” Ganga says.
In the main room of the house, Shiva’s mother and another sister Kavita are performing a Mata Rani puja. During the period of the puja, the family does not consume onion or garlic.
“We observe the fast every year. The puja has been part of our lives from the days of our grandfather. We never give it a miss,” Ganga says.
Just like Padam and his sons religiously followed the ‘Olympic plan’ drawn up at house No. 87 in Birubari Bazaar many years ago.