So let’s start this one with some hardcore facts. A good (read best) book on sports is the one which persuades readers — who hate statistics like me — to empathize with players and their lives. Those are readers who are just looking for a darn good story. That, in short, means the book has worked wonders with readers who loved such heartbreak tales of players, and their wonder victories on the podium. That also means the book has fit the bill as one of those rare gems in the Indian publishing market. And the authors have successfully transported readers inside the boxing ring, they have made readers watch the shuttle with complete concentration inside a badminton court, they have dropped readers inside a shooting range with some brilliant detail by brilliant detail.
No, I am not telling you the whole story, I am merely saying why you need to pick up a copy of Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta. These two brilliant sports historians and authors, if let loose, could run wild like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and transform Indian sports and its management with their brilliant ideas. But that has not happened, the babus and politicians have refused professionals to run sports in a billion plus nation. So Majumdar and Mehta write books and offer ideas to those in the business of sports, both are always on the podium and every time on television channels to discuss sports, sports persons and the business of sports. They are a unique Bikash-Krishanu combo. If you have not understood about the Bikash-Krishanu combo, replace it with a MacFish-Coke. You will have your fill. That’s all about the authors.
So let’s return to the book, a wonderfully reported glimpse of sports stars and their coaches and how they act and react before the big, prestigious games, the big arena Olympics. The book has worked because the authors understand sports and constantly mingle with sports stars, coaches and managers of the game. So they have a first hand idea of how successful sports stars survive tension-ridden moments before walking into the court, and more importantly, what coaches do to turn ugly into bad and eventually good moments. Majumdar and Mehta knew their book will be read by a WhatsApp generation, both offered recent examples of such success stories in the world of Olympics.
The book has broken barriers, shattered myths in a nation where many — till recently — believed India only dominated in hockey in the Olympics some four decades ago and now only a handful of sports persons are bringing Olympic laurels. And that India is far away from the Olympic dreams. That’s not the case, the book tells us. The book — in my opinion — tells me of the sleeping dragon in the mythical Shangri-La. It tells me India’s sporting potential is immense, actually immense. And it is high time the government grants more cash to the sports ministry while finalising the annual budget. The book tells me why Niti Aayog and even the PMO must discuss sports and not only cross border diplomacy and internal security. The book has showcased stars who have done exceptionally well, the book is a reminder for the government if funds are allocated well, India can – actually — be among the top ten nations in the Olympics.
Let’s start with the MC Mary Kom story. The diminutive boxer is from Manipur, a state in news more for soldiers with guns and bullets, drug addicts and routine violence. It is a state where the routine is horrible and the horrible routine. Yet, Manipur is home to some of the top boxers, footballers and hockey players. Mary Kom, say the authors, is mother superior of the state. Mary Kom, defied norms at 36, winning the gold medal in the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, at the Asian Games and also at the World Championships in Delhi. And then, the authors found her as the face of the Tata Mumbai Marathon where she sang on the stage and brought the whole audience to its feet. SheThePeople, a lovely television channel run by the affable journalist, Shaili Chopra, quoted her as saying the following: “People have 72 dreams of a billion and started to expect the gold medal from me in Tokyo (Olympics). What people don’t realize is that I will yet again have to fight in the 51 kilogram category with boxers who are taller and stronger. But I am not saying this as an excuse. All I am trying to say is it will not be easy to make it to Tokyo and win a second Olympic medal.” If Bengal’s most celebrated sports writer, Moti Nandy, was alive, he would have said: Fight, Mary, fight.
The book says boxing was not easy for Mary Kom. She was born in a lower middle-class household, walked miles to attend classes and was beaten by her father for wanting to pursue boxing and was racially vilified ever since she came to Delhi. She braved taunts of chinki — a shameless term coined by North Indians for girls from the northeastern states for their Tibeto-Mongoloid features — and beat Nikhat Zareen, fourteen years younger, at the Indian Open in May 2019 and won gold at a World Championship preparatory event two months later.
Write the authors: “A similar issue arose between the two over representing India at the Tokyo Olympics. Zareen, known for having won a bronze medal at the 2019 Asian Championships, made an impassioned plea to the sports minister and the Boxing Federation of India for a trial bout. Abhinav Bindra sided with her, saying that as athletes you are always judged in the present and not by what you have accomplished before. Hence, it was a matter of time before a trial was organized. The federation, while initially reluctant, did eventually give in, saying that the same rules should apply to everyone. This controversy should never have been allowed to fester. Their selection trial was scheduled for December 2019, by which time this book would have already gone to press. Mary, who had publicly opposed the trial match, wasn’t pleased with the outcome but was left with no option but to accept the ruling. Frankly, this is the best way forward.”
Do you know that the life of MC Mary Kom is not just medals but also loads of blood and sweat? She is the best boxer in her category in India. She proved this at the World Championships by becoming the first-ever boxer in history to win a record eight medals, surpassing Cuban legend Felix Savon.
Majumdar and Mehta — throughout the book — persuade readers to empathize with the players. They write that the actual event may last a few minutes, or at the most, for an hour. But fame is permanent, it is never short-lived. The book shines because it sheds light on several untold aspects of the Olympics involving Indian sports persons. Sadly, there are very few books about Indians and their participation in the Olympics.
Why Mary Kom, why not discuss the struggle and success of single arm, double Paralympic gold medalist, Devendra Jhajharia who battled against the odds to win his Paralympic javelin gold in 2004? Read this part, and you will realise how tough life is for sports persons in India. Says Jhajharia: “When I went to the Athens Paralympics in 2004, all I had was a pair of spikes that cost me Rs 400 and a javelin priced at Rs 300. That’s all I had. I paid for the trip myself, (I) was one of the twenty-five athletes who represented India in Greece.”
“Every other athlete participating in Athens would come to the stadium with his personal coach, trainer, physio and support team. They had better javelins, which were very similar to the ones we use now. But for me, it was never about facilities. It was never about the quality of my javelin or spikes or coaching. It was always about hard work and more hard work. Working the hardest was my weapon against adversity and I am glad it worked for me.”
Want more? Jhajharia lost an arm at the age of eight when he accidentally touched an electric cable while climbing a tree. He was depressed when he returned from hospital and did not leave his house. His mind was weighed down with a huge sense of inferiority and peer pressure. Eventually, it was his mother who motivated him to go out and play. His mother was confident in her son. Indian mothers are different, they can gauge the world even if they rarely step out of their kitchen and bedroom.
Majumdar and Mehta’s reporting is fresh and has some solid, meticulous archival digging. There are heavy sections, there are light sections, there is hope, there is despair, and there is hope again. The book tells me why the Olympics have the ability to bring the world together and why every sports person wants an Olympic medal in his trophy chamber. I remember how in 2018 North Korea and South were drawn together, albeit only for a brief time. In A Team Of Their Own: How an International Sisterhood Made Olympic History, Seth Berkman — claims The New York Times — offers an insider’s look at what happened when North Korea and South Korea unexpectedly combined their women’s hockey teams to play on a unified squad at the Pyeongchang Olympics. Majumdar and Mehta’s tome is also unique, the behind-the-scenes opportunity shows in the duo’s clear storytelling, their passion for the subject is also clear. They weave the back stories of the sports persons in a larger examination of culture and identity, extremely important for the current generation in South Asia. What a wonderful book.