Sister Mirabai's help, mother's dedication: How Bindyarani Devi became a Manipuri hero
Coming from a life of poverty, Bindyarani Devi used to walk to her training centre, getting drenched if it rained because she never had a raincoat. Her CWG medal has ensured she will never have to do that again, but she still remains grounded.
Imphal: It was at least three hours past midnight when Sorokhaibam Bindyarani Devi could finally call her family after her Commonwealth Games silver medal. A dope test, media interviews and the 55kg women's weightlifting medal ceremony meant she could not rush to her room earlier.
Back home, her entire family - her parents, her brother, her sister, her aunts and cousins - huddled around the telephone waiting for the call. Just like all of them had followed every second of her event on a small mobile screen, on which a Sony Liv subscription had been taken for the first time earlier that day in preparation for the big moment.
Though they already knew it, Bindyarani's voice then came on the phone's loudspeaker: "I managed to lift five out of my six attempts. I have won the silver medal."
Whoops of joy then travelled through the telephone line all the way to Birmingham, where Manipur's latest sports sensation had just laid down the gauntlet.
"I come from a very poor family, I can't even express the struggle we have been through. For most of my childhood, my parents were both daily wagers, washing dishes and clothes. They used to cry when I earlier went for competitions because we were all unsure whether there would be a future in this sport, but this time they were extremely happy," Bindyarani told The Bridge during a conversation at her home in Langol Ningthou Leikai on the outskirts of Imphal.
"I used to walk to the training centre 7 km from my home and back. Sometimes, when it rained, I got drenched as I didn't even have a raincoat. Sometimes I used to request others to drop me off," she said.
The shine of her CWG medal now illuminates her household, also because it has helped her land her first job - a ministerial role at the Northeast Frontier Railway. She can afford much more than a raincoat from now on.
A makeshift diet, shift from taekwondo
For all the hardships Bindyarani suffered, she had constant support from her family. Her mother, a Meitei priestess, was up every morning by 4 am so that Bindyarani could have some boiled eggs or an omelette before she left for training.
"My mother has always taken care of my diet. It was never fancy or even what is required by a weightlifter, but she always tried to keep up and have something in stock. That's why I love her the most," said Bindyarani.
Her father, who works as a farmer as well as a grocer to keep the family running, is absent from most of her childhood photos as he has always been away for work. But even he took a holiday on the day of Bindyarani's event. Langol's grocery needs would have had to wait for one day.
Her elder brother, who has now bought a car so that Bindyarani never has to walk to training again, stepped in with a crucial help to sustain her progress when the Covid pandemic threatened to bring everything to a standstill.
"All the centres were closed and I had nowhere to practise. My brother bought a makeshift weight from Vishal Megamart for Rs 1500 just to keep me going. I practised bench press and squatting using that," she said.
Sorokhaibam Ibemcha Devi, the silver medallist's mother, said it had been a conscious decision by the family to push her into sports because she always seemed to have a talent for it.
"She was always fond of playing. During the Yaoshang (Holi) festival, she always came back home with prizes like notebooks and pens from the sports competitions. When a local teacher organised a taekwondo training session in our area, we sent her there. That was the start of her sports career. Despite all our financial struggles, we were adamant on always supporting her," she said.
Bindyarani chipped in: "The best advice my family gave me was not to talk big and just train hard."
A Manipuri hero is born
Living up to the early promise, Bindyarani won many medals in taekwondo between 2008 and 2012, also earning a black belt. It was in 2013 that she got into the SAI hostel in Imphal and started training as a weightlifter. For the 4'9'' Bindyarani, weightlifting was always meant to be, but this was where she first rubbed shoulders with the likes of Mirabai Chanu and Sanjita Chanu, the country's best lifters.
Bindyarani considers Olympic medallist Mirabai her idol. Not just because she is a champion weightlifter from the same centre, but also because she has always shown her the way.
"Weightlifting requires a good diet, it affects the overall performance. I never paid any attention to it, I would eat fast food, only my mother kept me disciplined. Then Mirabai didi told me I would not make it far if I myself didn't look after my diet. Of course, the proteins we needed came for more than Rs 10,000, so I could hardly ask my parents to buy such things for me. I had to make do with eggs," said Bindyarani.
But the veneration the 23-year-old has for Mirabai, five years her senior, is visible everywhere. At the felicitation events the two have been invited to all over the week across Manipur, it is the much more media savvy Mirabai who speaks first in Hindi. That is followed by Bindyarani's speech in Meitei, during which she often halts and leans over to Mirabai, asking for the right word.
"Nike, Adidas lifting shoes are costly and mostly sold in USA and UK, they're rarely sold here. I asked Mirabai didi if she could spare an extra pair and she happily gave one to me. Since 2019, that is the pair of shoes I have been using to train," Bindyarani said.
In her childhood, Bindyarani had two big dreams. She wanted to be like the ancient Manipuri heroes she read about in books and she wanted to dress up like boys. At the traditional Lai Haoroba festivals, she dressed up as Khamba, the 12th century prince from the greatest Meitei epic poem Khamba Thoibi.
Later, she wanted to become like local hero Mirabai Chanu, whose house has become a pilgrimage spot for local sports aspirants in recent years. In 2022, Bindyarani seems finally to have attained that childhood dream of being a Manipuri hero.