In Nongpok Sekmai, a village in the eastern corner of Imphal Valley, 60-year-old Saikhom Tombi Devi recalls the days when Mirabai Chanu, her youngest daughter, would collect firewood and carry it on her head to their leased half-acre paddy field.
On Saturday, carrying the weight of a nation on her shoulders, the 26-year-old became India’s first medallist at Tokyo 2020, her silver opening the country’s account on Day 1 of the Games.
Mirabai’s elder brother Ranjan Saikhom said: “People started coming in early in the morning, ready to watch the event on TV. We never had such a large number of guests.”
Tombi said she was sure her little girl would deliver because she could always be relied upon. “While my other children would spend time studying and weaving, Mirabai would carry the firewood on her head to support me. Sometimes, we would spend 3-4 hours in the morning and a similar duration in the evening at the farm. And she would be only concerned about reducing my burden,” she told The Sunday Express.
Raising Mirabai and her five siblings, she said, was tough since family resources were meagre. With many mouths to feed, father Saikhom Kriti Singh’s income from his job as a construction worker in the Manipur Public Works Department wasn’t enough. Tombi would run a small tea kiosk on the village main road to support the family.
“All our ancestors were small farmers and we did not even have our own land. My husband would earn Rs 2,000-3,000 per month. We could not even afford a proper diet for Mirabai or her siblings,” she said.
While young Mirabai wanted to be an archer, according to Tombi, a chance encounter with a weightlifter would ignite interest in the sport.
It would see her travelling to Imphal, a city 20 km away, with her father to enquire about training at the Khuman Lampak Stadium. Former Asian medallist Anita Chanu was the weightlifting coach at the centre where Mirabai took the trials to be selected as one of the trainees.
“Her body muscle mass was good. I remember seeing her for the first time and thinking that she can be a good weightlifter,” Anita recalled.
The youngster would become junior national champion in Chhattisgarh in 2009 before breaking into the national camp in 2011.
With training at the academy held twice a day, Anita said Mirabai would avoid the return journey to her village and spend the afternoons at the academy with home-made steamed black and white rice, rich in carbohydrates and minerals, and boiled vegetables.
“Unlike other kids, she would stay at the academy post the morning session and would return to her village only after the evening session. She would always bring steamed black rice as lunch and it would mean that she had a lot of carbohydrates and it helped her in a way. While we started her weightlifting training with pieces of wood, within days she would lift more than 70 kg, almost double her own weight,” Anita said.
Tombi would wait eagerly for her youngest daughter in the evenings. “Sometimes, she would travel on sand trucks or cycle to Imphal. There were days when she would have fare for only half the distance and would walk back home. Sometimes, her elder sisters would save money from their weaving and give her money for fare or other training expenses. The only thing which she did not lack was will power,” she said.
At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Mirabai only managed one clean lift, 82 kg in snatch, resulting in a Did-Not-Finish result. “When I got the call from Mirabai and she told me about the result, I fainted. The whole family cried. Mirabai told me that she was nervous and wanted to quit the sport. But we told her that we will give full support but she shouldn’t stop trying. It’s a struggle and you can’t quit in the middle of your struggle. Whenever she would get injured, I would pray and not sleep for days,” Tombi said.
But this, she said, is not the day to think of the unpleasant past. She is looking forward to making her daughter’s favourite dishes, apart from seeing her with the Olympic medal.
“She always brings something for all of us on her return. I have still kept a white shawl she got me from abroad. I will be wearing that shawl apart from making her favourite Meitei dishes including kangsoi (vegetable stew), eromba (boiled vegetables with fermented fish) and paknam (banana flower with chickpea flour and fermented fish steam cooked in turmeric leaves),” the elated mother said.
Mirabai is scheduled to return to India on July 26. And the celebrations will start all over again, especially in Manipur.
Congratulating the weightlifter via video link, Chief Minister N Biren Singh assured Mirabai that the state would provide her a suitable job in addition to the promised Rs 1 crore award.
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