While Akash Kumar was taking down favourites in the 54-kg category at the week-long national championships in Bellary, his uncle was battling emotions, keeping the news from him.
Haryana boxer Akash Kumar won the national title on Tuesday afternoon in Bellary, earning himself a berth at the World Championship next month. All through his long journey home — the six-hour ride from Bellary to Bangalore, the morning flight to Delhi, the metro to Bahadurgarh and the cab to his village Paluwas in Bhiwani — the 20-year-old had just one thought on his mind: “I will place this gold medal at my mother’s feet.”
Little did he know that his mother had passed away on September 14, a day before the tournament kicked off.
“Yesterday evening, I was showing off the medal at the ceremony. I was celebrating, hoping the medal will put her in good spirits,” Akash says of his mother Santosh, who died of a lung infection after contracting a viral fever earlier this month. “I reached home around 2 pm today and all the relatives were there. Nobody said anything. They just showed me the photo of my mother. I don’t know how to process this. The last time we spoke, she made me promise that I will bring the gold medal home.”
While the Services boxer was taking down favourites in the 54-kg category at the week-long national championships, his uncle Bhawar Singh and coach Narender Rana were battling emotions, keeping the news from him.
Bhawar was heartbroken after Akash’s bittersweet triumph on Tuesday. “There was always this fear that he would ask me why I didn’t inform him,” Bhawar told The Indian Express a day before Akash’s arrival. “Before Akash left, his mother told him, ‘I am here at a private hospital. Our relatives are with me. There is no need to worry. You go and win’. The son fulfilled the promise. Par paramatma ne saath nahi diya (God didn’t help), she couldn’t celebrate with her son.”
Akash, though, understands why he wasn’t told. “I know they kept it to themselves for my own good. I would have left the tournament midway. The run that I had, the top boxers that I defeated this week… I assure you, now I understand that it was all because my mother was in my corner.”
Bhawar had discussed the situation with services coach Rana, who held up his end of the bargain.
“We decided that we wouldn’t tell him… seene pe patthar rakh ke (with a heavy heart),” says Rana. “There were posts about his mother’s death on Facebook. So I took his and the rest of the team’s phones so he couldn’t find out. I told him, ‘You need to stay focussed on the ring’. During training sessions, my eyes would well up but I couldn’t let him figure out that something was wrong. After each win, my hug was a little bit longer than usual.”
Akash did manage to call home once, using a fellow competitor’s phone.
“I asked uncle about my mother and he said, “She’s not doing too well. But it’s okay. You focus on the bouts.”
At stake was the national title and a berth to the World Championships, a huge breakthrough after a struggle-filled journey.
Akash’s father Rajbir was a state-level wrestler who regularly took his two sons to the akhara. But after a certain Vijender Singh from neighbouring village Kaluwas won India’s first boxing medal at the Olympics in 2008, Rajbir enrolled his sons into a boxing academy, and passed away later that year.
Akash’s elder brother Suraj was a promising talent, winning the sub-junior national championship in 2012 and multiple medals for Haryana. But he is currently in jail in connection with a murder case.
“His friend invited him somewhere and there was a scuffle… All we know is he strayed off the path,” says Bhawar, who had been taking care of the two boys since brother Rajbir’s death. “Akash learned a lot from the episode. The whole village is proud of him and loves his reserved nature.”
“Buri sangat (bad company),” Akash sums up his brother’s struggles. “But that made me realise that our family could not afford more ordeals. I had to live up to the expectations.”
Last January, Akash won the Under-21 gold medal at the Khelo India Youth Games in Guwahati. He has been training at the Army Sports Institute in Pune under Rana and other coaches, and has been earmarked as the next big thing in the sport due to his aggressive style — the dash of swagger, long combinations and unrelenting pressure.
“Akash was by far the fittest boxer in the whole competition and beat tough opponents,” says Rana. “Each time he won, I would break down but my coaches would shush me up… Trust me, you will be hearing Akash’s name a lot in the future.”
Up next is the World Championship in Belgrade, Serbia next month.
“It has been a quick turnaround, I could have never expected that I would be representing my nation all of a sudden,” says Akash. “But I will do justice to my talent at the World’s next month. And I know my mother will watch over me there as well.”
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