Bhiwani Junction, a new book tag-lined “The untold story of boxing in India”, is about the rare phenomenon of a noncricketing Indian celebrity sport star. For the most part, the book revolves around Vijender Singh, the bronze medal-winning pugilist at the 2008 Olympics, who becomes “India's answer to David Beckham, Indian boxing's answer to Tiger Woods.” The debutante author, Shamya Dasgupta, a senior editor at Wisden India, is candid about how incomparable the state of boxing is to that of most other sports in the country – never mind cricket. Yet, the inevitability of such an analysis proves to be the crowning point of Bhiwani Junction.
“Everything must be taken in the right context,” reasoned Dasgupta, over email. “Did you or I ever imagine that we will have an Indian boxer rubbing shoulders with Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra and other stars? It’s not the same as a cricketer doing the same.” While Indian cricketers can easily warm up to prospects of billboard blowups, endorsements and media splashes, and prompt invitations to the classiest soirées within months of international appearances; things are harshly different in the case of boxing, explained Dasgupta. “It’s not the same for a wrestler, for that matter,” he said.
The likes of chess Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, tennis player Leander Paes and wrestler Sushil Kumar – “how often have they been picked up by ad-wallahs?” Dasgupta rallied. “I tried to establish that a small-town, non-English speaking boy has gone where, previously, only cricketers did. That, to an extent, demands hyperbole, doesn’t it?” But Bhiwani Junction stays rooted to the agrestic sphere of Bhiwani, the district in Haryana of over 400 villages. “Until the mid-2000,” as Dasgupta puts it in his book, “Bhiwani was known only to followers of regional Haryana politics as the hometown of the state’s best-known chief minister, Bansi Lal, one of Indira Gandhi’s closest confidantes”. Bhiwani, the book says, is “India’s answer to Havana and Harlem” – three “centres of excellence in boxing, linked by their lower middle-class-ness, their desperation to be known. Places where young boys can choose a career in crime if they want to, and they often do. Or turn to boxing.” It was inevitable then, to place Vijender Singh, “the handsome Olympian heartthrob”, at the nub of this unlikely account of sport in India, said Dasgupta: “The story started with Vijender and that can’t be discounted.” Bhiwani Junction does span out to cover the origins of the sport (all the way back to PN Roy, “the father of Indian boxing”), and mulls over the future, of women’s boxing too. But Dasgupta’s efforts are squarely placed on redressing Vijender Singh’s success, and on hailing Bhiwani as the heartland of Indian boxing talent. I
n the book, Dasgupta recounts his earliest encounters as a reporter on the sports beat with Singh, in the summer of 2008 in Beijing. He also retraces a couple of visits he made to Bhiwani in the course of writing the book. (“If you don’t mind buffalos and dung, if boxing gets you going and the thrill of watching youngsters training all day to become the next big star excites you, make the trip.”) A large part of Bhiwani Junction picked up from Dasgupta's notes over years on the field, especially at boxing centres and venues. Timing the book’s release to the London spectacle was an obvious thing to do, he acknowledged. “You probably wouldn’t have featured this book if it had come out a year ago,” said Dasgupta. “Selling a cricket book, however mediocre, might not be as difficult.” As for the country’s prospects at this year’s games, he added, “We didn’t know India would have such a strong presence in boxing: seven men and one woman is a big number.” The book’s most compelling segments distill into identifying the single largest issue dogging the management of every sport in India, even cricket: bureaucracy and political favour, which fostered the rise of Haryana as a sporting hub. Then again, boxing prospects from outside Haryana have been slim; as Venkatesan Devarajan, the veteran Olympian from Tamil Nadu states in the book, there hasn’t been “a single Tamil boxer with talent or ability in the last ten years”. S
o, is there little hope for non- Haryanvi Indian boxers? “Yes and no,” replied Dasgupta, making note of the Indian Army’s role in training boxers at other parts of the country. Of the seven male boxers in India’s contingent at London, Devendro Singh is from Manipur, and Shiva Thapa from Assam – both men from the forces. But it’s unlikely that other Indian states will try and match the incentives provided to athletes in Haryana, he added. “Conditions in, say, Calcutta or Bangalore will remain the way they are and boxers from these places will struggle. At the same time, who knows, with a little more success at the top level and more involvement from private organisations, things could change. I’ll hedge my bets there.”
Bhiwani Junction, Harper Sport, R250.
By Jaideep Sen on August 03 2012 4.19am