The fellowship is named in honor of Nirupama Chatterjee, who lived through India’s independence in 1947 and the opening of India’s economy in the early 1990s. Despite her reverence for tradition, Mrs. Chatterjee was very much a modern, forward-looking woman. She insisted that her three daughters have as much access to education as her three sons, and when several of her children immigrated to the United States, she was able to bridge the two cultures. Until her death in 1998, she remained open to a new world and excited by its possibilities. This fellowship honors her enduring spirit.
By Octavio Raygoza (class of 2012)
MUMBAI, India, April 2012—As a virulent, new drug-resistant tuberculosis strain surfaces in India, the world fears a resurgence of its oldest disease.
Instead of helping her mother with household chores, Sonam S. Yambhare lay quietly on a rusted bed. She was one among dozens of women in Ward 8, a silent room with unpainted concrete walls in Mumbai’s 103-year-old government-run Sewri Tuberculosis Hospital.
There was no medical equipment in sight. Records were filed in rusted metal cabinets. Sometimes, orderlies, or “ward boys” as they are called, carried away the infected mattresses of dead patients. “Everyone is depressed here,” said Mokshada Chandge, a young doctor on her rounds, explaining the silence, a sharp contrast with the ceaseless bedlam of one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
Octavio’s final story is a print piece.
In 2012 Samar Halarnkar was a Nirupama Chatterjee Teaching Fellow in the spring semester at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he taught a course about reporting on India.
Halarnkar is Contributing Editor for the Hindustan Times, a leading English daily, and Mint, a leading business newspaper, in India. He is also an occasional contributor to Newsweek magazine. Apart from reporting on internal conflict, poverty, science and nationalism, he heads a team of reporters working on a long-running editorial project related to hunger and reform. He also writes three columns: on emerging India; on science and technology; and one on creative cooking called Our Daily Bread.
A journalist for 22 years, Halarnkar holds a bachelor’s degree in commerce and economics from Bangalore University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He has been a fellow at the American Society for Microbiology and The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi. He is the author of “Under the Rain Tree,” a chronicle of India’s Internet revolution.
By Richard Parks, for Salon (class of 2011)
MUMBAI, India, June 4, 2010—India’s Alphonso mango is a fruit with an aura. It’s flavorful, aromatic, small-pitted and as smooth as silk (with none of the fibrousness of Mexican mangoes sold in the U.S.). The Vedic texts praise mangoes as the “fruit of the gods,” and the Alphonso has deservedly been dubbed the “king of fruits” for its royal taste. It can be found in Mumbai’s markets and in the Konkan Coast of southern Maharashtra, where generations of farmers have been growing the rare mango cultivar for hundreds of years.
The year 2006 might have been the turning point, though, for this divine fruit. As a carrot for India’s accepting U.S. nuclear technology and policy, George W. Bush opened the U.S. market to Alphonsos. The Indian government, anxious to brand the Konkan Coast as “India’s California,” offered subsidies for farmers who would cultivate the mangoes for export. Since then, in Ratnagiri district, production has been up more than 200 percent.
Watch the video:
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By Alissa Figueroa, for Free Speech Radio (class of 2011)
UTTAR PRADESH, India, April 2010—Most of India’s rural women farm, but only 15 percent of them own the land they cultivate. As men leave agriculture for work in India’s growing service and construction sectors (often in cities) the country’s primary cultivators–women—are left without legal land titles. That means they can’t take out loans from banks or government subsidized credit programs, and in many states, they can’t sell their produce at government wholesale markets to ensure a fair price. But the women farmers of India have joined together, in small village-level lending groups, and large, well-organized federations and campaigns to negotiate the system, and fight for full land rights. Slowly, rural women are making their voices heard, even in parliament, where for the first time ever this year, women farmers received an allocation in the country’s national budget.
Alissa Figueroa travelled to Uttar Pradesh and Uttarkhand to report on female farmers. Her final project is a radio story for Free Speech Radio.
By Lillian R. Mongeau, for GOOD.is (class of 2011)
MUMBAI, Maharashtra, April 2010—Skinny arms stretched high, 59 eager hands rose above 60 equally eager faces. Even as one hand seemed about to be clipped by a fan circling overhead, students covered their mouths to remind themselves not to shout out the answer before being called upon.
Save the whir of the fans, silence prevailed, but this did not prevent Umer Gauss Khan from jumping a bit or Afrin Akram from standing on the very tips of her toes, adding a few extra inches to her petite frame.
So far, this second grade class in the Govandi neighborhood, a slum near Mumbai, India had correctly placed three numbers-1, 11, and 21-in ascending order.
The question they were all so eager to answer: Which number comes next-111, 101, or 99?
The students sat three to an old-fashioned bench desk and each wore a dusty, white uniform and brown tie bearing the initials of their private English school: Shri Geeta Vikas Mandal, where tuition is about $4 per child per month. Most of the families who send their children here cannot afford even the meager fees and the school depends on charitable support to cover the difference. The lack of funds, however, has clearly not dampened these students’ appetite for learning and may be in large part due to the man standing at the front of the room and the woman giving extra attention to a boy in the back.
This is the classroom of Rahul Ranjan and Iffat Khan, two of the first to heed the call of Teach For India, a new program that trains and places recent college graduates and young professionals in slum-area schools in Mumbai and Pune. Last July, the non-profit began operating in low-income private and government-run schools. The program received 2,000 applications for its first round of 87 spots. For 2010, 3,800 applicants competed for 150 openings.
TFI bases its teacher training on the Teach for America model and is a member of the Teach For All network, which connects them with similar programs around the world. Despite these international connections, the program is the lone option in India for high-achieving young people who want to teach for two years.
Lillian R. Mongeau travelled to Mumbai to report on the brand new Teach For India program, one of several such programs modeled on Teach For America to spring up in recent years across the globe. She has written a short story for GOOD.is and hopes to sell a longer piece in advance of TFI’s late-May visit to New York City.
By Becky Palmstrom (class of 2011)
ASSAM, India, April 2010—Khagel Barman was famished as he headed down a dirt path towards his home, a turquoise adobe house, sat on the green plains of Assam, in North East India. The twenty-year old directed the cows ahead of him and carried a woven sack over his shoulder. The sack bulged with the potatoes he’d spent the day gathering. The dying sunlight lit up the lush leaves and tilled fields he trudged. It was just after 6pm and it would be Khagel’s last sunset.
Khagel lived with his family in a region of India crammed between China, Burma and Bangladesh. This triangle of earth is attached to mainland India by a sliver of earth barely 15 kilometers wide. As multi-ethnic as Afghanistan or the Balkans it is not without similar troubles and although India’s conflict over Kashmir and the clashes with the Naxalites garner more headlines, the seven sister states of the North-East of India have some of the most stubborn and bloody insurgency movements in the country. There are some 130 different armed groups here: sometimes fighting for an ideology, sometimes for an autonomous ethnic homeland, sometimes for complete independence and sometimes because there is no other way to make a living. Over the years more and more groups have turned to extortion, “taxing” civilians and exploiting the vacuum of law and order to grow stronger. In some areas, like the state of Manipur, the war economy is so rooted it has become the main employment opportunity for young people.
Although this is a place wracked by ethnic conflict and where many are resentful of the Indian state, there had been little violence in the area surrounding the Barman’s house before that day in 2000 when Khagel, a second year art student, walked home with his sack of potatoes.
As Khagel ambled into his home’s small courtyard he greeted his father, a thin, bony man, who sat at the doorway watching the darkness settle. Khagel washed the grime of the fields off his face and out of his thick black hair and bushy moustache. He called to his mother for dinner and she started preparing rice. Khagel’s friend from Art College had stopped by to watch that night’s cricket match between India and Pakistan.
As 7 pm drew closer, the courtyard filled with Muslim worship songs from the television set, the clucking of chickens and the noise of the cricket commentary. It was the sound of the two cars that made Khagel’s father, Garnesh, look up from his place in the courtyard. The vehicles had stopped at the gate Khagel had just entered. Sixteen police officers and masked men got out.
The men were part of India’s policy to stamp out armed activities in Assam. Although the armed groups are responsible for human rights violations, the Indian state’s attempts to quell the insurgency also cause violations. The North East is currently the only area other than Kashmir, where an old British law is used to arrest, detain and shoot those “suspected” of insurgency. Under the law, no military personnel can be held accountable for their actions without permission from the Central government; offering immunity and some say, promoting impunity, even when, as in Khagel’s case, they get the wrong person.
“They were like this,” Khagel’s father Garnesh explains ten years later, taking a white and red faded scarf from his neck and wrapping it over his nose and mouth illustrating the masked men who visited that day. The men called out for Khagel and before his father could answer, Khagel stood facing the men.
“Yes, I am Khagel Barman,” he said.
Nilima, Khagel’s mother heard the scrunching of boots and voices of the men in the courtyard and abandoned the rice she was washing to ask what the men wanted from her son.
“You don’t know your son,” one of the policemen said. “You don’t know what your son has been doing.”
But all Khagel had been doing was running meetings and participating in student politics at the local Art College. According to family, friends and even local policemen, he had never been involved in armed activities. The Unified Command structure in Assam extends AFSPA to cover police working with the army against so-called terrorists. In the courtyard of the Barman’s turquoise house the physical ramifications of the Act played out.
One of the policemen pushed Khagel roughly into the dirt and kicked him in the stomach.
“They put their foot to his head.” Garnesh says, standing up to illustrate the raised foot crushing down onto the head of a Khagel who now only exists in the memories of his parents.
The chickens had stopped clucking, his parents remember. Nilima rushed forward screaming for them to stop. They didn’t. Instead she and other members of the family were shoved into a room off the courtyard. The door was bolted and the family watched through the gaps in the bamboo walls as the men lined up with their guns pointed towards Khagel.
“They took him to one side of the courtyard and they asked him to stand, like this,” Garnesh says, pointing out the scrap of earth where it happened. Then Garnesh describes the sound of the twenty-seven bullets that broke the skin of Khagel and Garnesh and Nilima’s world.
“The arm was separated because there were so many bullets,” Garnesh illustrates the strangled look of Khagel’s body as first his arm came off and then he fell. The men emptied Khagel’s sack of potatoes out onto the ground and stuffed his still warm body into the sack. Nilima says she doesn’t know what happened next – she blanked out.
Ten years have gone by and she sits in the room where her son spent his last minutes. Her back is poker-straight as though she might break into fragments if she makes a sudden move. There is a portrait of her dead son staring down at us from the wall. The turquoise paint is faded.
It is hard not to see this family entirely through the prism of their son’s death – an injustice that bleeds into every part of their reality: from the poverty they face without a son to support them, to the smudged sadness at the edges of their eyes. Despite an apology from members of the police in the weeks after their son’s death and promises of compensation, none of the police involved in the murder of Khagel Barman have faced trial. It has taken ten years for the compensation to come through. Anjuman Ara Begum, a researcher with Asia Human Rights Commission, says although the number of people killed by the state has fallen, abuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Assam and Manipur continues.
Begum has spoken with over 70 families who have lost their loved ones in incidences similar to the Barman’s. She says more than 90 percent of the families have received no compensation for their loss.
AFSPA is the residue of Britain’s time in India and was once used to control “disturbed” areas of the country. In 1958 the Indian state resurrected AFSPA to quell an uprising in the Naga Hills in the north of the region. Way before 9/11, India, the largest democracy in the world, was using anti-terrorist legislation in its North East. The hill tribes on the border of Burma and China have always been easy to define as “disturbed” – they have always been fiercely dependent – yet the struggles of the armed groups in this region have remained off the international agenda and mainly ignored by the media. AFSPA is just one part of the culture of impunity in the seven sister states, where 230 ethnic groups fight to be heard.
On the heavily militarized border between Bhutan and India violations committed by non-government forces show the complexity of the North-Eastern conflicts and one of the reasons why a blanket repeal of AFSPA is unlikely. Here the rainy season has begun and the weather can’t seem to make up its mind, flipping between sharp sunlight and brutal hailstorms in minutes. The stories are familiar in a region where ethnic identity and territory have been intrinsically linked – as though claiming a homeland is the only way of claiming a voice.
I am in the heartland of one of the ethnic groups, the Adivasi, four hours north-west of the Barman’s in an area known as Boroland. The colors of the Adivasi women’s clothes are all the brighter for existing in a cluster of houses that look as though they might disappear under a plane of mud. The mud morphs from cracked desert to a clay-like swamp as the hailstorms begin. The women are constantly getting up to brush the mud out of their homes (whose floors are themselves made of the stuff). These are some of the internally displaced. They now live as strangers in their own land, without access to clean water, schools or adequate food.
Boroland is an autonomous council in the state of Assam. For years Boro armed groups fought for greater autonomy. Finally in the early 2000’s the Indian government relented and agreed that in the areas where the Boro population was at least 50 percent an autonomous council would be created to administer their own affairs. The Assam state government estimates two thousand people were killed as the Boro re-arranged the ethnic landscape.
“Before we were living a very peaceful life,” says a woman dressed in the bright green woven scarf typical of this area. “I do not know how it could have happened that our neighbors did this.”
“First they would come and take our buffalo,” she says, “Then they would come to our house and shoot us. They cut people into pieces.”
Almost 200,000 people were displaced.
“They burnt the 80 houses in our village, one after the other,” another woman nursing a baby chimes in. “If we tried to save anything from our home they took us and threw us to the ground.”
“We ran to the border and lived for three days without food or water,” she continues. “Now we cannot go back to our land. The Boro live there now.”
The women are talking over each other, arguing or disagreeing or correcting each other as the translator tries to keep up.
“My husband was beaten so badly last time that he can no longer work, his arms were too broken,” says one woman, while another illustrates the beating, standing and whacking her scarf over and over again on a stone in the middle of the muddy center of their village – “bang bang bang” she yells and the group of women laugh at her impersonation.
“Everybody is asking for a separate state,” says an old woman, laughing. “How will it work?” Others mutter in agreement. “We cannot build our houses properly because we do not know when we will have to leave again.”
“For a year or so they have stopped coming and killing,” says another. “But you never know when it will happen again.”
It is not only the Adivasi who were displaced. The Rajbongshis, the Muslims, the Nepalis and the Sutraohars also lost their land and therefore the ability to farm.
There is a mixed response when I ask the women about the Armed forces and the police. In some of the communities we visit, the women tell me the military has been helpful.
“They used to come to our village and protect and help us,” says one woman. “There was one police officer, he was very helpful. We wouldn’t have land if it wasn’t for him.”
While the world ignores the conflicts in the far North-East of India AFPSA is just one part of a complicated, violent series of relationships that steal security and life from civilians. Putting the blame on the shoulders of any one entity is a complicated, political and often dangerous process. In Boroland a few months ago a group of students crept out in the dead of night to paint “No Arms in Boroland” on a wall in the city. They were found by one of the military groups who told them they would be shown what no arms in Boroland looked like. The student’s arms were so badly cut they had to be hospitalized.
Although Meenakshi Gang, the Indian researcher for Human Rights Watch says rights are violated on all sides of the conflicts in the seven sister states the presence of AFSPA in some of the states for nearly six decades has not only led to widespread human rights violations, but has also created a mobilizing tool for the armed groups.
“The law has been so widely abused that it has now become a symbol of hate in places like Manipur and Assam,” she says, which is why even a recent Indian government commission examining the Act recommended its repeal.
However, the Indian army is yet to be convinced. They claim the Act is a necessary tool for protecting civilians. An Indian army officer expresses a commonly held view.
“If you are saying that one misuse merits a repeal – it is like saying because of the government’s misuse of election laws we should get rid of democracy,” he says, emphasizing the importance of seeing the law in a context of battle, where split second decisions are part of daily life.
The officer spent several years fighting under AFSPA in the state of Manipur and asked not to be named for this piece.
“Look it is one violation in 100,000 acts. Once in a year by one random person,” he says. “You cannot fall into the trap of making a mountain out of a molehill.”
I think about one woman in Manipur who started a hunger fast after the Indian army mowed down ten people at a bus stop in the capital, Imphal. Her name is Irom Sharmila. Soon after Sharmila’s hunger strike began in 2000 the Indian government arrested her through another leftover British law, which charged her with “attempting to commit suicide.” She has been in and out of army custody ever since, where lentil soup is forced through her nose to keep her alive. She says she will not let food or liquid pass her lips until the government of India repeals AFSPA.
I ask the officer about the massacre that inspired Sharmila’s fast: In November 2000 on a road outside of Imphal, a bomb went off near a military truck. The Assam Rifles’ unit on board the truck let loose. They shot indiscriminately until ten people were dead. What about them?
“Now I don’t know this precise case, but sometimes, if innocent people die it is collateral damage,” the officer says. “It is an unfortunate event. But what about these illegal acts [committed by the armed groups] that cause collateral damage? They are far more abusive of power.”
“We should not work on repealing the act, but on ensuing it is used properly,” the officer says.
He also says that despite the provisions no law gives the army the power to shoot without cause. It is an argument that Colin Gonsalves of the Human Rights Law Network also makes, “No law actually gives anyone the right to take life. But because of that impression people will not litigate or file cases against the police and the armed forces.”
The controversy over the Act also lies in whether it actually curbs violence or exacerbates it and there are people who speak on both sides. Alhi Ahmed at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, a think tank that advises the Indian government, describes a period of 6 months when the Act was repealed in parts of Imphal, the capital of Manipur. There was an increase in violence, he says.
But those who oppose the act, like Binalakshmi Nepram, a friend of Sharmila’s and head of the Manipur Gun Survivors Network, the act has not helped fight insurgency either.
“It is not getting better, we have had the act for 50 years and there is more insurgency than ever,” she says. In Nepram’s state of Manipur, violence and corruption have sunk into every institution and business relationship. Both Catholic priests and doctors from Manipur told me they had no option but to pay bribes to the armed groups, the police and local authorities – when they stood on principal and refused to pay priests were shot dead and hospitals were bombed. Electricity in the capital, Imphal lasts only 4 or 5 hours a day, HIV rates are the highest in India and no one goes onto the street after 6 pm: it is too dangerous. But even within this context of insecurity Nepram still argues that AFPSA is not the answer and should be repealed. “If innocents are dying then who are you protecting?” she says.
However, in a place where running a school or selling rice requires payment to the local armed groups it is clear that solving tensions here will be tough and the need to reign in the army must be matched by reigning in the military groups.
No single actor, either state or non-state, has a monopoly on atrocities. Four hundred and sixty seven people, 64 of them civilians were killed in military operations in Manipur last year, reported the South Asian Terrorist Portal. Human rights activists, like Babloo Loitangbam of Human Rights Alert say that many of these were innocent people killed by the law Sharmila starves to repeal. Though those who know her well say her act of non-violent protest calls for a holistic notion of peace beyond just the repeal of AFSPA.
A picture of her stares down at me from the wall of a community NGO project in Boroland. A man from Manipur tells me that he thinks Sharmila is a saint, another in Assam talks about her as “a true Ghandian”, a conservative journalist and a member of the Indian government’s official think tank both say she should be given the Nobel Peace price, while Binalakshmi Nepram, a friend of Sharmila’s and head of the Manipur Gun Survivors Network says, “she is one of the most pure people I’ve met in my life.”
It seems Sharmila is not only a person, but also an idea. As Deepti Priya Mehrotra, author of Sharmila’s biographer, “she makes me question myself and what I am doing. Why I am not doing what she is doing.” AFSPA is one tiny cut on a sickened and bleeding body and Sharmila’s fast inspires many activists across the North East of India to work for peace that also looks beyond AFSPA.
She was last released in March this year, for one night, before they returned her to the military hospital to live out another 364 days of detention. She had stopped cutting her nails and hair and in her one day of freedom met with the women who run a daily sympathy fast with her, “look at the birds and the trees, they do not cut their nails and see how free they are,” she said. But as the tenth year of her hunger strike draws to a close, Sharmila’s freedom, just like an end to AFSPA, justice for Khagel Barman’s family or a right to return for the Adivasi, in this corner of a democracy, is still a long way off. The most forgotten conflict in India remains forgotten.
By Elise Craig (class of 2010)
DELHI, India, April 2010—In a workers’ camp in Delhi, a little girl of three or four bathes herself out of a child’s plastic bucket. The girl is alone for the day–her parents are working on a construction site several kilometers away. About 400 migrant workers and their families are living here on a site called the Polo grounds as they build a new rugby stadium at Delhi University. The families live in “hutments,” 8×8 wooden structures with corrugated tin roofs that look like box cars laid end to end. Used water runs in a small murky stream between the buildings, there is feces on the ground, and swaths of flies pepper the air. There is no electricity. There is no plumbing. And all 400 families share nine toilets.
Across Delhi, construction is moving at a frenetic pace. Roads are being widened, and bridges and flyovers are being built to ease Delhi’s legendary traffic congestion. As cranes jut into the sky, sewers are covered, slums are dismantled, and construction signs promise that Delhi is on its way to being a “world class city.”
The city is being torn apart and rebuilt, spruced up and beautified all in the name of the 19th Commonwealth Games.
Migrant workers and their families who have come to Delhi in search of construction work are living in camps on sites and in makeshift tents along Delhi’s streets. The construction is everywhere—at Indira Gandhi International Airport, across the different campuses of Delhi University, on the riverbed, and along the skyline.
On the ground, taxi drivers are being taught English, and service workers are getting lessons in Western etiquette from the Delhi Tourism and Transport Company. Beggars are being arrested and relocated.
The Commonwealth Games are essentially the Olympics of the former British Empire, and the third largest sporting event in the world. The contest is expected to bring an estimated 5 million additional tourists to India, according the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, and 72 different countries plan to field teams for the games, from Anguilla to Zambia. The contest will be held between October 3 and 14 of this year.
This is the first time that India has managed a successful bid to host the games, and only the second time that an Asian country’s bid has been accepted by the Commonwealth Games Federation. (The first was Kuala Lampur in 1998.)
“We are organizing a major sporting event in the country after a gap of 28 years, after the Asian Games in 1982,” Suresh Kalmadi, president of the Indian Olympic Association told journalists in March. “It’s a big challenge for us. You need to present a world-class event when the whole world is watching. You need to showcase everything on a large scale.”
The games are also a training ground for India to prove to the world that it is capable of hosting a large-scale international sporting event, and push aside fears or bias against holding the games in a developing country. The stakes are also particularly high, as Kalmadi has said publicly that India will be submitting a bid to host the Olympic Games in 2020.
“India and Delhi dedicate themselves to making the Commonwealth Games the best games ever held…one that will inspire goodwill, friendship and unity,” the IOA wrote in its bid to the Commonwealth Federation.
With an Olympic bid on the line, the pressure is on for Delhi to pull off a successful and memorable games, and the IOA originally set a budget of $1.6 billion (79 billion rupees) to cover the cost—not including non-sports related infrastructure like the Metro. That figure would make the 2010 games the most expensive in history–the next closest in cost were the 2006 games in Melbourne, which cost $1.1 billion. But by March, that figure had swollen to nearly $3 billion (ck), and the government announced new taxes on everything from tea to cell phones.
The games are being marketed as Delhi’s ticket to entering the world stage, and an investment in infrastructure that will improve the city for its residents. And many of the city’s residents agree. “It was sold to the middle class in such a beautiful way, most of them say it’s fantastic,” said Krishnendu Bose, a filmmaker who made a documentary on the environmental impact of the games called “Delhi: Work in Progress.”
But in Delhi, environmentalists and human rights activists are asking who will really benefit from the games—the people of Delhi, or the government and business interests who will profit from them?
“It’s a very big question—do we need these games?” said Harsh Bora, 21, a law student at Delhi University. “It might be a pride issue. But the games are wearing down our self-esteem. Half of our children are malnourished. That money could be used better.”
On the side of a road a few blocks from Delhi University’s School of Economics, migrant workers are living with their families in tents made of blue tarps. The conditions are similar to the Polo Grounds: no access to running water, toilets or electricity. On this particular street, the families have come from poorer states around Delhi to build sidewalks, or footpaths, for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi in preparation for the games.
Ram Khiladi, 30, and his wife Lali, 27, came to Delhi in search of construction work to feed their young family. “We have a piece of land,” he said,” but there is no water.” So when a subcontractor came to his village with offers of unskilled construction work, he and his wife packed up their eight-year-old daughter Priyanka and eighteen-month-old baby Pintu and moved to the streets of Delhi. They plan to continue working until their job runs out in two months, and then, somehow, stay in Delhi.
“It’s okay work, as long as we can get it,” Ram said.
But, when he and his wife go to work, they have to leave Priyanka to baby-sit for her baby brother. There is no crèche, or daycare center, to care for them. In India, the law requires a crèche on construction sites where women work.
“I am scared, but there is no other option,” Lali said, as she breast-fed her baby. “When we leave our kids behind, we just have to leave them with the other kids.”
Priyanka, a small girl with close-cropped hair and a gold stud in her nose, does not go to school, both because she must watch her baby brother, and because they are not registered citizens of Delhi.
“In the village, she used to go to school, but now she can’t,” Lali said. “She misses it, she wants to go.”
According to Ram, he and his wife are paid 250 rupees per day, far above Delhi’s minimum wage for unskilled labor, which is 152 rupees per day. He says they work six days a week, but are paid for seven, as is required by law, and claims that the workers have access to doctors when they need them, and that “injuries are rare.”
But Bora, the Delhi University student, says that workers’ answers to questions about safety and payment have changed since India’s High Court appointed a committee to go through the labor camps and investigate claims that contractors were violating labor laws.
“It’s as if they’ve memorized everything,” he said. “Before the committee came through, they told the truth about what they were being paid, and the doctors. This, this is what they have to say.”
In January, a civil liberties group called the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) filed public interest litigation with the High Court of Delhi. They presented information from a fact-finding report they had written months earlier that said workers were not being paid minimum wage, they were not being paid on time, they were not being paid equally, and other violations of labor laws. They were also concerned that injuries and deaths from accidents were being under-reported.
PUDR had filed a similar piece of litigation with the Supreme Court in 1982, when Delhi hosted the Asia Games.
“In the Asia [Games] judgment, we were not able to provide relief for any workers, because they had left,” said Moushumi Basu, secretary of PUDR and a professor of international politics. “This time, we’re trying to ensure that workers will benefit.”
PUDR chose to file to the High Court instead of the Supreme Court so that they would have a chance to appeal if the court dismissed the case. Instead, the court ordered a new committee to go into the labor camps and issue its own report on the laborers’ working and living conditions.
The Committee’s visits confirmed what PUDR had alleged in its report—that in many cases, construction workers lacked basic safety equipment like construction boots, hard hats and gloves. And the committee confirmed that 49 people have been killed in accidents on construction sites, while officials for the games had previously put the count at 6 or 7 deaths. (In comparison the total number of construction-related deaths in the U.S. in 2009 was 3.) Conditions in the camps were not up to legal standards.
The complicated structure of labor in the games also makes it easier for subcontractors to take advantage of workers, according to PUDR member Paramjeet Singh. Though the government is footing the bill for all of the projects, each project is awarded to a contractor. Each contractor has many subcontractors, and in many cases, even subcontractors who go to the villages and recruit workers. Contractors pay subcontractors by check, subcontractors pay the subcontractors who work under them, and eventually workers are paid in cash. In most cases, the committee found, there were no records of how much workers were actually being paid.
“It’s a chain of subcontractors,” Singh said. “By the time the rupee gets down the chain, there is nothing left for the workers.”
The committee issued its report on March 17, and what they found was, in the words of former India’s outspoken former U.N. representative Arundathi Ghose, “grim.”
“By and large,” Ghose said,” the situation was horrible, except for one site—the airport. We were not satisfied [the workers] were receiving minimum wage, which the contractors assured us they were.”
According to Ghose, contractors at many of the sites could not prove they had paid their workers wages, because they hadn’t kept records, registered their workers, or given them identification cards, all of which are required by law.
“The living conditions of people working on the flyovers, these people are being treated very badly,” Ghose said. “And we have called for exemplary punishment.”
The four-person committee, which included Delhi’s Secretary of Labour, Shri R. D. Srviataya, made a list of recommendations to the High Court, which specified necessary changes to living conditions and safety conditions, and ways to streamline labor laws and make punishments for contractors commensurate with their crimes. They also noted the importance of registering workers.
Registration of workers with the Labour office is particularly important, because under the Builders Act of 1990, contractors are required to pay one percent of the cost of every project into a welfare fund for workers. Given the cost of the games project, there is a significant amount of money available to workers, but only those who are registered.
“It’s a fine law on paper,” said Anjali Alexander, a volunteer at the Commonwealth Games Citizens for Workers, Women and Children. “If you ask me out of $11 million, how much has reached workers? No more than $34,000–$11 million is still sitting in the coffers of the fund. Hardly any workers know of the welfare fund.”
Sheila Dikshit, the third-term chief minister of Delhi, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by this reporter. Neither did Srviataya. Dr. Lalit Bhanot, organizing committee secretary did not respond to questions after he requested them in writing.
Even though the committee was presented with a “grim” view of conditions for workers, Ghose agreed with Bora—she believed that some workers were still not responding truthfully to the committee’s questions.
“We felt the workers in some sites were clearly being intimidated by workers crowding around us, ” she said.
Bora had been in the labor camps talking to workers before the Committee went in, and during some of their visits. He says that workers’ responses about wages and conditions changed between when he first went in and the Committee’s visit, and he thinks that the contractors were warned about what was supposed to be a surprise visit in advance.
Bora is a member of “Perspectives,” a student group at DU that goes on fact-finding missions and issues reports on social issues like displacement, farmer suicides and the agrarian crisis. In early 2009, the group decided to look into labor practices at CWG construction sites where the university was the main employer.
“Since we are all part of Delhi University, this is happening to us,” he said.
Perspectives went into the camps around the University and talked to 52 workers, and reported much of the same findings as the committee—workers were underpaid, it sometimes took months to get wages, there were no crèches or schools, no health facilities, and employees were not being paid a double rate for their overtime hours. They also reported similar safety violations.
But, Bora says, when he went with the Committee to a site that had previously not had a school it suddenly had one. Workers claimed higher wages. But, when he returned to the same site a week later with journalists, the school was empty, and there was no teacher.
Bora’s fellow Perspectives member, Shikha Pandey, experienced the same thing.
“One day before the inquiry, we met the workers and they started saying that they made 250, 300, or 350 rupees a day,” she said. “I knew some of the workers personally, and they told me they had been told to say that.”
Back on the side of the road by DU, a few tents down from Ram, a woman who would only give the name Khargi said the workers laying the footpaths were not being paid minimum wage—men were making only 120 rupees per hour, while women were making only 110. She also claimed that the contractors had told the employees to lie about their wages and living conditions, but that she didn’t care because she had to return to her village to care for a sick relative.
“I know I’m supposed to get more, but someone is taking a cut in the middle,” she said. “I know I’m not being treated fairly, but I don’t have the education to do anything about it,” she added.
Allegations of poor adherence to labor laws haven’t been the Commonwealth Games’s only criticism. The games have had other troubles as well.
Environmentalists like Ravi Agarwal, director of ten NGO Toxics Link have expressed concern about what the massive construction projects are doing to the city of Delhi.
“Land that you hitherto could not build on will now be commercialized, Agarwal said. “This land was something you could not build on. It was almost impossible. But the games have forced all rationality to fall by the wayside.”
Agarwal points specifically to the brand-new Commonwealth Games Village, where athletes will be housed. The facility is being built on a riverbed that was previously protected land. Permission was given to build on the site through the courts, so long as the facilities were temporary. But now, Agarwal says, the builders have already put out advertisements encouraging citizens to buy the flats after the games end.
“They wanted to make a Manhattan on the river,” Bose said. “And there is money to be made.”
Advocates of the games point to the new infrastructure the Games are bringing to the city—renovation of domestic and international new airports, sidewalks where there have been none, more flyovers to help people move more efficiently and brand new stadiums. But Bora and Devika Narayn, 23, a graduate student in sociology, say that these improvements are only in the neighborhoods where the wealthy middle class live, and that the stadiums aren’t a necessity. Neither student is excited about the brand-new rugby stadium going up on DU’s campus.
“No one knows what rugby is,” she Narayn. “If you ask anyone on the road, no one can tell you.”
Environmentalists are also concerned about the estimated 250,000 trees the city is cutting down for the construction, as well as the new concrete being poured throughout the city. Agarwal fears that more concrete—with holds more heat than earth—and fewer trees will adversely affect a city that is already sweltering in the summer and has a significant amount of air pollution.
“Tree have been an essential part of the city, and if you cut them off, the city changes,” he said. “The character, the temperature, the groundwater.”
Beyond construction, the government of Delhi is bringing other changes to the city to manage the games more efficiently. During the 12 days of the games, there will be no school in the city to help ease traffic. Students in the men’s hostel, or dorm, at Delhi University will have to move out for the duration of the games so that the hostel can host foreign athletes. The city is making efforts to get auto rickshaws off the streets, to get food stalls to close, and to allow only authorized “hockers” selling merchandise on the streets. And advocates fear that the same migrant workers who live on the streets while they build the infrastructure for the games will be removed from the city once they begin.
Agarwal is dismayed that Delhi is becoming what he considers an “antiseptic city.”
“Why do tourists come to Delhi? We don’t want to be a second-hand London. We want to be a first-hand Delhi. They want to make us London.”
Others have criticized the government for providing foreigners with things it does not provide its citizens—like “first-world drinking water” and food testers. Currently, 50 percent of the city’s residents don’t have clean water.
“The games have been converted into such a thing of prestige, like the Olympics sin Beijing, but are the citizens of Delhi–forget India–benefiting from it?” asked Alexander.
Despite the problems, Ghose believes they are. The problems, she says, are not with the games, but with construction standards in India, and the huge scale of construction in India’s capital is bringing attention to abuses that have so far gone unnoticed. And they are also bringing construction jobs to workers who have been pushed out of farm work by the agrarian crisis.
“I think it they’re giving jobs, [the games are] good for the country,” she said. “ But the Commonwealth Games are not going to put the country on the map—our growth rate is. It’s our overall geopolitical and economic strength that will put us on the map.”
By Melanie Mason (class of 2010)
MUMBAI, India, April, 2010—For Shankar, it was a whopper of a first day in class. The 18 year-old, with floppy hair and a bewildered expression, was called to stand among 35 seated classmates. Shankar did not appear to relish being the center of attention. He fixed his gaze firmly at the floor in front of him, mumbled his name and his age when asked. The communication problems did him no favors; his instructor Rob Reece is American and speaks no Hindi and–despite attending an English-instruction school–Shankar’s English was shaky at best. Using Reece’s fellow instructor, Jameel Khan, as a translator, Reece asked Shankar why he seemed so tentative. “He says he’s shy,” Khan said. Reece laughed, looking distinctly like a shark that has just smelled blood in the water.
The exercise was about humiliation. Shankar had to mimic his classmates’ gestures and sounds, and as more students jumped up, the embarrassment magnified—the gestures became lewd, the noises became shouted expletives, and in one homage to Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura movies, one student bent at the waist, grabbed his own behind and pretended to talk from it, imploring Shankar to do likewise.
This, according to Reece, is how you build a better Bollywood actor.
Reece, a member of the famed Actor’s Studio, has until recently been teaching a small Method acting workshop in Los Angeles. But now he is in Mumbai, India, attempting to bring his Method approach to students at Whistling Woods International. Whistling Woods is at the epicenter of Bollywood—its campus is located in Film City, Mumbai’s sprawling studio complex where many Bollywood pictures are filmed. Its chairman is Subhash Ghai, a well-known director who is often called the “showman” of Bollywood. After a trial run last fall, Reece moved to Mumbai in January to begin a three-year stint as head of the acting department for Whistling Woods, revamping the school’s curriculum in the Method approach.
“It’s an in-depth and specific perspective on how actors can train,” Reece says. “The actor’s task is to express the human condition in a truthful, real, organic way.”
For beginners like Shankar, that training begins with the humiliation exercises. “That breaks the ice,” Reece says. “Because if you can do those things—those silly things, those outrageous things—then it’s easier just to stand there and be yourself. If I can do these things, what have I got to hide now?”
Beyond the butt-talking, there are other exercises in Reece’s repertoire. He introduces them in pithy shorthand—”now it’s time for sense memory,” “let’s do an imaginary monologue.” In each exercise, Reece lobs probing questions about the students’ own lives, asking them about times that they felt vulnerable or sexy or hateful. Students can exaggerate or imagine circumstances that would provoke an emotional response, but much of it is tied to their own experiences, making the class feel exhaustingly intimate.
“Rob is really helping us in opening us up,” said Ambuj Dixit, a 21 year-old Whistling Woods acting student from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. “When we started our classes here, we were very stiff. It was very difficult for us to express our emotions.”
Reece sees his work as an entry point for revamping the entire Bollywood industry, an industry that critics say produces mostly escapist, melodramatic fare. “As acting changes, the directing can change and writing can change,” Reece says.
But wait a minute. Isn’t this Bollywood we’re talking about—the industry that, until quite recently, shied away from showing the romantic leads kiss on the lips? Reece is training actors to portray sexuality and humanity’s grittier emotions with a frank directness, instead of Bollywood’s more typical wink. How can this possibly work?
An approach like Reece’s would have probably been dismissed by Bollywood insiders a few years ago. But lately, the industry has ndergone key changes that have impacted both the business of making movies and the types of films that are being made. Most significantly, the flirtation between Bollywood and its sister industry, Hollywood, has blossomed into a full-fledged courtship, and the growing relationship has substantial implications for both the business and art of film in India.
It is no surprise that Hollywood has its sights set on India. It’s got the makings of an ideal market: a democratic country with an economy growing 8% each year. As many as 4 billion tickets were sold in the country last year, and the emerging middle class has grown to about 250 million people, not far off from entire population of the United States. But historically, Hollywood films have constituted only a tiny fraction of India’s box office—around 5%. Indian audiences were and continue to be receptive to Hollywood blockbusters; in less than two months, Avatar grossed over $24 million in India. But for American studios seeking to capture a bigger slice of the market, they had to change their approach.
“Here was a huge industry, a huge market and they were not able to capture it by imposing their products,” said Ravi Gupta, CEO of Mukta Arts, a studio run by Whistling Woods’s chairman Subhash Ghai. “Because this market’s requirements of entertainment were significantly different than those of Hollywood. The format in which stories are told, the way that stories are told, the star system that exists over here — these are issues that are very significantly different.”
Instead of simply exporting films produced in the United States, American studios are now producing films in India aimed at a local audience. Starting in 2007, Sony, Disney and Warner Brothers have all produced Bollywood-style, Hindi-language films. Gupta said Hollywood’s involvement with local production is reminiscent of the soft drink market in India—when Coca-Cola had trouble ousting local cola Thums Up as the country’s most popular soft drink, it instead went about acquiring the brand in 1993. “You have to think globally, but act locally,” Gupta said.
Perhaps the best example of that approach is by Disney India, which announced plans to target the South Indian market and is producing an animation film scheduled for release in 2011, partnering with K. Raghavendra Rao, one of the best-known directors of Telugu-language films. It’s a keen move on Disney’s part; Hindi-language Bollywood is only one of a number of India’s thriving regional film industries. South Indian cinema—consisting of Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada language films—was named India’s most prolific film-producing region in a report last year by Ernst and Young. And the focus on regional cinema could help Disney push its product beyond India’s largest cities; in a report released in March, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry said demand for regional products was growing significantly, particularly in smaller population hubs classified as “B & C cities” by the Indian government.
The fervor of American studios to stake a place in the Indian market is coupled with a similar desire for Indian studios to expand their reach abroad. Last year saw the finalization of at $825 million deal between India’s Reliance Big Entertainment and the American studio DreamWorks. This year, Reliance will also be releasing two versions of the movie Kites, starring Bollywood heartthrob Hrithik Roshan—an original Hindi version and an English version, re-edited with a shorter run time and less song sequences in order to appeal to a Western audience. Earlier this year, many industry watchers were following the overseas performance of My Name is Khan, the latest from superstar Shah Rukh Khan, after Fox secured the distribution rights to the film. As of April 11, the film had grossed a little over $4 million in the United States. Gupta said it is likely much of that came from Indian nationals living abroad or Indian-Americans, with little indication that it is reaching beyond that core audience.
“I think we shouldn’t get overexcited thinking about the movie has gone international,” Gupta said. “For us to be able to reach international markets, we have to be able to make films that address the sensibilities of the West. Our films and the format in which we make them, they don’t achieve that at all.”
In the desire to expand to a global audience, Indian filmmakers and studios have a very fine balance to walk. Try too hard to draw in new audiences—by cutting down on Bollywood’s beloved song and dance sequences, for example—and you run the risk of alienating a loyal domestic audience.
“If you lose your own specific storytelling style, it’s not worth it,” said Nasreen Munni Kabir, a London-based author, documentary filmmaker and expert on Indian cinema. “You have to be accepted on your own terms. Because if you change your style, you’ll lose your own audience.”
Since the 1990s, however, there has been another dominant trend in Indian cinema: the multiplex. The introduction and proliferation of multiplexes in India have transformed the types of movies that are now being made and are ushering in a new era of experimentation in Indian cinema.
In a country that has over 10,000 movie houses, multiplexes are still relatively rare: about 250 exist in the entire country as of December 2009. But their impact has been considerable. For air-conditioned theaters, cushioned seats and concessions, multiplexes can charge as much as five dollars for a ticket, as opposed to the one dollar it costs to see a movie in the traditional single-screen theaters. Filling a 400-seat multiplex theater at the higher price becomes just as economically viable as selling out a 1,500-seat single-screen theater—but no longer do you have to make a film that would attract 1,500 individuals for a showing. The introduction of multiplexes in the market has fragmented the Indian audiences, which means filmmakers can tailor movies to the tastes of a narrower audience.
In years past, “the movies were basically boy meets girl, they dance around — happy stories with happy endings,” says student Ambuj Dixit. “What happens now is they’re really experimenting with more topics.”
The success of the 2009 film Kaminey (Scoundrels) is telling. The film plays on many classic Bollywood tropes—lead actor Shahid Kapoor plays dual roles as twin brothers suffering from mistaken identities—but there is only one major song-and-dance number (about the importance of safe sex) and the no-lip-kissing rule of traditional Bollywood is violated. Newsweek pronounced it to be a “competent, realistic, story-driven film” and named director Vishal Bhardwaj among those who are “reinventing Bollywood.”
“The multiplex is an expensive medium now,” said Meghna Ghai-Puri, president of Whistling Woods and daughter of chairman Subhash Ghai. “Indians like to bring their entire families, so the film has to be really worth it. You have to have some sensibility to be able to spend that kind of money. …People are now expecting Indian films to get as good as Hollywood films.”
This is the crux of Reece’s Whistling Woods experiment. Reece says he sees his work in India as embarking on a new frontier, evangelizing the power of Method acting with the zeal of a missionary. “The thing I know to be true is this: human beings are human beings wherever you go,” he says. “Art remains the same.”
Reece tells his students to operate organically and disregard stage directions that are meant to reveal emotion or mood. But the reality of that approach is not so easy. In class one day, a student gingerly asks how to reconcile the desire to be organic with the demands of a pushy director. “When we actually work on a film,” he says, “what happens invariably is that we are always ordered to do a particular thing.”
This clearly touches a nerve with Reece. “A director who is asking you to be a puppet or a robot — they are by-the-numbers going to tell you to smile here and laugh here — that director doesn’t know what the f— they’re doing,” he says, his voice escalating. “They don’t know how to f—-g direct. It’s one of the reasons there’s so many f—-g horrible films.”
Clashes between the creative types are not uncommon in Hollywood. But Reece’s student raises a legitimate concern. In an industry that has not, up until now, been exposed to the DeNiro-esque approach to acting, will directors have the patience or desire to indulge an actor and this type of performance? One of Bollywood’s biggest stars Aamir Khan, is not trained in the Method but is known for his meticulous, some would say perfectionist, preparation for roles; his work style has earned him a reputation for being high-maintenance. So while Whistling Woods is quick to trumpet Reece as a member of the Actor’s Studio, the school is less likely to rely on the Method as a selling point to those in the Indian film industry.
“If you say Method acting, the Bollywood people would say, ‘what? Are the actors not going to be flexible anymore?’” said Ghai-Puri. “‘Are they not going to listen to the director anymore? Are they going to analyze things too much?’”
And of course, there is the question of whether audiences will respond. Nasreen Munni Kabir says she’s skeptical that Method acting, as seen in American theater, will translate to Indian films.
“How will that work here?” she asked. “Some things you just can’t import.”
So which is it: Reece’s view that art is art, no matter where it is, or Kabir’s theory that this cultural transplant just will not take? Audiences will have their first chance to weigh in next year, when Mukta Arts releases a film produced by Subhash Ghai and starring Whistling Wood-trained actors, all training with Reece for the film.
But it is also possible that Reece’s students might find a break outside of the Indian market. Ghai-Puri says she sees the school serving that kind of role. “If we invest today in talent, we’ll train them to do well in the Indian film industry,” she says, “but also to be prepared, if they get an opportunity, to do well in any part of the world.”
In spite of of Indian studios to lay claim to part of the American market, perhaps it is this idea—a cross-over of talent—that is more likely the immediate future for the two industries. “I see the big change happening is that Indian talent will work in Hollywood films,” Kabir says. “And Hollywood talent will work in Indian cinema.” She added that Indian choreographers, costumers and musicians, like Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman, will likely find success in the United States, while American editors, cinematographers and scriptwriters will have ample opportunity in India. Ironically, it was this type of global cross-pollination that gave rise to the “first lady” of Indian cinema, Devika Rani, who founded the studio Bombay Talkies with husband Himanshu Rai. Back in the 1930s, Rani spent time in Germany with Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich while working on post-production of Indian films. Even in this age of globalization, in some respects, it is the same plot Indian cinema has followed before.
Only time will tell where Reece and his students will fit into the industry’s current landscape. Just as the Indian industry as a whole must strike a fine balance in seeking a new global audience and keeping its domestic audience happy, so too are schools like Whistling Woods walking a tightrope—Reece’s classes in the afternoon follow morning classes in dance and acrobatics. Reece’s students practice handsprings in the courtyard at lunch and rehearse dance steps outside class while they wait for Reece to arrive—one foot in the old ways of Bollywood, one in its idealized future.
Video by Armand Emamdjomeh (class of 2010) and text by Jordan Conn (class of 2010)
BHOPAL, Madhya Pradesh, April 2010—To find the world’s toughest pound-for-pound female fighter, you have to journey through a place where the women carry water on their heads and the mosquitoes carry malaria in their guts. Mangte Chungneijang Merykom—the four-time pinweight world champion better known as Mary Kom—trains here on the outskirts of Bhopal, a state capital located squarely in the center of the Indian subcontinent. Here, gaunt cattle meander through the road while barefoot children pay them no mind, instead running through and around the tarp-and-wood built huts that serve as their homes.
Along this route you’ll find one water pump, a few stray dogs, and several dozen residents: mostly farmers, though living on land that has been stricken by drought. But continuing on the neighborhood’s single paved road, the expanse of barrenness gives way to signs of modernity as you reach the Sports Authority of India training center, a sprawling complex of fields, gyms and hostels. Presently, the complex is home to the national women’s boxing team, a group of women who—despite growing up in a country with little support for female athletes—represent India’s efforts to shed its reputation as an Olympic underachiever.
[iframe_loader width=”100%” height=”400″ src=’http://player.vimeo.com/video/12143999′]
On this late-March afternoon, the multipurpose training hall is awash in controlled chaos, with 34 boxers participating in group sparring drills. The fighters may represent India’s elite, but the gym is more fit for untrained amateurs than for Olympic medal contenders. Dusty and dim with no air conditioning to shield the athletes from outside temperatures that near triple digits, the cavernous room is nonetheless a centerpiece in one of India’s finest facilities. And in it, the fighters rotate, trading partners and exchanging blows, each boxer getting a shot at all others in her weight class.
And then the lights go out.
It’s common here—common enough that the boxers barely lose a beat—as power outages occur frequently throughout India, and the government-run training center isn’t immune from the country’s infrastructural growing pains.
But you can still find Mary Kom standing in the darkness, stretching her 5-foot-nothing, 100-pound body as she awaits her next opponent. Kom is clad in a red jersey with the word “POLICE” emblazoned across its back—a nod to her service to the department in her hometown of Imphal—and has on dusty old white Adidas sneakers, a pair of baggy shorts, and her standard red headgear and gloves. When the whistle blows Kom snaps to attention, touching gloves with her next partner, Pinky Jingra, before crouching into a ready stance.
Even in the darkness, Kom’s movements look electric. The smallest person in the room attracts the most attention. Every flinch—whether it be a nod of the head or a spasm of the shoulder—seems rehearsed, calculated, measured down to the perfect time and distance needed to lure Jingra into her trap. Kom is part-brute, part-ballerina, equal parts competitor and performer. If she wasn’t a boxer, she’d be a singer, she says, or perhaps a model. Either way, she would be seen, known, and adored, her infectious energy and world-beating confidence propelling her onto some sort of stage. For now, Kom’s stage is a training mat. Her audience is a coach, a reporter and a translator.
And her performance is flawless.
Kom dances, pauses, and then detonates, each fist a live grenade exploding through Jingra’s quickly-weakening defense. She unfurls a barrage of jabs complemented by an occasional but devastating left hook, driving Jingra backwards until she reaches the edge of the mat. When the violence pauses, it seems to have stopped only because Kom willed it do so. And when it resumes, Kom refuses to relent until the whistle’s final sound.
Women’s boxing will make its Olympic debut at the 2012 London games. Though rarely seen as a bastion of feminist progressivism, India was among the countries pushing hardest for the sport’s inclusion. The reason is simple: Kom and her teammates are good. And when it comes to Olympic competition, India is not. So when 2012 rolls around, 1.2 billion people will look to this diminutive dynamo as their great hope for Olympic glory.
“She can win gold,” says Viren Rasquinha, COO of Olympic Gold Quest, a foundation that supports Kom and other elite Indian athletes. “And it would excite this country in an unbelievable way.”
Despite the fact that more than 17 percent of the world’s population lives in India, the country has won only two Olympic gold medals in the last four decades. Of the ten largest countries on Earth, only Bangladesh (population: 162 million) has had less Olympic success.
“We have never had the proper training structure in place at the youth level,” says RK Naidu, director of the SAI training center in Bhopal. “To compete at the highest level like America and China you have to be training from 13 or 14 years old.”
Cricket remains the most popular sport in India, followed by soccer, field hockey, tennis, and basketball. But boxing’s popularity has grown over the past 15 years, particularly in the states of Haryana and Manipur, where influential local coaches have led efforts to increase youth participation. And while some male boxers have won on the international stage—Haryana native Vijender Singh won the middleweight bronze in Beijing—the women’s team has had the most consistent success.
Kom won silver in the first women’s world championships in 2001, finishing as India’s lone medalist. Her success inspired increased participation and funding for the sport. In the 2002 world championships Kom won gold, and three of her teammates earned bronze. Kom defended her title at the next world championships in 2004, this time complemented by four bronze medals for the rest of the team. India emerged as a bona fide powerhouse in 2006, when the national team earned four gold medals, more than any other country.
But despite their success, the women still must fight against a culture that sees their sport as unfeminine. “There is a problem in Indian culture,” 2008 silver medalist Usha Nagisetty says through a translator. “Women are not expected to leave the home. They’re not expected to do anything.”
Beyond the cultural bias against their sport, the fighters also struggle to keep up with the world’s elite while training with second-rate equipment in subpar facilities. “We need more imported equipment,” says Vankideser Rao, a national team assistant coach. “We need better gloves, better headgear to avoid injuries.”
Kom sometimes trains alone with the support of the Olympic Gold Quest, using private money to work out at better gyms in China. There, she is given better equipment, and she eats meat three times a day. At India’s camps, cost and religion (many Hindus are don’t eat meat) limit the menu to mostly-vegetarian dishes. Olympic Gold Quest is also trying to send Kom to Ireland to train with Peter Taylor, a world-renowned coach and the father of Katie Taylor, one of the world’s best lightweight fighters.
But the other boxers are left with domestic facilities and coaches as they compete for an Olympic opportunity. And although most international tournaments include 13 weight classes, only three weights will compete in the Olympics. This means fewer slots on the Olympic team and increased competition once the games begin, as everyone will be fighting against boxers who typically compete in weight classes heavier or lighter than their own.
Still, India figures to field several medal contenders, including Nagisetty and 2006 world champion Sarita Devi. But the woman shouldering the most pressure is Kom.
Growing up in a remote village in the volatile state of Manipur, Kom was discouraged from boxing because her father didn’t want damage done to his daughter’s pretty face. What his advice failed to account for, however, was the fact that Kom would turn out to be so good that she would barely ever have to take a punch.
His lack of foresight was understandable. A poor farmer with four children and little means with which to feed them, Kom’s father saw no reason for his daughter to spend her days fighting when she could be studying or working. But as a natural athlete with an affinity for kung-fu movies, Kom was transfixed the first time she saw boxers training at a local gym.
So Kom, then 17, went behind her parents’ back. Saving the $3 monthly allowance she was given, Kom bought her first pair of boxing gloves for $10. She showed up at the gym one day, asking to join the fight. Local coach Ibomcha Singh told Kom that she was too small to enter the ring. She persisted, and eventually, he relented.
The decision paid off. “She’s small, but she has a great body for boxing,” says national team coach Anoop Kumar. “Long arms, quick feet, a good reach.”
Three months after she first donned her gloves, Kom won the state championship. Her parents learned of their daughter’s deception by seeing her picture in the local newspaper. Rather than celebrating her talents, Kom says, “everyone in the village just laughed at me.”
Their disapproval became her motivation.
“One day,” she recalls saying to her parents, “I will show you. I will show everyone.”
But show them what? In a culture with little use for female athletes — even those who compete at the highest levels — how much must be proven before acceptance is gained? Should she show that she could compete on the world stage? Kom did that the next year, winning a silver medal at the 2001 world championships in Scranton, Penn. Show them that she could financially provide for the family? That happened when the government gave her a job with the local police department as part of the compensation package India gives to all of its elite international athletes.
The success and steady paycheck helped to win the approval of her parents, but as Kom’s career continued, her detractors persisted. After winning world championships in 2002 and 2003, she married Onler Kom in 2005. Marriage brought expectations of retirement, as her home community implored her to focus on beginning a family rather than continuing her career.
Pressures to marry—and in turn, to spend in the home and away from the boxing ring—affect nearly all of India’s female boxers. Some wed and then abandon their boxing careers. Nagisetty has postponed her own wedding until after the London Olympics. But Kom is one of few who have managed to be both a wife and a world champion.
“For most women in India, after marriage, their future is finished,” she says. “I want them to see, if Mary Kom can do this, I also can do this.”
Onler gave his wife full support, pushing her to continue training and competing rather than devoting all her time to caring for their home.
“I am like the boy and he is like the girl,” she says with a laugh. “He cooperates with me. He supports me.”
In 2007 Kom gave birth to twin boys, Rechungvar and Kupneivar, in a Caesarean section surgery. Pregnancy and early motherhood took her out of the ring for a total of 18 months. When she wanted to return to competition, even her coaches believed that she was incapable of regaining her world-class form.
While it is not uncommon for mothers to compete in international sporting events—American Olympians Lisa Leslie and Lindsay Davenport come to mind—to many, the violence inherent in boxing seemed to be too much for a woman who’d given birth, particularly by C-section.
“Everyone said, ‘If you had good sense, you would stop,’” she says. “My coaches said I was too weak. Only my husband supported me.”
She returned to competition in the Asian championships in September 2008, where she lost in the gold medal fight, her second loss in an international competition and her first since the 2001 world championships.
“Even though I lost, I realized that I still had some strength left,” she says. “If I can make it to the final, then with more training, I can win another gold medal.” Two months later she did just that, earning her fourth world gold and becoming the first mother to ever win a world championship.
Now, Kom has more world championships than any woman in history. She has won the Rajiv Gandhi award, the highest honor an Indian athlete can receive. She has inspired an entire generation of Indian female boxers. “Being the mother of two, being the world champion, she has been such an inspiration to the women of India,” says Nagisetty. “She shows just how strong Indian women are.” Everyone who has ever doubted her—be they parents, coaches, journalists, or anyone else—has been proven wrong. So with her boys growing up and her boxing academy (a school that trains young fighters from remote villages in Manipur) now thriving, it may seem like there is little motivation for Kom to continue.
Yet she continues to work—sparring with gloves befit for a beginner, eating meals that lack the protein her body requires, and struggling against a society that still regards her with suspicion—day after day.
“I would retire,” she says, “if it was not for the Olympics. My motivation is to win more championships, to win every tournament. But my biggest motivation is to win the Olympic Gold medal.”
Finally, she just might get that chance.