Mirabai Chanu's village finds its identity, but still waits on broken promises
Nongpok Kakching, 24 kms from Manipur's capital Imphal, has found sudden fame as Olympian Mirabai Chanu's village, but the promises made by politicians are yet to be fulfilled.
Nongpok Kakching: "You tell me to do weightlifting through the day, I'll do that, but this flood of attention is too tiring," Mirabai Chanu tells The Bridge during a conversation at her home in Manipur.
Commonwealth Games 2022 medallists and local heroes Mirabai and Bindyarani Devi have both been hurrying across the country from one felicitation event to another and entertaining guests at their homes till late into the night since they returned from Birmingham earlier this month. So busy has been their schedule that Bindyarani has fallen sick, delaying their return to the national camp in Patiala by one day.
Mirabai, more used to the attention, has the flash of her smile turned on for all the guests that turn up, tirelessly putting up a V-sign for every photo request. "This energy needs to be put on for the outside world, what can I do," she says.
"Bindyarani calls me at night and tells me, 'Didi help me, I am too tired of entertaining all these guests and showing them my medal. Why did I have to win?!' I tell her, 'Your life is just starting now.' (laughs)"
On Mirabai's last day at home, officials from a government bank have come down from Mumbai asking her to make any demand of them she wants as reward for her CWG gold medal. They are given a tour of Mirabai's house, they look in amazement at the small mud house she lived before and the two-storey brick house that has come up beside it after the success Mirabai has brought.
In the courtyard of Mirabai's house, around 25 women from her village sit in attention as tea and food are handed around to all the guests. Mirabai brings out her famous smile for all of them.
"My entire village has always been behind me. They pray for me whenever I go to any competitions. Earlier, Nongpok Kakching - the name of my village - was not known, not even in Manipur. Now this village has an identity, everyone from here says they are Mirabai's brother or sister (even if they are not from our family)," laughs Mirabai.
Having catapulted into the spotlight since Mirabai's silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics last year, Nongpok Kakching has put local politicians in a fix. They travelled to this nondescript village last year in the afterglow of Mirabai's medal, but the promises they made about roads, street lights and water supply are yet to see light of day.
"Our village does not have clear drinking water, there are no water tanks. People either get water from ponds or have to transport water tanks from the city. The road to our village was recently repaired maybe because I was coming home, it's usually far worse," says Mirabai.
Raju Meitei, a 55-year-old villager and a member of the local sports club 'Bright Star Union', says Mirabai has brought new hope to the entire area but the best part about her is that she has remained the same humble, friendly little girl they always knew.
"I have known Mirabai since she was a small girl running around in our village. Nothing about her behaviour has changed despite all her medals. She still comes to our houses, she talks to everyone in the same way she did before, her family throws their gates open to all of us," he says.
"We felt hopeful when the politicians came and promised drinking water supply and roads, but that has not happened yet. Who knows what medal Mirabai has to win for us to see some progress on that promise," he says with a sardonic laugh.
Used to feel embarrassed because I had no money: Mirabai
Mirabai Chanu has been Manipur's biggest sports star in recent years. When she returned from the Tokyo Olympics last year, the entire stretch of the 24-km road from the airport to her village had been lined by people, throwing flowers and cheering for her. Some of them had even congratulated her for the gold medal, picking up from wrong news shared on social media.
Her family had entertained as many guests as they could. After all, that was the moment they had prepared for all their lives through years of struggle.
"My mother ran a small tea shop and had to take care of six children. She used to tell me she was unable to provide me good food or buy me the fancy dresses I wanted, but that I should do whatever I had set my heart on," Mirabai recalls about her earliest days in the sport, when she used to be racked with self-doubt on the path she had chosen.
"When I used to travel to national competitions outside the state, I would see my friends buying stuff to eat but I never had the money. I used to feel embarrassed and wonder what I was doing with them."
One of the first things their elder brothers did when they got their first jobs was to buy her dresses and contribute to her daily diet.
"I was always interested in fashion. I used to want to take up archery because I thought it looked so fashionable. Then I read about Kunjarani Devi in school, how she had success in weightlifting despite coming from a similarly poor family from a similarly nondescript village," she says.
But it was not Mirabai's family alone, she also found allies in unexpected places in her village. When she had to take the 24-km journey to Imphal's Khuman Lampak training facility in time for the morning assembly at 5 am, the only way to get there was a truck going to the city to pick up goods for the day.
"My mother was very scared of me travelling in trucks. I was a girl, and such a small girl too. But it was my good luck that I found a very nice truck driver who became my most ardent supporter. His younger sister had also wanted to get into sports but had been unable to because of family commitments. He told me, 'You wait here every day, I'll pick you up and take you to Imphal.'"
That truck driver remains one of Mirabai's best friends till date. They still talk about her wins and upcoming competitions. Mirabai wishes to call him up after the World Championships later this year, and then when she becomes the first Indian to win a gold medal at the Asian Games next year.
Speaking about what makes the Chinese weightlifters such difficult opposition on the Asian stage, Mirabai says, "In China, they scout and start training children from 6-7 years. If only we had such facilities!"
"My dream is to make a gym in Nongpok Kakching for children who cannot train for family reasons, or because the facilities are too far."
On how Manipur has been churning out a factory line of women athletes who have taken over the world, she says, "Women have always been at the forefront of every battle in Manipur. Even during our Freedom Struggle against the British, it was our women who did all the fighting. That strength has passed down from our ancestors, we never bow down."