There is indeed something about Mary.
But the “oh never mind, we still love you, Mary” adulation that is sloshing around the media after boxer Mary Kom lost her Olympics semifinal says something more about the rest of us than it does about Magnificent Mary.
It says that as a country we know full well that we have treated the seven sisters of the north- east abysmally. (The seven states in India’s north-east -- Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura – have traditionally been known as the “seven sisters.” Kom is from Manipur.) But we are hoping our newfound ardor for Mary Kom will grant us absolution.
From hardly knowing who Mary Kom was a few months ago, now we have swung to the other extreme of over-compensation. Mary Kom is everywhere.
In her, India has finally found a story about Manipur in particular, and the north-east in general, that is not about insurgency, HIV, drugs, floods or the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
But India has seized on the Mary Kom story with enormous relief because there is guilt about the fact that most of us don’t know where Manipur is relative to Mizoram on the map. In her pluck we find a feel-good story that lets us off the hook.
Hail Mary, full of grace, grant us forgiveness for all those chinky jokes. Forgive us because though now you are all over the covers of magazines, and your sister and sister-in-law are having microphones thrust in their faces, and newspaper correspondents are trekking over to your house in Manipur to watch the match with your family, a few months ago we didn’t really care anything about you or your against-all-odds boxing career.
In the insightful profile Rahul Bhattacharya did about her for Intelligent Life, Kom says simply, “We are Indian. Ya, the face is different. But heart is Indian.” But until this shining Olympic moment her country didn’t think the same. They just saw the face and dismissed it as “other.”
And sadly, I’d wager that’s how it will be despite this medal. Mary Kom’s victory might inspire other girls to take up boxing. Her boxing school might be flooded with applicants. But the Mizo shop girl in a mall in Gurgaon will still suffer her share of “chinky” jokes and girls who look like Mary Kom won’t have an easier time renting flats.
“It is not correct to say that students of northeast states are more vulnerable as compared to students from other regions,” P Chidambaram told the Rajya Sabha. But his fellow UPA minister Agatha Sangma retorted, “South is very different from North, but no south Indian in Delhi would be made to feel he does not look Indian.”
Mary Kom’s victory will not mean Manipur or its sister states will get better treatment from New Delhi. It will probably not even mean more electricity for a state where Kom’s family had to get a generator to make sure they would be able to watch her big match. As CNN-IBN correspondent Arijit Sen tweeted after the big electricity blackout: I’ve been asked to check if Manipur’s power situation is normal. Yes at one hour of electricity every day it’s getting its normal quota.
The rise of Mary Kom and Devendro Singh will lead to colourful stories about what’s it about Manipuris and boxing. 1998 Asian Games hero Dingko Singh told The Telegraph “That’s because, by nature, we’re aggressive. He was joking, but Manipur has plenty of reasons to be pissed about.
The medal of Mary Kom could have been a way to talk about all of this. But instead it becomes the fig-leaf that covers it all up, so we don’t have to talk about anything else other than patronizingly pat her on the back and say, “Well done, Mary, mother of twins. We know how hard it is to be super Mom and super boxer. Aren’t those kids cute! ”
Her medal is being embraced as a triumph for India. “I join the nation in congratulating boxer Mary Kom for winning the Olympic bronze medal in the 51kg women’s boxing event. She showed great discipline and determination and has done India proud,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement. “But India will have nothing to do with her victory,” writes blogger Priyanka Nandy.
On the contrary, Nandy writes:
"If, however, she had quit the ring after the first year of boxing on a rice-and-vegetable diet, without proper shoes, clothes, equipment or coaches, India would have had everything to with it. The Indian state compels Mary to live a difficult life in a difficult terrain, without electricity, much personal security or enough food on the table, but with a surfeit of armed personnel who frequently use the locals as their personal entertainment.”
Mary Kom deserves her medal many times over.
But does India deserve Mary Kom?
A slightly different version of this piece ran earlier in Firstpost.com, for which Roy writes.