Mumbai's Bhiwani: Malad school trains slum kids into young boxing champs

A Malad Malwani school's pro-bono boxing training is producing champion pugilists of slum kids; their latest loot is five medals at MSSA's inter-school boxing tournament

When students from St Mathew’s High School in Malwani, Malad, snapped up five boxing medals — two gold, one silver and two bronze — at The Mumbai Schools Sports Association (MSSA) inter-school boxing tournament in January, their achievement was not solely a sporting feat. These lesser fortunate young adults, many from the slum in the vicinity, some children of labourers and autorickshaw drivers, are defying all odds to get ahead in the sport and pursue an education, in the hope of a better life. What makes their achievement outstanding is the speed at which they have landed success. After all, they started training only a year ago.

Students of St Mathew’s School in Malwani, Malad, came home with five medals at the MSSA inter-school boxing tournament in January. They have been training for barely a year. Pics/Nimesh Dave
Students of St Mathew’s School in Malwani, Malad, came home with five medals at the MSSA inter-school boxing tournament in January. They have been training for barely a year. Pics/Nimesh Dave

It may be stretching the analogy a bit, but this pocket in the northern suburbs of Mumbai could be the city’s Bhiwani, promising to become a powerhouse for pugilists.

Ketan Saini, the son of a rickshaw driver and domestic help, is the school’s champion. His weight due to poor nutrition is a worry, says his coach
Ketan Saini, the son of a rickshaw driver and domestic help, is the school’s champion. His weight due to poor nutrition is a worry, says his coach

Bhiwani Boxing Club in Haryana, shot to fame in 2008, as four of the five boxers who represented India at the 2008 Summer Olympics in China — among them is Vijender Singh, who won a bronze medal — were from Bhiwani.


Illustration/ Uday Mohite

In Malwani, the glint of metal from the medals around the students’ necks shines bright. But even brighter is the smile that coach, former national level boxer, Santosh Dhaygonde, flashes. He trains these 30 students — 20 boys and 10 girls every alternate weekday. Dhaygonde, a Physical Training (PT) teacher at an international school in Kandivali takes time off to teach the children in the mornings from 8 am to 11 am. The Bhayander resident says, “In a very short time, they have managed to win medals. Many students are physically weak but what they lack in power, they make up with determination.”

(l to r) Nidhi Yadav, Ketan Saini and Harshid Shaikh practice with coach Santosh Dhaygonde
(l to r) Nidhi Yadav, Ketan Saini and Harshid Shaikh practice with coach Santosh Dhaygonde

Tight funds mean 30 students use four pairs of boxing gloves, three punching bags, two red corner and two blue corner headgear, and a pair of mitts — all donated by NGOs. It’s not enough, but they are making the best of what they have. “It’s tough to rotate the gloves and boxing gear among students since they get sweaty. Size is also a problem. Some children wear shoes that are loose since they are borrowed. This causes discomfort during competitive fights. Given their resources, they are doing a great job,” says assistant coach Jaydeep Mali, also a PT teacher at the school.

The 30 students share four pairs of boxing gloves donated by NGOs. They make the most of what they have, says their coach
The 30 students share four pairs of boxing gloves donated by NGOs. They make the most of what they have, says their coach

“I was always interested in boxing and excited when I got a chance to train. The movie Mary Kom was an inspiration,” says Nidhi Yadav, who along with Manisha Saroj travelled to Parbhani in Marathwada, for a state level event early February. The duo had started boxing only a month prior to the selection. Yadav, though, acknowledges that reel life is nowhere close to real life. “It is different to actually be inside the boxing ring and get punched by the opponent, but that only spurs me on!” Saroj adds, “I am practicing hard, and will surely win at the state level next year.”

Ketan Saini, the school champion at his home in Azad Nagar, Malwani. His mother Nirmala (rear, right) works as a domestic help
Ketan Saini, the school champion at his home in Azad Nagar, Malwani. His mother Nirmala (rear, right) works as a domestic help

A part of their learning process includes watching boxing matches on sports channels. It’s here that they draw inspiration and pick up some nifty moves. Irfan Khan, an under-14 boxer, says, “I try to hook and upper cut like the boxers on TV, though, in the ring, it is a very different feeling. But I enjoy my time in the ring and I like winning. I learn so much by watching others box in competitions too.”

Malwani’s boxing story began back in 2004 when Larzy Varghese, principal and trustee of St Mathew’s Educational Trust that runs the school, decided to set up the institution after seeing children squander their lives away in the nearby slum. “I gave up my job at a school in Malad, sold a parcel of land in Kerala and bought the plot on which the school stands. There are 2,000 students who study here, and, 56 are currently giving their SSC exams.” Varghese says the children are eager to learn. Education is their only means towards a better life.

The former Kerala literacy officer was part of the 1985 Literacy Campaign to spread education in the southern state. Launched in the 1980s, it encouraged young educated individuals from the state to go into the villages and teach people how to read and write their name. The campaign bore fruit in 1990, with Kerala becoming the state with the highest literacy rate in India. Varghese, a mother of two, says, she spends more time mentoring the children at the school than with her own sons.

Marriage brought Varghese from Kerala to Mumbai where she taught in a school for more than 12 years. “I remember seeing the children play in gutter water. They did not go to school. Ten-year-olds wasted their time roaming. That touched me deeply. I decided to start a school for them so that they could learn.”

Most teachers at the school are volunteers — retired teachers or faculty at private schools who spend their free time teaching here.

A Marathi teacher at the international school Dhaygonde teaches at, was the one to inform him about St Mathew’s. “He told me how a school was working at providing kids with an education. I started teaching them PT two years ago, and during the course introduced boxing. They took to it like a duck to water. I decided to take a special class,” says Dhaygonde.

His star student is Ketan Saini, son of an autorickshaw driver and domestic help, currently the school champion. He has won two gold medals at the inter-school level. “He will be the next Vijender Singh. He needs to put on weight, though,” says Varghese.

Saini, a Std VIII student and resident of Azad Nagar, started boxing one year ago and has already won a slew of bouts. Dhaygonde says he punches hard and is nimble on his feet. What has been a cause for concern is his weight. Last year, Saini weighed only 30 kilos. A nutrition programme introduced by Varghese ensures that the school’s boxers get three square meals.

They are given eggs, bananas, milk and oats for breakfast. Lunch and dinner includes roti, vegetable, dal, rice and eggs. “Earlier, students would faint during practice because they would not eat breakfast. Their punches were weak and they would tire easily. From the time Varghese Madam has started offering them breakfast, their performance has improved,” says Mali.

It’s far more than Saini, who has three siblings, would get on a regular day at home. Often, dinner would be just a glass of milk. In one year, he has put on five kilos. Now, cheered by their principal, teachers and coaches, eight boys including Saini and Khan will aim for gold in Chandrapur (near Nagpur) at the State level boxing tournament scheduled from March 30 to April 1.

Posing for our photographer outside his home, Saini says, “I want to make my school proud.” Nirmala Saini, his mother says, “There have been times when all I could give my children was milk. I work as a domestic help in Orlem and my husband’s income depends on rickshaw fares. We have four children to feed and educate. It’s a good feeling to see Ketan become a star in school.”

India’s Little Cuba
Bhiwani Boxing Club was established by Indian boxer, two time Asian Games gold medallist and 11 time national champion, Captain Hawa Singh. Among the 2008 Olympians, Jitender Kumar (51 kg) and Akhil Kumar (54 kg) went on to qualify for the quarter finals, while Vijender Singh (75 kg) won a bronze medal.

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