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'Anyone else would still have been alive': Dingko Singh's family pleads for help

Dingko Singh's wife says it was the legendary boxer's inability to step outside the ring even after he had cancer that led to his death. One year later, she finds herself forgotten by the government and under a mountain of medical debt.

Anyone else would still have been alive: Dingko Singhs family pleads for help
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When Dingko Singh came home with the Asian Games gold medal in 1998, he received a hero's welcome. One year after his death, his medal cabinet (the '98 medal at the top left) lies forgotten.

By

Dipankar Lahiri

Parashar Kalita

Updated: 2022-11-25T12:47:48+05:30

Imphal: Dingko Singh's house in Sekta village on the outskirts of Imphal is an anomaly. Surrounded by mud houses all around from where naked children emerge playing with wheels and sticks, the late Olympian's house is a two-storey brick house overlooking a vast stretch of green hills. It is a palatial home, worthy of a sporting legend, but inside there is only darkness and empty spaces.

The late boxer's wife, Ngangom Babai Devi, is the sole resident. She visits her two children Dingson and Arena in Imphal, where they study in residential colleges, on some Sundays. But on most other days, she finds herself staring at medals and trophies which mean nothing to her and flipping pages of old photo albums.

"Dingko Singh meant a lot of different things to different people, but for me, he was my everything. As long as he was there, a salary used to come to this house. Now there's only a pension. With two children to take care of and medical loans still left to pay back, I have been in financial distress since his death," Babai Devi told The Bridge.

When Dingko Singh gave new life to Indian boxing by winning the gold medal at the 1998 Asian Games, the whole of India had celebrated like never before. In Manipur, where there was no electricity on the night of his win because of a strike, people celebrated with candles and Indian flags all through the night.

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His soon-to-be wife, who was from the same village as him and a friend of his sister, thought the love being showered on him would mean his troubles were over. But one year after the boxer lost the toughest bout of his life against liver cancer at the age of 42 in 2021, she now finds that hope was unfounded.

"A lot of private individuals have helped us a lot. All the boxers from here like Sarita Devi, Mary Kom, Suranjoy Singh and Devendro Singh and also those from other places, like Vijender Singh and Manoj Kumar helped us a lot when Dingko was fighting cancer. They looked up to him like an elder brother. But I expected more from the government. I thought they would take it as their duty to help someone who brought so much glory to the nation, but no one even asks about us after his death," said Babai Devi.

The medal/trophy cabinet that is the centre of attraction of the living room at the late Dingko Singh's house. It also has his Arjuna Award and Padma Shree award.

"Every household needs a salary to come in. I have written to the government so many times to provide a job to my son Dingson, but there have been no replies. Dingson also used to be a boxer, he won medals at inter-college meets. But he has moved away from the sport after the years of darkness we have endured," she said.

Fighter by his trade

Despite all the glory that Dingko Singh's career brought to Sekta, an area which still has the presence of insurgent groups and where sports is still seen as an escape route from the twin menace of drug addiction and terrorism, his wife believes it was boxing that eventually led to Dingko's death.

"After Dingko temporarily recovered in 2018, he stepped back into the ring with renewed vigour. Anyone else would have gone to their office and sat at their desks and done comfortable jobs. If he had done that, he would still have been alive today," she said.

But for Dingko, the boy from an orphanage who found direction in his life when he stepped into the SAI centre in Imphal three decades ago, it was boxing that had given him his entire identity. And even when he knew he was at death's doorsteps, he could not stop boxing.

"I asked him so many times, his doctors asked him so many times to stop boxing when he was sick. But he used to tell me something clicked in his mind when he saw the boxing ring, he couldn't stop himself. We had fights about this all the time. In his mind, till his last day, he remained an unbeaten boxer," said Babai Devi.

Dingko Singh with his wife Babai Devi, son Dingson and daughter Arena

"He used to scream all night in his last few days, there was so much pain. An yellow fluid would come out instead of blood from his body, he was so sick. But he still couldn't give up boxing. As soon as morning came, he would take a walk around the village, showing everyone that he was healthy," she said.

She shows a video from 2019 of Dingko Singh sparring inside the ring with one of his students. The quickness of the famous left hook which floored boxers from all over the world in the '90s and '00s is still evident from the video.

"He didn't know how to quit. He told me he knew he was going to die soon anyway, but that he would box till the last day. Even after his health deteriorated so much that he could not step out of the house, he used to call his students to practise on the porch outside this house," Babai Devi said with a bittersweet smile.

"Sometimes I think it's good that his suffering is over - and that he could do what he loved till the end. Whenever I used to try and stop him from boxing, he used to wave me away with his hand, people used to laugh at the equation we shared," she said.

Bollywood's promised homage

Dingko Singh's rise from an orphanage (where his parents had given him away because they did not have the money to raise him) to being an international boxing champion is such a dramatic narrative that Bollywood has already jumped on to the bandwagon. A Shahid Kapoor-starrer film was announced but that has been stalled due to the pandemic.

"He wanted the film to be made because he wanted the story to be told to inspire people. He was a pragmatic person. This film needs to be made. It is a tremendous story and a tribute is due to him," the director of the film had told PTI last year.

Dingko Singh being felicitated by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee after his 1998 Asian Games gold

Dingko's wife is as unsure as everybody else when that film shall be released, even though she has signed an agreement to not disclose details of their personal life to any other party before the film is out.

"I just miss my husband every day. He was my everything…I pray that some help is provided to us commensurate to my husband's achievements and my son's qualifications," said Babai Devi.

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