From the humble boxing ring of Dighwara village comes the amazing story of girl boxers who have started a revolution of sorts in Bihar's rural hinterland.
Archana Masih met the boxing champs and their dedicated coaches as Rediff.com looks at poll-bound Bihar through the lives of its people.
I am standing before some of the brightest stars of Bihar. Girls who have come from neighbouring villages and wait under a mango tree -- their medals gleaming under the afternoon sun.
They are the boxing champions of Dighwara, young girls that have trained in a grossly sub-standard boxing ring made of brick and sand in a village school. But this is their hallowed ground. They reverently touch each of its three steps with their hands and then touch their foreheads before stepping on to it.
Burnt and burnished in this pit of sand, where they practice for two-and-half hours every day, they have gone on to win medals at the district, state and national level.
Priyanka and Mona, with three medals each at the national level, are about to leave for another national championships in Guwahati in a couple of days. They have a host of other medals, they say, that can fill up an entire wall in their homes.
"The girls have graduated from salwar suits to track suits and are our pride," says coach Roshan Singh, a young army man who is the force behind Dighwara's boxing revolution that began in 2008.
It had started with 6, 8 girls; now 20 of them stand in front of me. In rural Bihar where parents send their girls to school or college to study and not much for sport -- and marry them soon after -- the interest in boxing is no ordinary achievement.
"It has made us confident and opened our minds," says Priyanka, who was among the first batch of boxers, "I want to continue boxing and then train to be a referee or a coach."
All set to travel for her next competition, she had jogged four kilometres from her village of Aami to the boxing ring in Dighwara at 4 am last morning.
For their practice coach Roshan Singh makes them box with boys as well. When I ask Priyanka if it is tough to fight the boys, she brushes it off lightly, "Nahin, there's no difference. It's the technique that matters."
The club is also a rural melting pot of sorts -- an ideal learning ground for young athletes. It has children from different castes, religions and backgrounds. Young Sabiya Khatoon is the junior-most in the group.
The ring was made by a sports enthusiast Ashok Singh who is contesting the assembly election as an Independent candidate. When he started it he says little did he imagine that it would become such a hit with the girls.
It is holiday time in Bihar. The schools are closed and there is a festive air, but the girls have come to a college near the boxing ring (which is on a school campus). Some have come from a government school in Amnaur two hours away. The teacher accompanying them says that encouraged by the girls in Dighwara, he wanted his school girls to also learn boxing. Now they have a coach of their own.
Another school owner had brought students in an autorickshaw from another village. None of the girls are city or town-bred neither do they have access to facilities that boxers in states like Punjab, Haryana and Delhi have, but they are raring to go.
When I ask coaches Roshan and Dheeraj, what they need most -- they say a good boxing ring, which would cost around Rs 250,000. The district or state has not helped them enhance their facility, some netas have made some promises, but they have remained just promises, they say.
The girls are confident -- a precocious bunch of youngsters, like you may find anywhere in this country -- and say that they love to pack a punch.
"There may be some nervousness initially, but when you are in the ring, you know no fear," says Priyanka, the youngest of her siblings who lives in a large joint family.
Sitting in the drawing room where they offer rasgullas from their sweet shop, her mother Sona Devi, a former municipal office bearer, says, "People here still don't encourage their girls, but I am determined to support mine. My older daughter has completed her PhD and people are pressing me to get her married, but I think what's the hurry."
The girls pay Rs 300 to enrol in the boxing club. A price too high for Sudha Kumari, who has borrowed her friend's cycle to come to the ring.
She could only pay Rs 200 and was provided her track suit, shoes and gloves by the club. The club often waives the fees of girls who cannot afford it.
Sudha is a quiet girl who is in Class 11. Her mother Mamta is a daily wage worker and her father is no more. Mamta earns around Rs 100 a day.
I ask Sudha to take me to her home because I want to meet her mother and she agrees without hesitation. On the way, she tells me she walks to the boxing club which takes 5 minutes by a short cut. She also tells me that the cycle she received as part of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's cycle scheme had broken down and she did not have the means to get it repaired.
You make your way past two cows and three goats to go into the small house that is shared by her four younger siblings, mother and grandparents. The small room has a bed that occupies the whole room, leaving just enough room for two people to stand. A small TV is wedged in a corner where Sudha has watched Mary Kom, who is an idol to all these girls.
"I did not know what boxing was when she told me she wanted to join the club, but I let her because she wanted to. It is eight months now," says her mother. Sudha will leave for Delhi to compete in her first competition in December.
In the courtyard, coach Roshan is standing with the grandparents. "Dadaji, this girl is better than boys," he tells Sudha's old grandfather. "She will make your family proud."
The old man weeps with tears of joy.
If you want to help Dighwara's boxing club, you can contact:
Coach Roshan Singh at firstname.lastname@example.org
Coach Dheeraj Kant at email@example.com
THE I AM BIHAR SERIES