There is a terrific black-and-white photo in one of the albums at home. It shows a little boy in a striped jacket sitting on a sofa and leaning back on his arms. In the background at a respectful distance are standing some grown-up men. The boy is looking up at another man, a huge man in a well-cut suit, who is towering over him. This man is about to pull a handkerchief from his sleeve, or some such thing.
The boy is my brother, age 5. The men standing around are reporters, among them (though not seen) my father. The big man showing my brother a magic trick is the great Muhammad Ali — yes, Ali, the champion boxer. This is in the mid-1980s, long after Ali has left the ring, by which time the great man (and if you have watched his matches or read his 1975 autobiography The Greatest you will not hesitate to use that adjective), battered by years of punches, is said to be slightly slow. His expression is delighted, almost childlike. He is ignoring the reporters. My brother looks pretty happy, too.
Boxers of a different kind are in the news in India. M C Mary Kom, Vijender Singh and a handful of other pugilists are among the medal prospects India is sending to the Olympic Games. These are “amateur” boxers, athletes, not “professionals” like Ali. Their stories are not as dramatic, yet they are already influential. And at long last these boxers, and Indian boxing, have a biographer they deserve.
Bhiwani Junction: The Untold Story of Boxing in India (HarperCollins) is a brand-new book on the modern history of this sport, written by a long-time sports reporter. Shamya Dasgupta has followed boxing since the 2000 Olympics, and he is plainly not an unfamiliar face in Bhiwani and Patiala, the two powerhouses of the sport. In this book he asks and answers a few simple questions: What lies behind India’s recent rise to world prominence in amateur boxing? What has led Vijender and his fellow medal-winners to their success? How has the success of the few affected the aspirations of the many? Is the motor running smoothly for future success?
“I first visited NIS [the National Institute of Sports] Patiala in 2000,” Dasgupta writes, “and from then down to 2008, things largely remained the same. The overall appearance of boxers — the crème de la crème of Indian sport, remember — was somewhat shabby. No Nike or Adidas; basic locally manufactured track suits [...] were par for the course and kitbags were usually hand-me-downs or cheap imitations of well-known brands. Sippers? What are those?”
And now? See Nanao Singh of Manipur, “in his red Everlast vest with black skivvies underneath, branded shoulder bag, spanking new floaters, and you realise that even the second rung of Indian boxers today have a fairly good deal”. Extrapolate better clothing to better equipment, training, funding, coaching...
Vijender made it happen. His Beijing bronze in 2008 was India’s first boxing Olympic medal. Of course Dasgupta traces his story in detail, but he is never a hagiographer. Tied up with that story of success are the politics and everyday reality of the sport. Who is Jagdish Singh, the famous coach of Bhiwani? Why does he not get along with Gurbaksh Singh Sandhu, NIS’s head coach for 20 years, due to retire after the 2012 Olympics? Who deserves the credit for his success? Why does Haryana dominate the sport? What happened to other centres, like Kolkata and Manipur? What about South India?
And the future? Dasgupta says Haryana appears to have cracked the formula: to encourage boxing, link medals with senior government jobs, and therefore economic security for a lifetime. Indeed, Akhil Singh, an endearing character and medal-winning boxer who shines in this book, is now a deputy superintendent in the Haryana Police. He missed an Olympic medal, but he plans to turn professional — which means he can compete beyond the age of 34, the cutoff for “amateurs”, and hope to make lots of money. This and other opportunities are here now. Who knows, one day there may even be an Indian “greatest”.