From a mother who has lived her life behind a veil but taught her daughter to step out, to a father who almost left his government job to support his child — here are stories of grit that from the homes of the girls who won gold in the Women’s Youth World Boxing Championships.
‘Papa had given up his job for me and it all rested on me’
Nitu, 18, 48-kg category
Dhanana village, Bhiwani, Haryana
Sometime in 2013, Jai Bhagwan, who worked as a bill messenger (a Class 3 employee) in the Haryana Legislative Assembly, showed up at his village Dhanana, in Haryana’s Bhiwani district, when he should have been at work in Chandigarh. His wife Mukesh Kumari, though surprised, was happy to have him back. Then, as the days went by and he showed no signs of returning, she began to worry.
Jai Bhagwan, however, betrayed no such anxieties. He would wake up early everyday and accompany his daughter, Nitu Kumari, 18, who had joined a boxing academy in Bhiwani the previous year, to practice and then to school. As days turned into weeks, Kumari’s worries had given way to full blown panic, and so she sent her brother to Chandigarh to find out what the “chakkar (matter)” was. When he reported back that Jai Bhagwan had indeed gone on leave without pay, Kumari lost it.
“Mujhey laga ye pagal ho gaya (I thought he had gone mad),” she says. “Naukri chhod ke aa gaya, aur upar se ladki ko aisey khel mein laga diya jisme uske haath pair toot jaayen. Sarkaari naukri koi chhodta hai kya (Not only had he left his job, he had also put the girl in a sport that was dangerous. Who in their right mind would quit a government job?)” asks Kumari, 42.
For three years, he stayed away from the job, expect for brief periods when he had to rejoin in order to get an extension.
“Pagal to nahi tha, but pagalpan zaroor tha (I wasn’t mad, but I was certainly driven by this ambition to make my daughter a boxer),” says the 44-year-old. Now that his daughter has won the gold medal in the 48-kg category at the Women’s Youth World Boxing Championship, Jai Bhagwan allows himself a chuckle as he recollects that daily dose of remonstrations. Back then, it was no laughing matter.
In the first year of his service break, the family managed with his savings and his share from the eight acres of ancestral land that his elder brother Krishan Kumar tilled. However, by the second year, they had to sell their Swift car and half-acre land to fund their daily household expenses as well as the education of their three children: Nitu (now in her second year of BA at Chandigarh University) and her younger siblings Tamanna (in Class XII) and Akshit (Class VI).
What kept Jai Bhagwan going was that Nitu had made his ambition her own. The father and daughter bought a cheap sandbag from Bhiwani, filled it up with sawdust and hung it in their modest, almost bare, drawing room — much to the chagrin of Kumari — so that she could practice at home on days when she couldn’t travel from her village to the Bhiwani Boxing Club, 23 km away.
“It was always there in the back of my mind that my father had given up his job for me and now it all rested on me. What kept playing on my mind was what would my father say if I didn’t get a medal. I kept telling my father he should join duty. But papa would tell me, ‘chinta na kar (don’t worry),” Nitu recollects.
Nitu gained confidence as she started winning. In 2015, she developed a hairline fracture in her pelvic bone, but she participated in the All India School Games that year and won gold.
And now, she has struck gold again. What does she plan to do with the Rs-20-lakh reward announced by the state government? “We have faced lots of problems. I will give it to my father. He knows best. But I think I need a new punching bag in our baithak (courtyard),” Nitu says with a smile.
‘I want to become another Mary Kom’
Ankushita Boro, 17,
Meghai-Jharoni village, Sonitpur, Assam
On Thursday, as soon as Ankushita Boro, 17, reached Rowta on the border of Sonitpur district of Assam, she was taken in a victory procession in an open jeep, the Tricolour on either side and a convoy of young men on motorbikes trailing her. But as the convoy wound its way through crowds, covering nearly 70 km before reaching her village Meghai-jharoni, her mind kept drifting to the ama bedwr (a Bodo pork dish) and ungkham (rice) her grandmother Mainao Boro would have cooked for her.
All these months that she had spent away from home, practising in the Sports Authority of India’s Patiala campus, Ankushita, who won gold in the 64-kg category at the World Junior Boxing Championships in Guwahati last week, craved for her favourite dish. So as soon as the procession wound up, Ankushita headed straight home for her meal of ungkham, dal and ama bedwr.
At their modest home, Ankushita’s parents Rakesh Kumar and Ranjita say that as a child, she was good at dancing and athletics, but they never thought that the eldest of their three daughters would make it big in boxing.
“When Brajen, one of our nephews who was already in SAI Golaghat playing volleyball, told us to let Anku take the SAI selection test, she jumped at the idea. We thought she would be a runner, or a jumper at best. But I am glad she took up boxing,” says Rakesh, a Class XII pass who has been working without salary for 25 years at the Borbil Middle School in an adjoining village. “The school is yet to be taken over by the government. All that I get from there is a small bonus during Bihu and Puja festivals,” says Rakesh, who helps his father-in-law on his 13-bigha field.
He says that hadn’t it been for his father-in-law Jogeswar Boro, 58, with whom the family lives, Ankushita wouldn’t have excelled in the sport. “Though SAI takes care of all her needs, my father-in-law spends not less than Rs 30,000 a year on her — for boxing gloves, clothes and other things,” he says.
Jogeswar, a Hindi teacher in a nearby high school, supplements his income by selling the surplus paddy he grows on his 13 bighas. Every year he also earns between Rs 30,000 and Rs 40,000 selling fish from a fishery he has in his backyard.
Ankushita’s success in the ring has inspired her sisters and cousins to take up the sport. “I also want to become successful and famous like Anku-baa. I have already won some prizes in athletics at school competitions,” says Ankushita’s younger sister Dhritismita, a Class VIII student.
Kumkum, 6, the youngest of the sisters, only understands her sister has brought home another trophy, this time a “very big” one.
Ankushita, meanwhile, is preparing to pack another punch. “I will stay at home for a couple of days, meet my friends and relatives, and then get back to training again. My dream now is the next Olympics. I want to become another Mary Kom,” she says.
‘I couldn’t do much, but I wouldn’t let my daughter end up like me’
Jyoti Guliya, 17,
Rurki village, Rohtak, Haryana
The chillum, filled with tobacco and smouldering dung-cake pieces, is placed on the hookah in the backyard. A group of men huddle around it, and as they take deep drags and exhale, the conversation ebbs and flows. “Haryana is progressing. Nowadays, men and women are treated as equals,” is the broad consensus.
Within earshot, a teenaged girl, clad in a blue tracksuit with ‘INDIA’ emblazoned on the back, is working in the buffalo shed — a chore usually reserved for women. She uses a wooden spade to scoop the animal refuse into an iron pan, hauls it on her head and empties its contents into a pile of dung nearby.
Having won a gold medal at the Women’s Youth World Boxing Championship in Guwahati on November 26, Jyoti Guliya, 17, is back to her everyday life at her modest house in Rurki village near Haryana’s Rohtak, a district with one of the worst sex ratios in the country — 867 women for every 1,000 men, according to the 2011 Census. Here, men tend to draw lines and women learn early to stick to them.
Jyoti has managed to redraw some of those lines. While she easily steps in and out of the Guliya household, the other women — mothers and aunts — are all indoors. On the rare occasion that they step out for some chores, they draw their dupattas over their faces.
It’s only after some cajoling — and a nod from her husband Maman Singh — that Jyoti’s mother Roshni Devi, 52, agrees to be photographed. Though Roshni has not been seen often, when it mattered, she made sure she was heard. In 2012, when Jyoti said she wanted to join the boxing academy that had recently come up in the village, her father objected, but her mother put her foot down.
“Main hi iske pita se ladti thi ke main toh bhejjungi boxing mein. Hum toh aise reh gaye, par meri beti aise nahi rehni chahiye (I fought with her father and said I will definitely send her to the boxing academy. I couldn’t do much, but I wouldn’t let my daughter end up like me),” Roshni says.
But Jyoti’s father’s biggest fear then was, ‘What would the villagers say?’
“Gaon wale yeh kaha karte the agar ye khel khilaya toh jab shaadi hogi toh shaadi ke bad pati ko maregi aur hath khul jayega. Fir gaon ki panchayat ko jana padega jhagde niptane (They would say that if you allowed her to box, after her marriage, she will get into the habit of hitting her husband. And the panchayat would have to intervene to resolve their fights),” reasons Singh, 60, a farmer with four acres of land.
But with her mother by her side, Jyoti joined the academy without informing Singh. “Initially, she would slip out when her father was away working in the fields,” says Roshni. When Singh found out, there was a face-off, but the mother and daughter prevailed.
But the battle wasn’t over. There were dissenting voices and sniggers within Roshni’s sewing circle and their relatives. “Mainey kaha main ghar main rok ke nahi rakhungi ladki ko. Jo ulta-seedha bol rahi thi, vo hi kal ladoo kha rahi thi hamare ghar pe aur Jyoti ka swagat kar rahi thi (I told them I wouldn’t confine my daughter to the house. All those women who said nasty things were yesterday eating ladoos at our house to welcome Jyoti.)”
The social and parental pressure, though huge, wasn’t the biggest obstacle Jyoti faced. Unlike Bhiwani or Hisar, Rohtak, back in the day, was a boxing backwater. While Sakshi Dhanda, Nitu and Shashi Chopra, fellow gold medallists at the Guwahati championships, trained under well-known coaches — Dronacharya awardee Jagdish Singh of the fabled Bhiwani Boxing Club and the experienced M S Dhaka — Jyoti’s mentor Vijay Hooda himself learned on the fly five years ago. “We would watch boxing videos on my phone and learn,” says Hooda, 30.
The academy itself was bereft of basic facilities. “While girls from Bhiwani and Hisar had access to top-class facilities, we made do with bare minimum. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to see what Jyoti has achieved despite all that,” he says.
However, the man beaming the broadest is Jyoti’s father Maman Singh. The gold medal has come with a Rs-20-lakh prize money that the state government has promised. It’s more money than he has ever seen. “Hamare 4 acre zameen se toh hum lakh-do lakh hi kamate hain par yeh ladki ek performance se hi 20 lakh le aayi (With our 4-acre land we earn a lakh or two, but this girl, with one performance, has brought Rs 20 lakh),” he says.
And what do fellow villagers and the naysayers think of his daughter now? Before Maman Singh begins to reply, a village elder, Nand Ram, jumps in and replies, “Inki bachchi gold medal le ke ayi. Ab main bhi yeh sochunga ki meri ladki bhi aisi ho. Toh main usko guide karunga ki khel main jaya karo. Aur who chalegi us side. (His daughter has won gold. Now I will want my daughter to be the same and guide her to take up sports. And she will be on the winning side.)”
‘For us, Shashi’s medal is the biggest degree’
Shashi Chopra, 17,
Azad Nagar, Hisar
Pushpa Chopra, 45, couldn’t get herself to watch any of the preliminary bouts her daughter Shashi fought at the Youth World Boxing Championships in Guwahati. But when Shashi made it to the finals, Pushpa resolved to watch the match. After a close opening round, as Shashi stepped up in the subsequent rounds, Pushpa was all charged and their home in Azad Nagar, in Haryana’s Hisar district, had filled with the mother’s shouts of “maar, Shashi”. “When the match got over. I was trembling. I was so overcome with emotions,” remembers Pushpa.
If Shashi has got her height — her impressive 5’9” frame gives her a significant edge over her competitors — from her father Nanha Ram Chopra, she may have inherited her grit from her mother Pushpa.
With Nanha Ram, a head constable with the BSF, away for 10 months of the year, Pushpa has single-handedly brought up her four children, while looking after her ageing in-laws. With Shashi’s medal, those struggles, she says, now seem worth it. “I had a lot of responsibilities then — I had my in-laws and my four children to look after. Yet, I would wake up at 4 am, before Shashi, to prepare badam milk for her,” Pushpa says.
Though she barely went to school herself, Pushpa gently nudged her children towards studies. While her eldest daughter Kiran, 25, has done her Master’s, her second daughter Ritu, 23, is a BSF head constable in Gurgaon. Her son Pardeep, 20, is in the third year of his MBBS and Shashi, Pushpa’s youngest, is a first-year student at the Guru Gobind Singh College for Women in Chandigarh. Pushpa, however, noticed how Shashi would always drift towards sports.
Though she started with wrestling, Shashi switched to boxing in 2012 after one of their neighbours, Rajesh Punia, won a silver medal in boxing at the Youth Commonwealth Games in 2012.
What also influenced her decision was that Hisar has had a culture of women boxers, with World Championship bronze medallist Chhotu Loura and Preeti Beniwal, ace boxer Akhil Kumar’s wife, hailing from the district.
Shashi soon started training under coach Rajesh Sheoran at the Universal Boxing Academy in the city, winning her first state title three months later. More medals kept coming in — two gold medals at the Panchayat Yuva Krida Aur Khel Abhiyan events in 2015 and 2016 and the AIU Inter-University title earlier this year.
Though she was initially not included in the training camp in Bhopal for the Guwahati Championships, she got in after Akhil Kumar, put in a word. “I was a little upset. But after Akhil sir told the other coaches about my game, I joined the camp after a month,” she says.
As she fought in Guwahati, 1,500 km away, in Latur, her father watched the bout with his BSF colleagues. “Her win meant a lot for me and the force. They called her BSF ki beti. Meri beti world champion ho gayi aur meri pura training centre cheer kar rahi tha (My daughter was the world champion and my entire training centre was cheering for her),” says Nanha Ram, who has taken leave for four days to celebrate with his family.
Pushpa talks of a ritual Shashi follows every time she returns home after winning a bout — she puts the medal around her mother’s neck. Now wearing the medal, Pushpa turns emotional. “I wanted Shashi to pursue whatever she wanted in academics. Par meri beti ne sab degree fail kar di (My daughter has made all other degrees look small). Now we have a world champion in our family. Hamare liye iska medal sabse upar wali degree hai (For us, her medal is the biggest degree).”
‘You have to keep yourself busy when you are not fighting. So I play pranks’
Sakshi Dhanda, 18,
Dhanana village, Bhiwani, Haryana
One day during the Women’s Youth World Boxing Championship in Guwahati, Raffaelle Bergamasco, India’s coach, got a call in his hotel room — someone from the reception was asking him to come urgently and deposit Rs 200 for a room key he had earlier misplaced. A few minutes later, when Bergamasco came down nine floors with the money, the receptionist told him they hadn’t made any such call.
On another occasion, a boxer was asked to come down to the foyer for an interview with the media. And when she got there, there were no media persons.
Those in the Indian contingent must have instantly figured the source of these mysterious calls — Sakshi Dhanda, the youth world champion in the 54-kg category and a pathological prankster.
“When you have no bouts scheduled, and there is nothing else to do, you need something to keep yourself busy. That’s why I play pranks,” says Sakshi, 18, perhaps the most promising young boxer in the country — she has also won the Junior World Championship in 2015.
Unlike the other gold medalists in the championships, boxing for Sakshi isn’t a way out of economic or social hardships. Her father, Manoj Kumar, 45, is a contractor while her grandfather, Bhoop Singh, 80, retired as the principal of a government school. The family also owns six acres in Dhanana village.
Sakshi took up boxing in 2012, inspired by Vijender Singh, who also hails from Bhiwani and who is related to an uncle of hers. She encouraged her friend Nitu to do the same and even went ahead and filled up the Bhiwani Boxing Club admission form on her behalf. Now the country’s most decorated young boxer, Sakshi is probably the most impish too, once the gloves are off.
India at the Championship
With five gold medals, this is India’s best haul ever at the AIBA World Women’s Youth Boxing Championships. The previous best was at the 2013 edition of the Championships in Bulgaria, where Indian girls came home with a silver and bronze. Five gold medallists in the Guwahati meet that ended on November 26 — Nitu (48 kg), Jyoti Gulia (51 kg), Sakshi (54 kg), Shashi Chopra (57 kg), Ankushita Boro (64 kg) — and two bronze medallists: Anupama (81 kg); and Neha Yadav (81-plus kg)
180 boxers from 31 countries took part in the Championships. India won most medals, followed by Russia, which finished with two golds and four silvers. Kazakhstan was third on the medal tally with a gold, a silver and two bronze
Much of India’s success at Guwahati is credited to the new Italian coach, Rafaelle Bergamasco, and his unique training methods. The 46-year-old has contributed six Olympics medals for Italy. Bergamasco used Google Translate to interact with girls from rural Haryana and the Northeast. The coach also added music to their training regimen. “On my first day, I said I need music. The girls were initially surprised, but now they cannot train without music,” he says
As per international rules, the girls will not be able to take part in the senior category until they turn 19. Which means they will be ruled out of next year’s Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. They will be eligible for the 2020 Olympics