India's Female Boxers

I reported this story in 2006, six years before women's boxing became an Olympic sport.

If you drive south from downtown Calcutta, past scores of aging British colonial buildings, past roadside camps teeming with barefoot children, and past the Hindu Temple devoted to violent Goddess Kali, you will eventually reach the South Calcutta Physical Culture Association.

This is a boxing club whose most celebrated members are girls.

Sannu Bebi is one of two beefy 17-year-old twins who train every day at this open-air gym. "We sisters have made a name for ourselves," she said. "There's no-one quite like us."

The twins' mother watches on, her face a mixture of pride and bemusement. Her daughters, she says have always been a law unto themselves.

"They had a passion about boxing since they were absolute toddlers," she said. "They said that 'well, boys can do that, why not girls? We want to do something that boys can do and surpass them.'"

Twenty-one girls belong to the club. They're still outnumbered by the boys, but it's the girls who're winning tournaments.

The man who runs the club is Asit Banerjee. He's a small, muscular former boxer who's now in his 50s. For Banerjee, the key to boxing is being able to draw on a burning anger. Indian boys used to have it, he said, back in colonial times.

"In those days, the boys have a target against the British rulers," he said. "In the playground, in the boxing ring, they used to fight and win against the British soldiers and the British sportsmen. That was the motivation. they were hungry. But after some time we found that motivation is no more."

So Banerjee turned to girls. In 1990, he started recruiting girls from Calcutta's downtrodden Muslim neighborhoods. It's still where most of his female fighters come from.

"These Muslim girls are strong, brave," he said. "They know how to fight back. They don't run away. They have a…killer instinct."

Banerjee himself is Hindu. What he says next might be considered religious bigotry. Not here in some of the meaner streets of Calcutta.

"The best combination for India is Hindu mind and Muslim body," he said. "Hindu mind is good. Muslim blood is very strong. So if this way, these two communities come closer, that'll be the best combination."

Whatever the reason, this club has produced several state and national champions. It's become such a mecca for women's boxing that a famous movie star has been learning her jabs and hooks from coaches here. She's a Muslim too.

The 17-year-old twins are the last boxers still training on this humid evening. Sannu, dressed in a baggy red T-shirt and shorts, flashes a pair of intense eyes at her trainer as he pushes her to punch harder.

Sannu's sister Shatila, dressed in blue, seems less passionate. But her timing is better.

Their mother sits ringside, She's wearing a sari.

She recalls that her late husband — a policeman and a conservative Muslim — disapproved of his daughters' hobby.

"He said: 'No no no!'" she said. "'They are girls! They'll injure themselves.'"

But their mother urged her husband to let them box.

And the girls soon took they skills outside the ring.

Shatila speaks with pride about how they beat up a bully at school, and intimidated a cop who was trying to extort money from a friend. And then there was the time the twins witnessed a robbery on a bus.

"There was somebody in the bus and then the person snatched the bag and ran," said Shatila. "I was very angry. I ran, I nabbed him and I beat him up and I saw that blood was coming out of his nose. And then it was all right."

The look on Shatila's face as she tells this story is part-thuggish part-bashful. It's not a look you see much on Indian women. She acts more like the teenage girl that she is when I ask her and Sannu who their idol is. They answer in unison.

Leila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali, one of the world's most famous female boxers. She retired in 2007.

Sannu proudly quotes from a local newspaper article. It said she had the Leila Ali punch.

Update: In 2012, India's women boxers have another role model: Olympian Mary Kom.