CHENNAI: For common folk, leading a normal life in Manipur is a struggle. Even now. Roads have improved, so has the drainage. But sourcing essentials — cooking gas, drinking water — is a problem. It’s essentially a struggle for better means of livelihood.
If you come from a background as Mirabai Chanu’s — the silver-medallist at the Tokyo Games — life is never easy. That her lifting lessons started with bundles of firewoods she used to fetch as a child from a forest near her village in Kakching is a testimony to the hardships the family had to endure to make a living. Her mother Tombi Devi still recalls the days when her daughter used to volunteer for carrying the heaviest of bundles as a child. Introduction to iron and barbells seemed a natural progress.
When Mirabai won India’s first medal on Saturday, her parents and the extended family were glued to TV. Memories flashed by as struggles got buried in the euphoria of celebration. Her decision to pursue weightlifting instead of archery was justified.
Manipur is a speck in the map of India. Economically, it is yet to make much progress. The state has a population of 27 lakh, a fraction of New Delhi. Yet, on the sporting front, Manipur’s achievements surpass the best and the mighty. Over decades, its sport stars have flown the country’s flag high. Not just the state, but the entire Northeast region. For them, a medal means much more. It is another cry for cementing their identity and getting recognition in the national diaspora.
The state fought insurgency, drugs and AIDS. Sports embalmed the fissured psyche of the people. Even in the culturally different and ethnically diverse region, sport always draws everyone close. It did when Mary Kom won the bronze medal at London in 2012. Now, Mirabai’s medal has the potential to take the region to greater heights.
At the peak of insurgency and strife, sports gave succour to the region when the late Dingko Singh won boxing gold at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games. Numerous sportspersons emerged from the state. Their initial ambition is a job. However, Dingko’s gold changed everything. Weightlifter Kunjarani Devi, Mary Kom and many others kindled hope. Mirabai is a product of that hope.
Kunajarani, who coached Mirabai at one point, is succinct. “What else do we have? We don’t have too many avenues of employment. We don’t have big industries. So sports is something that help us find jobs.” The power of sports is unique. Mirabai’s medal in times of Covid has brought the country together. As for Manipur, it is getting used to such extraordinary stories. Mirabai is the latest in a long line of great sportspersons to have emerged from Manipur and stories like hers will inspire.