Close to 100 people have gathered in a two-storey home on the outskirts of Rohtak. A projector has been arranged to show Manju Rani’s nine-minute bout in a small room on a Sunday afternoon. The YouTube stream breaks quite a few times during the bout and it takes a while to buffer. But the crowd stays glued to their spots.
Old people, children, coaches and a few fellow boxers cheer for Rani as she fights Ekaterina Paltceva of Russia in the 48 kg final of the World Championships. The Indian loses 1:4 in a close bout to end up with a silver. It is still the best finish for an Indian boxer that went to Ulan-Ude for the tournament with three others getting bronze.
Among the crowd, there are six women and one of them is Ishwati Devi. She wipes off the tears as she watches her daughter win the silver medal. Ladoos are distributed in the neighbourhood.
“I was nervous during the bout and when she lost, I felt very emotional,” Devi said. “If she had won everyone would have been happy. But this is also great. She now has a path.”
Two years ago, Rani was a wanderer... she had no path. She was not even in the national camp and was boxing for Punjab instead of her native Haryana.
“I have supported her since the beginning even when her father did not,” Devi said. “In 2012, I trusted Saheb Singh Narwal and he did everything for Manju.”
Role of Saheb Singh Narwal
Narwal is sitting on a couch and discussing Rani’s bout. There is media present and they constantly ask him about Rani’s details and her career. He was the one who brought Rani into the game.
Despite having no background in boxing, Singh has now produced a world silver medallist after several age-group national champions.
A national player in hockey and kabaddi, Narwal began coaching girls of his village Rithal. He took a small batch to participate in Sports and Physical Aptitude Test scheme under the Haryana government. Twenty two girls from the village were included. That meant a government coach would be provided to Rithal.
“Sube Singh Beniwal was the coach in the village from SPAT,” Narwal said. “He did not believe me that I trained 22 girls and questioned me about my identity. After some convincing, he came to Rithal and said he will train the girls in boxing.”
In a typical Haryana village, girls taking up boxing was still a taboo in those days. Narwal had his objections and so did Rani’s parents.
“Her father said that she cannot train as a boxer,” Devi said. “He said she is a girl and if something happens to her, who will marry her. Even if we give more money, it will be difficult to convince the boy.”
But her mother was keen on letting at least one of her four daughters follow her dreams. Devi took care of seven children – five of her own and two of Rani’s uncle who died along with his wife. It was Devi’s determination that led Rani to take up boxing.
“We had returned from her father’s checkup from Rohtak and she was crying,” she said. “I asked her what happened and she said that other girls have won a medal and she would have also won if father had allowed her.
“I convinced her father to let one of the daughters go.”
Rani’s father died of cancer in 2010 but that did not deter her commitment. Narwal also knew that it was important for him to make it a success now.
Hailing from a small farming family, Narwal committed himself to the task. He built a small makeshift boxing ring and tied a big punching bag to a tree.
While Beniwal trained the girls, Narwal would sit and observe the nuances of the sport. Slowly, he understood it, before eventually cracking the code.
“This sport is all about feints. You have to show your opponent one hand and punch from the other hand,” he said. “When Beniwal left after two years, I trained the girls. They were talented.”
Slowly, Narwal’s boxers started winning medals and help arrived as well. A charitable trust provided 30 litres of milk every day and shoes to the boxers while Narwal’s elder brother pitched in with some money.
“What he will not tell you is that he sold his two plots,” said Sunil Kumar, whose daughter trains under Narwal. “He has never charged a single penny from everyone.”
Narwal is modest about his sacrifices. “I did not think twice before selling the plots,” he said. “People used to taunt me but I think they also helped motivate me. If I had thought about all those things, how would have I reached where I am today?”
But the village had limited opportunities. He shifted to Rohtak and rented a home close to the Rajiv Gandhi Sports Complex which now has the National Boxing Academy. However, Rani’s success was limited.
“They would not take her in the camp,” he said. “I pleaded them to take her even if they leave my daughter out. She had lost the state competition in 2016. I told her we will work harder for next year. She lost at the district level in 2017.”
This was around the time when Rani’s mother reached the end of her patience. She wanted to Rani to stop as the financial burden was growing with no visible progress in her daughter’s career. But Narwal insisted that they keep going and instead told Devi that he would take care of Rani.
Turning things around
“We talked to the coach of the youth national team Amanpreet Kaur,” he said. “She got Rani admitted to Lovely Professional University and then she represented Punjab and won the national title in 2018.”
It was a major breakthrough for Rani and it earned her a spot in the national camp. The upward curve finally began. She won a silver medal at Strandja and bronze medals at the Thailand Open and India Open. But now she has the biggest of them all – a silver at World Championships.
Rani showed that off to Narwal a couple of hours after she won, via a video call from Ulan-Ude.
“Uncle, silver medal!” she said.
All the girls under Narwal refer to him as uncle instead of the more common coach. It is something that Narwal thinks is acceptable.
“It is their habit and has been since we first trained,” he said. “I also tell the girls to call me uncle because I’ll be a coach when one of my students achieves something big.”
With Rani’s medal, maybe it’s time he considers the switch.