In a way Sania Mirza is lucky.
When she writes a stinging letter (and what a Grand Slam it is) it actually has an impact.
That’s because she is Sania Mirza. She’s a celebrity. A sports star. Even people who don’t follow tennis, have heard about Sania Mirza.
Now imagine if you are Mary Kom. You too are an Olympic medal hopeful. But you are a boxer. You come from Manipur. You are much more comfortable in Meiteilon than English or Hindi. When you walk around the streets of Delhi people think you are the Nepali help and talk ching-chong to your face.
If Sania Mirza has problems, then Mary Kom lives a crisis.
In Rahul Bhattacharya’s kickass profile for Intelligent Life (please read it in its entirety here), you get a glimpse of what it means to be Mary Kom, boxer, mother of two, Manipuri Christian, woman athlete.
Kom will return to shared accommodation in a hostel, where she will boil vegetables with fermented fish on her portable stove, because the mess food can leave her with indigestion. She will hand-wash her clothes, scrubbing the blood off her socks, as there is a single washing machine for an entire hostel of athletes. Two years ago, two female boxers, one a world-championship medallist, were asked to serve tea to visitors and wash up afterwards.
For the Sania Mirzas and Mary Koms of the world, achievements, titles, medals don’t mean they get to call the shots.
Sania Mirza might not get asked to serve tea and wash up but the pooh-bahs of AITA don’t think twice about using her as some kind of trophy to be handed around to its petulant aging tantrum-prone male divas still unable to get over their own break-up. As if she was the spoils of war.
Or as Mirza puts it a tad more diplomatically.
“As an Indian woman belonging to the 21st century, what I find disillusioning is the humiliating manner in which I was put up as a bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis.”
The AITA seems to be saying, “Close your eyes and think of India, girl. And it will be love all.”
Aging male stars (whether on the sporting field or in Bollywood) will get umpteen “one more chance”s until their knees give way or the toupee slips off at an inopportune moment. But a Mary Kom will find that she has to prove herself over and over again.
As she told Boria Majumdar in Open.
According to (my critics), I was too old and past my prime. I have just one thing to say to these people. Let someone come and beat me in the ring and take over from me. You first have to beat me to take over. Till then, please stop being critical of me.
Will Sania Mirza’s fiery volley of a letter change anything? Will it stop making the powers that be take their female athletes for granted? Doubtful. In a country where sports stars outside cricket are few and far between, a female sports star is an oddity and a fluke, someone not taken terribly seriously unless we are discussing their oops skirts moments.
A Sania Mirza, at least, has a certain brand value. She gets ad deals. Despite her five world championship titles, a Mary Kom counts for very little. As Bhattacharya recounts Kom makes her living from state awards that sometimes don’t even reach her. She started out as a sub-inspector on a salary of Rs 8,500. After two promotions and some pay-scale revisions she has eked up the ladder to Rs 31,000.
Let’s not even get into what a cricketer makes.
Kom fights for that gold medal because whatever little comes in its wake, it’s going to help her to look after her family. And this Olympics is her first and last chance at an Olympic gold. Four years later, at 33, she will truly be too old.
It’s silly to expect female boxing to ever be as popular as cricket. Or even tennis. There cannot be any politically correct gender parity in people’s tastes. And people’s tastes will mean a Yuvi or Virat Kohli will always be a bigger star than a Sania Mirza or a Mary Kom.
But it’s not too much to expect that the state, and its agencies, and their male colleagues give the Sania Mirzas and Mary Koms the respect that they deserve. And respect means more than handing out the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna.
Because dammit, they do it to make a living. But they don’t do it because they saw someone who looked like them get obscenely rich doing it. And because they do it against all odds, they really do have to do it for the passion of the sport and the love of country.
As Mirza puts it “While, of course, nobody in the world can guarantee winning a medal in London, I can promise that I shall leave no stone unturned to bring glory to my beloved country.”
She could be echoing Kom. “I cannot guarantee the result but I can guarantee my preparation.”
I don’t know if Sania Mirza has ever met Mary Kom. But they should meet. While reading Sania Mirza’s letter today I couldn’t help thinking of Bhattacharya talking to Kom about her punches.
“Phoom.” That is the sound she wants from a punch. “When it’s tak, tak, like that, it is OK, not powerful,” she will say, throwing me a mock punch. “Phoom! That is powerful.”
Enough of the tak tak. Phoom! Sania, that was one powerful punch. Mary, I hope, would approve.