Shillong: A glance at her Whatsapp summary reads, ‘Family’ with emojis of love and heart! Quite normal for any individual!
Here we are speaking about Sikkim pugilist Pemlaki Bhutia, who was separated from her biological family at the age of five and the ‘family’ she mentions is her present one. Pemlaki was fascinated by boxing when she saw MC Mary Kom picking the bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012.
However, for the next two years, her dreams of pursuing the sport professionally never crossed her mind, nor was there any push from inside, or thanks to the negligible facilities for the sport in her surroundings at Namchi in South Sikkim — her new address after being adopted by Tilok Kumar Pondyal, an ASP with the state police force.
“I was five or six when I was adopted by my new parents, and they are very much supportive of my choices. We are five siblings, two brothers and three sisters, and we share a strong bond. There hasn’t been any instance in my life till now that they would not support me. My parents would ensure all the happiness for me as they do with the other siblings,” Pemlaki says as she settles down for a longer chat with this correspondent at the Indoor Boxing Hall, Mawlai Mawroh.
So what made you switch families? Weren’t you happy with your own family?
“I was born in Phalidara but soon lost my mom, and my father was also good. I was too small and didn’t remember everything vividly. But from what I can recollect, I would go for morning trips to fetch milk, and on the way would cross home, and the family loved me, they would take care of me, and I felt them as my own. I used to spend most of my time at their place, and one day my new father asked me if I would want to stay with them forever, and from that day I got a new family,” Pemlaki, now 21, explained while refreshing her memories.
The family then moved to Namchi and with time the memories of her past gradually started fading away from Pemlaki’s mind. While the rest of the siblings were good at studies, Pemlaki was more inclined towards sport, and Mary Kom’s medal — India’s first-ever Olympic medal in women’s boxing did give her the push to dream of a career in sports.
She was, however, clueless about the coaching facilities in her locality before an opportunity came knocking when her school teacher wanted a few students to participate in the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Abhiyan, a central sponsored scheme launched by the Congress-led UPA government in February 2014 before the BJP-led NDA merged it into Khelo India after returning to power in May, the same year.
“I was 13 then, and when my teacher wanted some students, I immediately raised my hand for boxing. There were some other disciplines like archery and shooting, but none of the other students were interested in boxing. So I was selected and I bagged a silver medal in the 32kg category, the highest for children of that age. And that’s the start!”
“After winning the medal, I was selected to train at the Sports Authority of India centre, and within a couple of months, I got my second medal, this time a gold. That really pumped me up and made my family believe that I could go the distance in the sport,” she said while adding that for the next few years, she kept training regularly.
A silver at the inaugural North East Olympic Games in Imphal (2018) opened the doors of the Youth India camp in 2019 before the pandemic struck and online coaching became the new normal for athletes across the globe. In 2022, Pemlaki bounced back with a gold medal and ‘best boxer’ award at the State boxing championship held in Soreng, West Sikkim.
Even after all the accolades, Pemlaki, however, doesn’t forget to mention the challenges she had to overcome along with other boxers from her remote town.
In the absence of proper boxing rings, her childhood coach Mukesh Rai would use cones (triangular-shaped coloured objects mostly used in football grounds) to mark the four sides. The boxers would train twice every day using the makeshift ‘imaginary rings’, which they would call after being introduced to the real rings where they breathe fire.
For now, Pemlaka has ended her campaign at the ongoing second North East Olympic Games after a loss in the quarterfinals of the women’s 51 kg division. Aspiring to represent India at the senior level, Pemlaka believes better training facilities in her remote town will attract more people towards the sport.
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