Nov 26 10:55 AM

Indian boxer battles pain, poverty, family to chase her Olympic dream

Update 12/2/2014: For the past two years, "eve-teasing," a term in India used to detail the everyday, street harassment of women, has become a hot-button social issue, with many wondering how or if this culture will change. But last week, a video of two sisters fighting back against the harassment of three men on a bus went viral, offering a prime example of the effect Indian women can have in helping to stop the "eve-teasing" culture.

Last year, America Tonight profiled Chaitali Kapat, a teen boxer who used her skills to help defend her sisters against harassment on the streets of Howrah, India. The story would go on to win a Gracie Award for "Outstanding Hard News Feature," presented by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation. Watch Chaitali's story, Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.


HOWRAH, India — “I got interested in boxing because I have always liked getting into fights,” said 15-year-old Chaitali Kapat, a young, rising boxing star in India with an undefeated record.

Her coach, Sanjib Banerjee, said Chaitali would sit in a tree and watch the boys practice. Then, she started challenging them to bouts.

“I used to be angry with the boys who boxed here,” she said. “They would make faces at me when I used to watch them box. When I was asked to join the team, I was happy I'd have the chance to hit them.”

Last year, Chaitali, who lives in a poor area outside Kolkata, won the national boxing title in her age and weight category. She hopes to follow in the footsteps of Mary Kom, who became the first Indian woman boxer to win an Olympic medal in 2012. Chaitali said she hopes her straight right and left hook combo will help her get to the Olympics.

“Technique and footwork are acquired skills, but you need courage. That's what Chaitali has,” Banerjee said. “I have coached children both from wealthy families and poor families. The wealthy families provide everything, but those children take that for granted. The children of the poor work harder because they have to earn everything themselves.”

During her training, Chaitali, a Hindu, has been training with her Muslim friend Madhu.

“A lot of families don't let you go to the homes of Muslims. But I don't like all that. We're friends. I even eat from her plate,” Chaitali said. “I don't have many friends at school. I go to class and sit alone. The boys challenge me to fight as a joke. The girls tease me, too. Everybody says you can box now because you're a child. But after you grow up, you should quit. But then I fought, I won and it felt good. And I didn't want to leave it. Then, I decided no matter what people thought or said about my boxing, I'd never leave it.”

A painful past

Chaitali’s mother works for a company that makes saris, but only makes between $30 and $50 a month.

“I do all the work at the office, like sweeping and mopping the floor, serving people tea and water,” Shyamali Kapat said. “Despite that, I'm unable to feed my children. I long to be able to feed them well. I live only for my daughters. I won't let my children suffer like I did. I am like a dead person walking.”

To get around, Chaitali would walk or use her friends' bicycles.

“I used to fight with my mom at home,” the young fighter said. “I nagged her for a bicycle. She spent her entire month's salary to buy me a bicycle.”

Growing up, her father spent a lot of time with his friends. One day, he left with them and never returned. Later, the body of Chaitali's father was found hanging from a tree. Nobody was arrested or charged with the homicide.

“When my father died, a lot of people asked me if I felt bad about my father's death,” Chaitali said. “Everyone would ask me, and I didn't feel bad then. But I do now. When I'm hanging out with friends, they all talk about how their fathers give them this or that. It makes me feel bad.”

Chaitali’s mother said her daughter is filled with grief and suffering, but her daughter’s boxing also fills her with concern.

“If she goes to boxing, she's going to have to fight, her body needs strength, and she needs to eat well. But I'm unable to provide her with that,” Shyamali Kapat said. “That's why I've always tried to stop her from going. She doesn't need to learn to box. Boxing could cause her to injure her face or eyes. When she grows up, I will not be able to marry her off.”

Hoping for a brighter future

Chaitali Kapat takes a break from training.
Courtesy of Reed Lindsay/America Tonight

Chaitali hopes that her boxing will be able to support the family.

“There's nobody in our home who can take care of the family,” she explained. “My mother takes care of us now. She'll be getting older. What then? Who will look after us? That's why I need a job. At first, I took up boxing as a passion. Everyone plays different sports, and I boxed. But it's not a passion anymore. I only want to box so that I can get a job. If I get a job, something good will happen.”

Banerjee points to Chaitali’s courage as her strength, an attribute he’s hoping to use in her training to help make her a champion.

“As long as she has heart, she will go a long way in boxing,” Banerjee said. “I want her to box because it will give her a profession.”

For now, Chaitali’s strength helps keep the family safe. She defends her sister, Baishakhi, who is two years older. One evening, after a boy had been following the sisters and began harassing Baishakhi, Chaitali couldn’t hold back any longer.

“We found him in a dark alley and we beat him up,” Chaitali said. “I do the same with any boy trying to harass us, even now.”

Baishakhi said she’s afraid when she’s on the road alone without Chaitali, who is thinner and shorter than her older sister.

“Nobody says she's my older sister. Everyone thinks she's my younger sister,” Chaitali said. “We feel scared if she has to go out alone. My mom gets worried, especially when she goes out after dark. After getting a job, I will build a house, then I will pay for my sister's wedding.”

Baishakhi supports her sister’s boxing, but the rest of the family doesn’t want her to continue, especially since her father died violently. But Baishakhi points out that Chaitali will need to take responsibility for the family.

“Apart from her there is nobody else to work,” Baishakhi said. “Chaitali is like a man. When Chaitali grows up, she says that she'll fulfill all my needs.”

Chaitali started boxing secretly without anybody knowing. In an effort to get her away from the sport, Chaitali’s mother and aunt used to beat her, telling her to stay away from boxing.

“She's a little girl from a poor family,” her aunt said. “Who will take responsibility if something happens to her? Her father died in this way.” For inspiration and strength, Chaitali looks to the Goddess Kali, who is honored with a days-long festival in Howrah. Riding on her bike, Chaitali followed a procession through the streets that ended with a representation of Kali being immersed in a river as the sun set.

“Kali is the most powerful goddess,” Chaitali said. “Every day, we pray to Kali before going to sleep and after waking up. I believe that praying to her before a fight makes me win. There used to be a lot of many demons and Kali killed them all. While she was killing them, she was filled with rage. And then, she strung their chopped off body parts into a garland and wore it around her neck. Kali is very powerful and I want to be like her.”

Pressure to succeed

Courtesy of Reed Lindsay/America Tonight

On the way to a match, the boy boxers get to take the train, but Chaitali and her friend Madhu ride on the back of Banerjee’s motorcycle.

“Although I've practiced, I'm scared,” she said. “Of the six matches I have played, I haven't lost once. Whenever I compete, people are afraid that I will lose.”

After arriving, the boys help wrap her hands and put on her gloves and shoes. She warms up by practicing her combinations.

“The only reason I'm doing all this is for her to become an Olympic champion,” Banerjee said. “This is my hope.”

Chaitali, who put on her first pair of boxing gloves just three years ago, hopes she’ll become an Olympic champion.

“People say now I will have to look after my mother,” she said. “Even my neighbors say this. I feel pressure after hearing this. I'm always afraid I won't box well. Hearing these kind of things always makes me feel tense.”

Despite that tension, Chaitali’s record remains undefeated.

“I hope what everyone says comes true,” she said, “that I can play at the Olympics.”



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