Sarjubala Devi’s father Rajen drives a water-tanker, the huge guzzling cylindrical container that rumbles through Imphal’s narrow streets when drinking water is scarce. Her mother Thoibi sits for days endlessly weaving prints on fabric on a home-machine. The sort of urban poverty that the 21-year-old boxer has seen in her family in Imphal, for years now, is not stark or scary, but of the humdrum variety where nothing’s really changed for decades.
One way out of this drudgery, a young Sarju had figured at age 13, was to hop across her street to a small boxing academy Kongba Amateur where she could punch to her heart’s content and attempt to do what Manipur’s idol Mary Kom did to leap out of obscurity.
In her first attempt at winning a World Championship — “since Mary didi has won 5 times” — Sarju fell one step short. “I was very disappointed with silver. I will not stop until I win a World title,” says the dogged pugilist who faltered in the final at Jeju, Korea and had to settle for the second medal, paler than the gold. “Just a silver”. She’s a diminutive boxer, almost always shorter than most of her opponents, even for the light welter weight (48 kg). She’s waited three years since her gold medal at the World Youth in Turkey to be given a chance to compete internationally, and patiently bided her time never slackening in practice because boxing is something she doesn’t want to stop.
“I can practice endlessly because I really want to do well and become someone like Mary didi,” she says, recalling the last time she was consumed by the sport – an occasion of achievement that was laced with deep regret.
“Before my trials for Youth Nationals, I had set off to SAI for a camp and hadn’t been home for months. I’ll never forget 8th July. My sister — she was 14 or 15 then — had called up in the morning and told me she had prayed I’d be selected. She died later that day of an illness that was never diagnosed because the family couldn’t afford. They’d kept away the news of her suffering from me until the trials were over. Me doing well in boxing is very important for my whole family,” she recalls.
And so it is that Sarju never stops training — or thinking about it even as she stops at Mumbai for some media interactions. “I don’t like taking off on Sunday,” says the soft-spoken girl, restless to grasp that World title. The next Championships couldn’t come soon enough for her. “I was very happy when I got selected for this edition after winning Nationals. But I knew only gold medals get noticed, otherwise they’ll say she’s a loser boxer,” she explains.
Sarjubala lost to a Kazakh girl at Korea — a familiar opponent who she’d beaten at the World Youth in 2011. “But for three years while she gained in experience, I couldn’t get selected,” she rues. She’s no cribber to cry foul about selection. “I’ve known these last three years that someday I’ll get a chance if I keep at it. But I had to make that one chance count,” she repeats, sounding sad at how things turned out in the finals at Korea. “I’d beaten the Kazakh girl three years ago. But this time when I saw her, she was mixing regular southpaw with variations of southpaw and I couldn’t figure out her attack,” she says.
She was scouted out at the Senior Nationals by Olympic Gold Quest in 2011, when she came back from 6 points down in the final round to overpower her opponent from Madhya Pradesh while in Bhopal. “I kept landing punches but they never seemed to give points. The whole crowd wanted my opponent, a home girl and a senior, to win. But I got very angry, and I stepped up my attack,” she recalls. The heart with which she fought made the OGQ scouts sign her on immediately. “Maaro ya maro,” she explains her blitzing end to the round that day in Bhopal.
Over the years, Sarju has gotten past the big names of 48 kg – Mamta, Krishna Thapa. “But after seeing the likes of Mary and Suranjoy I know this is not enough.” 48 kg isn’t an Olympic category and at some point, Sarju will need to make decisions on getting into 51 kg – a greatly contested division with Mary Kom and Pinki Jangra.
“After my hamstring problems I couldn’t run, and I need power in my legs and stronger footwork. I know I’m not the biggest of boxers, but before I even think of Olympics, I want to win the World Championship,” she says. It’s how she saw Mary Kom beat poverty, it’s the route she wants to take out of her own drudgery. “My father and mother should rest now, I should take care of them and brother Rakesh who is studying. I need to box and win. I can’t stop,” she says breathlessly.