Tombi Chanu drapes a shawl to face the breeze on a damp, overcast afternoon. It’s the first time the 55-year-old has travelled outside Manipur — and she couldn’t have chosen a better occasion to mark her long journey from Nongpok Kakching village, 20 km out of Imphal, to the nation’s capital.
On Tuesday, Tombi’s daughter, Mirabai, India’s only current world champion, was conferred with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award at Rashtrapati Bhawan. Cricket star Virat Kohli was the other recipient, with the government deciding to make a rare exception to its rule of awarding just one Khel Ratna in its annual ceremony.
“About a year ago, I was quite anonymous in my own village,” says Tombi, who owns a small grocery shop. But now, things have changed. “When I go for my morning walks, or for work, people point at me and say, ‘There goes Mirabai’s mom’,” she says with a smile, clutching her daughter’s hand.
At the Delhi hotel — and later at Rashtrapati Bhawan — Tombi beams as strangers walk over to shake the hands with the woman behind India’s champion woman weightlifter. A couple of hours before the ceremony, Mirabai and Tombi were sauntering around the hotel lawns, preparing a ‘to-do’ list. Mirabai wants to take her mother to “as many places as possible” in the one day she has in Delhi. But Tombi has only one item on her wish list. “I want to see what people in Delhi shop for — and how they shop,” she says.
Then Mirabai chips in. “Shopping toh hota rahega (Shopping can happen anytime). But I want to show her the old city, the old houses and India Gate. Despite making so many visits to Delhi, I haven’t seen India Gate myself,” she says. On Monday, Mirabai had caught a glimpse of the monument while travelling to Rashtrapati Bhawan for the awards rehearsal. But then, she went through a “nerve-wracking” experience. “Wait for them to call your name, walk to the President, greet him with folded hands, wait for them to announce your achievement and finally, pose for a photo,” Mirabai kept telling herself. “I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t make a mistake,” she says.
These have been a good few weeks for Mirabai, after a gloomy and uncertain four months. After demolishing the field in the 48-kg class to win gold at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April, she suffered a “mysterious” back injury. “It was dreadful,” she says. “I couldn’t even bend to tie my shoe-laces. The pain was unbearable.”
She consulted multiple specialists in Mumbai and Delhi, but no one could figure out the reason. All of them had the same advice, though — stay away from weights. Soon, paranoia gripped Mirabai, who feared this was the “end of her career”.
As if the physical pain wasn’t enough, the injury began to crush her psychologically, too. Lifting was second nature for Mirabai, her mother says. As a child, she would lift bundles of firewood from a nearby hill and carry it home. “It was very tough, especially when the rest of the team left for the Asian Games while I was in rehab at the National Institute of Sport in Patiala. It was very depressing,” says Mirabai.
Tombi says she spoke to her daughter “every day”. “I could sense the pain she was feeling. She was alone in Patiala and very sad, so I told her to come home,” she says.
Mirabai sought permission from her coach, Vijay Sharma, who refused her request at first but eventually relented. “I persisted. He understood my mental state and gave me a five-day break, which really helped me because I could take my mind of all this completely,” she says.
On Tuesday, Sharma received the Dronacharya Award for training Mirabai.
As the injury began to heal gradually, Mirabai began to lift weights again. “It’s frustrating that I still don’t know the exact reason for my injury but I am glad that I started to lift again last week. It’s only 30-40kg, but it’s still better than not doing anything,” she says.
On Wednesday, Mirabai will return to Patiala where she will resume the rehab programme. Tombi, meanwhile, will take the long flight back home. Life, for her, isn’t anonymous anymore.