A Ringside Seat

The seven brothers of boxerwala ghar

Rajinderpal Singh (second from top right) poses with six of his champion sons. MADAN GEHLOT / DELHI PRESS IMAGES
01 February, 2012

RAJINDERPAL SINGH, LODHI RAJPUT, hailing from Dayarampur village of Uttar Pradesh’s Etah district, may seem like a gentle man, but his sons are not ones to mess with.

Of his seven boys, six of whom I met on a chilly afternoon, one had 10 stitches on his left eyebrow, visibly fresh; another had a black eye, the right one; a third was limping slightly because of a pulled hamstring. All of them were injured in recent fights.

“I was the first one to get into boxing. I brought in everyone else,” said Mahavir, the eldest of the seven whose serene face and polite conduct is almost disarming. “We live in a desi manner. If an elder brother says something the younger one will never defy it.”

And obey they did. Singh’s three eldest sons, Mahavir, Dalbir and Balbir, have brought home international boxing medals. The youngest three, Paramvir, Paurasvir and Nitvir, have been victorious in both Delhi State and national boxing championships.

But Singh, sitting quietly in their house in Delhi, has not attended a single of his sons’ competitions—he prefers to watch recordings or broadcasts. “I go for my duty”, he says—as a clerk at an educational institution in Faridabad.

Singh’s boys seem to have done just fine without him cheering them on in the stands. Sitting in their house, with its large rectangular hall and yellow walls, I couldn’t help but notice the mantlepiece—overflowing with medals and trophies, nearly 100, ranging from blackened bronze and silver to faded gold in colour, and of all shapes and sizes. The sight made me think of an old cartoon mule unable to carry the weight of excess treasure on its back.

“We have never counted the number of shields and medals we have,” Mahavir said. “These are not all. Some are often forgotten in our travelling bags.”

With all those medals, you’d imagine that the six brothers would resemble champions from a Hollywood movie—like Raging Bull or Cinderella Man—or a real-life champion like Mohammad Ali, a unanimous favourite of the family. The image shatters when you meet them: none are tall, and all are lean, with an air of boyish naughtiness and overwhelming humility despite their enormous accomplishments.

Mahavir, 36, dressed in a red and off-white beanie and a blue tracksuit, had just come back from coaching the national women’s boxing team when I met him. Back in the mid-1990s, he represented India in a few international bouts. Dalbir, 30, the tallest, at five feet 10 inches, played in the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Befittingly named ‘the strongest one’, Balbir, 25, was the first-ever Indian World Boxing Champion in 2002 and is a boxer with the Mumbai Fighters, India’s sole professional boxing franchise in the World Series.

Paramvir, 21, and Paurasvir, 19, both national medal winners, are focusing on their studies now, at the insistence of Mahavir. And Nitvir, 17, although instructed to hit the books, secretly won the 2010 Delhi State Championship in Wushu, a martial arts sport.

But what about Singh’s seventh son, you may ask? The one in the middle? Ranbir, at 23, has never competed in the ring. Diagnosed with polio at the age of three, he watched on as his brothers trained. But you shouldn’t underestimate him. His name, after all, means ‘the greatest warrior’. And Ranbir sure can hurt you—from afar, that is. At the suggestion of one of Mahavir’s friends, Ranbir began training in archery in 2002. Now an expert marksman, he recently captained India’s archery team to the 2011 World Archery Championships in Italy. But it doesn’t end there. Ranbir is also a former Mr Delhi, the winner of a bodybuilding pageant, in the handicapped category.

Ranbir had told me to ask for the “boxerwalaghar”, house of boxers, when I was making my way to their home in Tughlakabad Extension, Kalkaji. He said anybody I asked would bring me there.

Of the five people I stopped along the way, three had no clue where to direct me; one claimed she might know, but was doubtful about the exact lane; and one, living about five houses away, was absolutely sure where it was.

The brothers, like warriors, in their modest abode, waiting for the honour their extraordinary, under-celebrated talent deserves, reminded me of the great epic I had absorbed as a 1990s-era kid through one of India’s most successful TV series—BR Chopra’s magnum opus, in which five middle-aged men, clad in white dhotis, struggled to live with panache. In exile.