So for a couple of weeks my colleague Uzma Mohsin and I have been trailing after women boxers. We started in Kolkata and ended in Guwahati where 35 women were in the national camp before the Asian Women’s Championship. Uzma’s photos are quite extraordinary for which you really should get last week’s Tehelka but my piece is here and you can enjoy the slideshow.

PRIYANKA MAJHI is 20 and lives in Shibpur, Kolkata’s Howrah area. Two houses down the narrow lane live Saboni and Sayoni Karar. Their carpenter father and housewife mother have both been unwell. The girls do a big share of the household work before and after school. Unlike in large swathes of India, households here are not glued to television or its attendant aspirations. Regardless of family income, children pursue hobbies and sports: 14-year-old Sayoni is a Bharatanatyam dancer. Saboni, three years older, is a gymnast and Priyanka, a good volleyball player. This year, the girls are pursuing a new love with such ease it makes you the strange one for asking questions — for behaving as if boxing were a freakish pursuit for girls. As if it were any different from Saboni’s love for soft toys and frou frou.

On Priyanka’s tiny terrace, most mornings and evenings, they pad their knuckles with ordinary crepe bandage and slip their small hands into boxing gloves. They hit a heavy bag to make their fists stronger, practice punching their coach’s padded hands — and they spar. Bobbing and weaving, they are egged on by coach Sanjib Banerjee to keep moving, keep moving. Behind headguards, they narrow their eyes, hoping the other will let her guard down.

Priyanka’s younger brother Surojit, who prefers to paint, helps out, wiping sweat off their faces, pouring water down parched throats. Their father, Bablu Majhi, has newspaper clippings in which he was described as “a plucky and clever boxer” — turnof- the-century-style reportage from the 1970s — a time when sports writers still understood boxing. Once in a while, Banerjee arranges for the girls to spar with Wasim. The tall, 13-yearold son of a tailor, Wasim hopes that boxing will be the way to a sports quota job, as it has been for many boys in the area.

ONLY A few kilometres away, at the Howrah police barracks, nearly 100 boys of all sizes train daily. This old but still rudimentary boxing club, a bare cement block in one corner of the barracks, has got a mild fillip from India’s recent Olympic wins. National champions have been bred here but there is no space for girls, so Banerjee trains Priyanka and others in their homes. He is one of dozens of boxing-mad men and women across the country who are burning daylight and neglecting their personal lives, hoping to turn a girl into a champion.

For those who like their sports jingoistic, this is a game that India has been winning consistently. Since it was introduced in 2001, women’s boxing has given India three World Champions (beating 180 women from 32 nations). Indian women boxers win armfuls of gold, silver and bronze medals at international events every year. Banerjee’s girls are among an estimated 1,000 women boxers in India, a number as astonishing as what the sport has achieved in such a short time. Though the largest numbers are in Haryana, Manipur and Kerala, every state has prize-winning women boxers hiding in plain sight. Their untarnished dignity does not reflect the fact that their greatest victories have gone unlauded in a country where mediocre performance in others sports brings fanatic following.

For some young girls like Priyanka it is an extension of their athletic ability, for others it is a means to and end, to jobs and, after the recent Olympics, to celebrity. You would be forgiven your surprise at the sight of girls arriving every month in Riwadi and Hissar districts of Haryana to learn boxing, as if it were a DTP course. Some of them have set up little households together. Three or four to a room, they cook, clean and help each other with rigorous training. Meenakshi, training at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) school in Hissar, says with some amusement: “Haryanvis encourage sports but I am from the bania community. Nobody in my family has heard of sports. But they have been supportive.” Meenakshi hopes that boxing will lead her to a private sector job.

Boxers from elsewhere may complain of Haryana’s weather and sexist attitudes, but Haryana’s women say the sport has given them an island of calm. Meenakshi talks of a calculated decision she made early on. “This man made some lewd comment. I thought that if I didn’t respond appropriately, I would be bringing the prestige of boxing down. I punched him. He fell down.” Her straight face holds for a long moment before she laughs. Kalpana Choudhary enjoys more egalitarian attitudes in Assam, but says flatly that though she is entitled to quarters as a railway employee, she stays in the SAI hostel to avoid cooking and cleaning.

Across the city from Priyanka, in Kidderpore, lives 28-year-old Razia Shabnam, one of the country’s first women boxing coaches, and an international referee. Her husband has taken on much of the household work and childcare, so Razia can stay in form. Razia’s entire way of life changed because of boxing. Everyone knows Razia in Kidderpore. Letters for her are addressed merely to ‘The Boxer’. Razia puts on an abayya when visiting her in-laws across the street, but she says this is a minor concession. The respectability of marriage allows her to leave the house in trackclothes. As a teenager, her liberal but pragmatic father had told her to avoid attracting her neighbourhood’s attention in a tracksuit. But the local boxing club did not have a changing room for girls. She was a passionate spectator there until Asit Banerjee, the 65-year-old President of the Bengal Amateur Boxing Federation, urged her to give it a go. Her neighbours tried for years to make her father stop her.These are stories one would expect to hear, but few other women boxers say that they faced such opposition.

RAZIA LOOKS mellow living in a defiantly pretty, candy-striped flat in a dirty, rundown building, but is given to sharp and bitter observations about gender politics, boxing and the world at large. Boxing is particularly suitable for women because they are used to biding their time, dealing with pain and assessing the opposition, she says. It rankles that she is still unable to bring home significant income from boxing but, she shrugs, she hasn’t yet hung up her gloves. (Earnings from boxing are a hit and miss affair. Mary Kom is perhaps the highest earner so far, who got an award of Rs 30 lakh from the Union government in 2004 and has found a sponsor.) In the last two months, Razia has worked hard and lost 10 kilos of post-pregnancy weight. “Who would I be without boxing?” A question that echoes across the country. Coaches and young boxers all underplay their poverty. Instead they ask, “Who would know my name if I wasn’t a boxer?”

Such existential questions are not for the 19-year-old twins Sanno and Shakeela Bibi. Living a few kilometres from Razia, they seem untroubled by thoughts other than the desire to be champions. Cheerful young creatures, flushed with good health and self-satisfaction, their careers are closely monitored by their mother, Banno Begum, who combines the thinly smiling watchfulness of Bollywood mothers with languorous odalisques in her two-room home. There is a wealth of (perhaps) apocryphal stories about her hitting judges who ruled against her daughters in the ring.

Dressed in T-shirts and shiny shorts, the twins go running for kilometres out of their shantytown. Most evenings they take a bus to Salt Lake’s (SAI) boxing centre, where they train under Sujay Guha, alongside police and army boxers. Some trainees come from as far as the Sunderbans, leaving home at dawn to reach the evening classes. In the ring the twins are quick and aggressive, grinning when admonished by their coach, laughing at their older sister, Kaniz Fatima. Fatima hides her face behind her gloves, reminding you why pluck is prized in boxing. Taking hits, courting pain, is part of the game.

Older male boxers watch the twins with mild awe and enjoyment. “They have the killer instinct,” says Haridas Singh, an Air Force boxer. In their 30s, he and his cousin Lenin Meitei are former national champions, now training to become coaches. “Boxing is what got us out of our villages in Manipur. If we had stayed we would not have been able to buy even a banana,” says Meitei.

In Kollam, Kerala, parents seek out KC Lekha, the light-heavyweight world champion (2005), wanting to know whether their daughters, too, can box their way into paying jobs, whether amateur boxing is really safe, whether their daughters’ faces or bodies will get damaged. Forty-odd girls, some as young as 10, are practicing hard in the SAI boxing centre. The school is a little quiet right now because the star residents and coach have left for the national camp in Guwahati, Assam to prepare for the Asian Women’s Boxing Championship (beginning in Guwahati on September 23).

ALONGSIDE LEKHA, 34 of India’s best women boxers are training under a platoon of coaches led by the Dronacharya award-winning coach Anup Kumar from Hissar. Only 13 women will make it to the final team. The boxers and coaches are all old acquaintances, having travelled around the country and abroad together before. Lekha has two days after the championship to get home in time for her wedding, but she is more worried about the mild fever disrupting her training.

No boxer who isn’t in peak condition can survive the camp. At dawn and dusk, the group warms up with running, then moves to skipping rope. This skipping is not the dainty pursuit of little girls nor the heavy punishment of weight-watchers. In these boxers’ hands, the rope is near-invisible and dangerous. It flashes beneath their feet in elaborate patterns, hundreds of times per minute but their breathing stays light. Skipping is necessary because, in the ring, the feet tire sooner than the hands. Without fast footwork, you are only a slugger.

Every sports story needs a heroine, but it is difficult to pick just one at this camp. Dimunitive Kalpana buzzes with energy. Watching L Sarita Devi’s wit and power you have to wonder why women’s boxing has not caught on as a spectator sport. It’s going to take a long time and the careful training of obsessive coaches before little Priyanka or Saboni match up.

Three-time World Champion Mary Kom is a natural choice for heroine, embodying the fervour of both Christian martyrs and the good cheer of the protagonists of Girls’ Own Adventure stories. Her family did not even know about her boxing until she won the State Championship. An Arjuna Award and Padmashri winner, the 26-year-old is back in form a mere year after giving birth to twin boys. She now skates past penury with her Manipur police force salary and small grants. Nevertheless, until midway through her pregnancy, she trained girls in Imphal for free. But her confidence is no more than what even the youngest of the girls at the camp feel.

Near the ring are the tennis courts, which Dr Subhash Basumatary, director of SAI North East, says is their only facility which is not popular among SAI hostel residents. Like the boxers, most SAI residents are from villages, the children of farmers, with little besides natural talent to help them. The tennis courts swarm with children in smart gear, accompanied by fond parents or ayahs. Few would have heard of Mary Kom though they surely have opinions about Sania Mirza, whose achievements barely deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.

But coach Anup Kumar says he is bored of talk of India’s poor facilities. “Add women’s boxing to the Olympics and see what happens.” Long before India’s male boxers were hoisted to the ranks of adoration, his women boxers had brought him pride. And will bring it again.