Two girls from two states, two different backgrounds, but similar stories which intertwine over space and time. The podium in Istanbul was not just a dream pedestal for them, but a vehicle for Nikhat Zareen and Manisha Moun to change how their society perceived them, their family and their sport.
Nikhat rolls back to the start, “Before coming into boxing I was an athlete- 100m/ 200metres was my event. There were no proper coaches in that district; hence my dad had to train me. I used to go for training at collector ground. Urban Games were going on there. I saw girls in all sport, except boxing. I asked my dad – ‘why are there no girls in boxing?’ Dad said that girls do box, but in our society they are considered weak. Girls cannot play contact sport. Since childhood I was stubborn, like a tom boy. No one thought I was a girl. I took Dad’s statement as a challenge. I wanted to change the mentality of the society”
There are many who follow in her footsteps now. But back in the days it was not easy to convince her mother who was scared of scars on her face that would make her ineligible in the marriage market.
“After discussing with my dad, I started boxing. I was the first girl in that stadium to take up this sport. My first sparring session was with a boy. He hit me a lot. My nose was bleeding, had bruises on my eye. I went home like that. When my mum saw me like that, she started crying and said ‘I do not want you to box and get hit. If you get hit, who will get married to you? We have responsibility of other daughters also.’ I told my mum don’t take stress, when I get medals grooms will queue up,”
And then comes a wisecrack “Salman (Khan) did not get married, perhaps is waiting for me,”; A massive fan of the mega star who even earned a congratulatory message from him.
Now, Nikhat recounts those initial days of struggle with ease and joy. The World Champion podium has given her power, but the courage, grit and sass was always there. She refused to wear salwar kameez under her school dress. Her father experienced backlash for allowing the daughter to box in shorts.
The bubbly 25-year old is aware that the society is hearing her and she is a role model. She has opinion on most things, including wearing burqa- a topic of conversation lately.
“It is their personal choice to wear hijab. I can’t comment on personal choices. I like to wear the kind of clothes I wear. My family does not object to it. My family does not mind me wearing these clothes. I don’t care what people talk about me. If they want to wear hijab, it’s their choice”
Even during the dark days of 2017 when she had a shoulder surgery and the world said her career was over, or 2019 when she was beaten and sent home by Mary Kom, Nikhat continued to remain her real self. Neither the lows nor the highs impacted the personality.
“I am two different Nikhats. Outside the ring I am funny and chilled, very talkative, who loves to eat good food, enjoys shopping, getting clicked, taking pictures, making reels. Inside the ring I am very calm and composed- all the focus on the bout. After all I am a Gemini- so they have two different personalities”
Manisha Moun and Nikhat Zareen are two different personalities, tied by the sport of their choice.
Manisha, who won a bronze at the World Championships says, ”Very happy that I have won medals for India. Everyone has struggle in life, I also had struggles from initial days. From the beginning it was tough. My dad did not allow me to go. I used to hide and go to box. I would reach home before dad returned. When my medal came at state level, dad saw it. And then he realised that I had potential. He did not stop me from boxing. He supported me as much as he could. He is a tractor mechanic “
At the Matour village of Kaithal district in Haryana, the family had humble means. A square meal was a far cry.
Manisha recollects,” Stadium was far from my home- 10 kms. Did not have any vehicle- would run both ways. I would have 2 rotis and my favourite chai. That was my diet through the day. I would eat proper meal at night. That was a time when we could not have a square meal. Did not know what was an athlete’s diet. My weight used to be low. To do the initial weighing for the bout had to drink a lot of water. Things have changed because of this medal”
The world of boxing has given her name, fame and a family too. Coach says how he has held the girls from varied background and temperament together.
If Mary Kom started the revolution, these girls are still sowing seeds of aspiration in their community and village. To reach as far as Mary has got, they will have a long road to travel but neither Nikhat nor Manisha want to be another Mary, instead they want their own identities and inspire more girls to take up the sport.
Topics mentioned in this article