Havana, Harlem, Haryana. There is a thread that runs through these centres of excellence in boxing. They are places where young boys can choose a career in crime if they want to, and they often do. Or, turn to boxing.
Vijender Singh's one bronze medal in Beijing has changed the fortunes of an entire sport in India. At the very least, it dramatically transformed one town: Bhiwani. Or did Bhiwani transform Indian boxing? The nation now knows Bhiwani as being synonymous with the handsome Olympian heartthrob and then some.
Shamya Dasgupta, a sports journalist, has authored 'Bhiwani Junction' which is an account of the long and meandering history of boxing in India.
Here's an extract from the book:
My last trip to the NIS was just before the 2008 Olympic Games. Almost four years have passed. Not just any four years, but the four most important years in Indian boxing. Work aside, I had been looking forward to this trip because it's always more fun to listen to stuff you can't actually put in print. And that can only happen if you're something of a tourist and not in your usual avatar of a journalist (it particularly helps that there is no television camera hovering some distance away, no mike to record indiscretions).
The flip-side is that training starts at 6.30 a.m. It doesn't matter that the temperature outside on this January morning is close to zero degrees-not when an Olympic gold is what you are chasing. And Sandhu Sir doesn't see what the hoo-ha about the cold is about. 'Just go for a quick jog around the compound- what's the big deal? What did you expect in Patiala in January!' he barks crankily. Clearly, this isn't his preferred weekend winter morning option either. That he returned from a family function only at around 1 a.m. the previous night doesn't help. I think about taking his advice, as all the thirty-odd boxers have. Then I spot a Good Samaritan with pity in his eyes, holding out a small plastic cup of tea. I choose the latter. The throat is warmed. The rest of me freezes over. The jog might have helped more.
I don't recognize all the boxers here; there are many new names and faces. Devendro Singh is familiar. As are his fellow Manipuris, Suranjoy Singh and Nanao Singh. The giant Dinesh Kumar is difficult to miss. There's light welterweight Commonwealth Games champion Manoj Kumar. Other familiar faces under woolen caps and raised jacket collars include Jai Bhagwan and Paramjit Samota. The rest I can't identify. At least not right now. Not in the dark. Not through drooping eyelids, sleep deprived and somewhat hungry and frozen to the bone.
More than the boxers themselves, I am struck by their clothes, their caps, their shoes, kitbags, water sippers. I first visited NIS Patiala in 2000 and from then down to 2008, things largely remained the same. The overall appearance of the boxers-the crème de la crème of Indian sport, remember-was somewhat shabby. No Nike or Adidas; basic locally manufactured track suits with 'India' or 'Services' or the name of the state emblazoned on the back were par for the course and kitbags were usually hand- me-downs or cheap imitations of well-known brands. Sippers? What are those?
The times have certainly changed. And the man who made it happen, Vijender, is missing in action at the moment. I call him, he doesn't answer. I wait. He returns the call an hour later, apologizes, says he has a bad back but will definitely come and meet us. Not right now, but as soon as he can.
The Vijender Effect is all around us though. 'Show me one boxer in Patiala who doesn't have a top quality kit,' boxing boss Abhay Singh Chautala had boasted when we met earlier. He's right. And remember, not all the boxers here are fighting in the world championships or the Olympics yet; they are just aspiring to. Only a handful are representing India in the Olympic qualifiers. The rest are all young national champions, who have been handpicked to be in Patiala for additional coaching and to be sparring partners for the Big Boys. The additional coaching is welcome, even if the lack of sleep is not. Also, the blows they have to accept while sparring are more than compensated for if they can land one of those plum overseas tours. Cuba. Azerbaijan. Thailand. Not every tournament India takes part in requires the best boxers to be in attendance. That's where the second stringers fit in, already among the best in the country, sharpened under the watchful gaze of Sandhu and his Merry Men, en route to the first of what could be many tours beyond our shores. Maybe, one day, even the Olympics.
The boys here are out of a Hollywood fight club. Hoods, jumpers, boxing jackets, anoraks; swooshes and suchlike noises coming on their feet. As they walk into the hall, they could almost be Mark Wahlberg or Christian Bale going out for training in The Fighter. They don't quite have the same swagger, but then, this is real life. Real life at 6.30 a.m. in freezing Patiala.
For a comparison, let's pick any two boxers a generation apart but with similar backgrounds. Let's say Manipuri-origin Services boxers Ngangim Dingko Singh and Thokchom Nanao Singh-Dingko and Nanao. Their contrasting stories should give you a good idea of how far things have moved along in Patiala since 2000.
Dingko, back in 1998, won gold at the Asian Games in Bangkok. A combination of injuries, indiscipline and sheer bad luck meant that Dingko, despite being India's best boxer of the period, would never better that Asian Games performance. But he was acknowledged to be the best boxer in Asia in his category. I've seen him dressed in a sweaty T-shirt, old trainers on his feet, and carrying a polythene packet for his spare shirt. This was in 2000, two years after his Asian glory and quite some time before he was discarded as yesterday's news. On the other hand, Nanao failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics (through no fault of his, actually; statemate Suranjoy Singh had qualified in the same weight category before Nanao got his chance) and the twenty-one-year-old's biggest achievements to date have been winning gold at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games and the 2008 Youth World Championships. But check him out in his red Everlast vest with black skivvies underneath, branded shoulder bag, spanking new floaters (that he has slipped on after practice) and you realize that even the second rung of Indian boxers today have a fairly good deal. And this is Nanao, self- confessedly poor, who 'travelled from home to practice riding a broken bicycle in Manipur' and 'wasn't always sure about lunch and dinner'. Pretty much everything he has is because of boxing.
Title: Bhiwani Junction - The Inside Story of Boxing in India; Author: Shamya Dasgupta; Publisher: Harper Collins India; Pages: 304; Subject: Boxing; Language: English