CHENNAI: Sometimes mastering the art of suffering in silence ends up being the greatest triumph of one's life. Dingko Singh had his successes in the spotlight, but the battle that was his bravest was fought away from it, no frenzied crowd to cheer him on, no referee checking if the blows he took were unfairly thrown. But Dingko never complained. He took his punches and gave them back.
His life, all 42 years of it, was a cauldron of emotions - hope, happiness, hopelessness, and of course, sorrow. In this finite time and space, he was a living embodiment of struggle, always trying to punch back or duck out of the way when fate's cruel fists landed blow after blow.
Everything he did or said was always in boxing parlance. He loved boxing because it was the only thing he knew. "I know only boxing," he always said.
It is no surprise then that he fought, like a fighter, till the very end. One thing that will linger on long after his physical self is his jovial nature. He was always cracking jokes or laughing. Even after sessions of chemo in 2017 when he was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, he was smiling and looking to the future.
Even when he had COVID in between. "Mujhe Olympians nikalna hain (I have to nurture Olympians)". He always harboured that hope, until the end.
Dingko's toughest battles were never in the ring. Right from the days when he was left at an orphanage because his parents could not afford to feed him, to the day he breathed his last – fate was his greatest opponent.
His rise to Asian Games gold in 1998 was laced with romanticism. However, the travails of being Dingko would perhaps overshadow that feat. Every time he was cornered (literally) - in life or in his short career - he thundered back.
Like his bouts, the rest of Dingko's life too was far from being ordinary. He was not even meant to be there at the 1998 Asian Games. But there he was, winning gold, the first for India in 16 years. An overnight sensation at 19 years of age, he basked in the limelight, loving and absorbing every bit of it like a child.
When he faced Thailand's World No 3 Sontaya Wongprates in the semifinal, he had no idea of his opponent's stature. "Maybe if I knew, the outcome would have been different," he once mused.
Just a year later, during the national championships, he hurt his right wrist. It turned out to be a fracture. The Sydney Olympics were a year away but he fought through pain to qualify. He crashed out of the Olympics in the very first round. His lethal right was gone. Until then, he did not realise just how much havoc a loss could wreak on his mind.
Dingko had endured so much pain in life as a child, physical pain never intimidated him when he grew to be a champion. But even for someone as indomitable as him, the damage eventually caught up. "When I was performing, everybody patted me on my back, but when I was injured, no one bothered," he told me in 2002.
By then, he was sidelined and was struggling to get into the national team. The wrist never healed. He started taping differently to conceal the pain during bouts. Sometimes it paid off, other times his right punches stayed feeble. As is its wont, his body started unconsciously protecting his wrist. The Indian Amateur Boxing Federation mismanaged his injury. His career was all but over.
Those were dreary days he always wanted to forget. He was posted in Mumbai in the Navy for quite some time. He hit the bottle to drive away his blues. Like his right hook, this too turned lethal, literally, in the end. But Dingko never gave up.
Leading a quiet life, he went to NIS Patiala, got his diploma in boxing and morphed into a coach. Around 2012, when we met, he yearned to go back to Imphal, his home. This time as a coach in Sports Authority of India.
He could have approached anyone and got the job, but in his inimical style, he refused. That was the pride of a champion. I could see the Asian Games gold dangling around his neck like an albatross. If not for that gold - that streak of madness - would Dingko's life have turned up the way it did?
Even when he was feeble and sick and had to sell his house to pay for treatment, he did not ask anybody for help. When it was necessary, others did. He eventually did go to Imphal as a coach for SAI. The hostel in Khumanlampak Stadium in front of the boxing hall where he learnt the fine art from coach Ibomcha Singh still stands as the testimony to his struggle and triumph.
Dingko was always his own man. His mentor and coach Ibomcha Singh, who picked him up, was the one of the few persons he would listen to. "It's unbearable. Perhaps he listened to me because I had cared for him when he needed it the most and showed him the way," Ibomcha said.
On Thursday, away from the spotlight and the din, which every boxer revels in, he quietly faded away this beautiful world. Only memories remain now. Man can be destroyed but not defeated, Ernest Hemingway once wrote. Perhaps there is no better epitaph for a man as remarkable as Dingko Singh.