A tribute to chanu power

AS the competition in the Delhi Commonwealth Games in various sports kicked off on 4 October, all eyes turned to the medals tally. On Day 2, India’s first haul, a silver and a bronze, was won by two women weightlifters, Sonia Chanu and Sandhyarani Devi, in the 48-kg category. From Manipur, they lifted a total 165 kg each, a few kilograms separating them in the snatch and jerk.

Day 3 brought another windfall when Renu Bala Chanu, in the 58-kg category, lifted a whopping 197 kg and won the first gold medal for India – in the process breaking the record of a total 167 kg lifted by Kunjarani Devi at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

The excitement continued in Manipur and elsewhere in India at large, as more chanus (as Meitei daughters/women are referred to) kept adding to the kitty. On Day 5, the women’s archery team won gold and bronze, its members including Bombeyala and Bheigyabati. On Day 6, weightlifter Laishram Monika added a bronze medal to the tally in the 75-kg category.

The chanus of Manipur have come a long way from their less-advantaged background. Daughters of farmers and daily wage earners, they have braved hurdles and financial problems and drawn inspiration from the strong support of their mothers and sisters. Renu Bala, after her thumping victory, dedicated her success to elder sister Rashi. “Had she not been there behind me, I would not be where I am today.” So also for Bombeyala. Her mother, Yamini Laishram, a sportswoman, was her mentor and guide. Another common characteristic among the chanus is their determination and will power to fight the odds.

Sport isn’t all about games, competition and performance. Apart from dietary needs and apparel, there is also the pressure to contribute to the family income. Then there is the question of equipment cost, which for archery alone amounts to a minimum Rs 80,000-90,000. In their endeavour to pursue their zeal, the five chanus worked in various establishments. Renu Bala and Bombeyala are with the Indian Railways, Sonia with the Uttar Pradesh police and Sandhyarani and Monika are in the CRPF, Delhi. Bheigyabati is yet to find employment, which is at present a priority.

Indeed the chanu brigade at CWG 2010 was India’s newsmakers. Renu Bala, termed the “new star”, was a photographers’ delight when she was caught stranded in Delhi traffic while taking an “autorickshaw ride” with her elderly parents. She even had a “good time” at her reception by CNN-IBN, singing ghazals for her well-wishers. Sonia and Sandhya also caught attention when they gave interviews to various media houses in the capital.

The history of women’s power in Manipur, from the Nupi Lal of the 19th century to the “nude protest” of 2004 and the continuing hunger-strike (it’s been almost 10 years now) by Irom Sharmila makes for interesting reading. The grit and enduring perseverance is well handed down by the meira paibis (torchbearers) and other local women’s organisations who are infamously proactive in socio-political issues in Manipur.

Today’s women vendors of the unique Ima Keithel (Mothers’ Market) were daughters, granddaughters and daughters-in-law of the chanu brigade who fought the Nupi Lal (women’s war) against the British. They have always fought their own battles, the latest being for the reconstruction and beautification of the Ima Keithel, where hundreds of vendors were displaced and constant political pressure and confrontation with the police was a daily affair. This new generation of sportswomen could well be yet another brigade of “change-makers”. Dedicated, determined, they too bear in mind the need to give something to their home, their motherland, their country. That was Renu Bala’s message to aspiring sportswomen in Manipur. “Do not be disheartened, put in your best effort and energy to win for Manipur, for the country.” The other chanus responded.

Last Wednesday, Manipur’s Suranjoy Singh won a boxing gold and, before that, Tripura’s Somdev Devbarman won gold in tennis, doing the North-east proud. That a small state like Manipur can produce medal-winning chanus in one of the world’s biggest mega sporting events is definitely “food for thought”, especially at a time when India is preparing to make an impact among the world’s “superpowers”.

Mind you, there are many “golden chanus” hidden away in the nooks and crannies of India and the promotion of sport without thought of caste or creed will go a long way in bridging the yawning development gap between the North-east and “mainland” India.

The writer is a freelance contributor

The Statesman , October 18, 2010