Balaji Boxing Academy, Bhowanipore

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Training scheduled caste children

Tamaghna Banerjee, August 11, 2019: The Times of India

About 120 students, including 25 girls, learn boxing at Balaji Boxing Academy
From: Tamaghna Banerjee, August 11, 2019: The Times of India

Passing through a Kolkata slum two years ago, Sanjay Prasad, a former boxer, saw a girl had been cornered. A commotion over water from a nearby tap had broken out and a youth was trying to pin her down. And then, suddenly, a small sporting miracle happened. Monika Mallick, then 15, stepped forward and threw a punch at her attacker, who was twice her size, and brought him down howling. She was soon picked up to train at the Balaji Boxing Academy in Bhowanipore.

Twelve-year-old Swayam Mallick, too, had similarly caught Prasad’s attention. “In both cases, the kids were exceptional in their moves and they had this raw aggression which I had to channelise.”

The two are among 120 underprivileged Dalit children, many of them school-dropouts, who former nationallevel boxers Prasad and Gautam Tamang have handpicked since 2017 from the slums to train at the boxing club they run with help from Bhowanipur Dalit Adarsh Yuvak Sangha. The Balaji Boxing Academy at Bhowanipore is a ray of hope for the kids who have fathers employed as sweepers, security guards and roadside shop owners. The children would otherwise have spent time in the streets idling. But they now train for over four hours a day — perfecting hooks, jabs and parries.

“I was never good at studies and had no clue what to do with my life. I would chat for hours on the pavement outside my house and pick up fights,” said Monika. “But now I am focused. I’ve been training for two years, have won many medals in tournaments and am hopeful that one day I can represent India and also bag a job to sustain my family.” Her father is a contractual sweeper with Kolkata Municipal Corporation.

According to Prasad — himself a Dalit who dropped out of school after Class X, vending newspapers for a living — the idea to start the club came after he saw kids in his neighbourhood loaf around aimlessly, drugs and petty crime always around the corner. “I wanted them to move ahead in society and I knew no better way than boxing,” said Prasad, an assistant technician at South Eastern Railway.

Prasad charges Rs 100 per month from each kid and funds their boxing gear. He does not regret that most can’t pay at the end of the day. What he rues is that severe funds crunch forces him to train the children in the open — at Bhowanipore cemetery in the morning and a stinky ghat with vile effluents in the evening.

Sangha members say that the kids are from such humble backgrounds and have faced so much oppression that boxing is the best outlet to positively channel their anger. The efforts have borne fruit. The club has bagged over 100 gold and silver medals in multiple intercity and interstate events in Bengal, Haryana, Assam and Puducherry. They hope to start sending boxers to compete in national tournaments soon.

Tamang said more than training the young pugilists, it takes effort to bring their parents around. “Sometimes students stop coming for practice. On visiting them at home, we are told that they were asked by their parents to quit boxing. We then spend hours and days convincing them,” he added.

But when the young boxers come back to the ring, it's all well worth the pain. Like when Mina Mallick, Monika’s mother, returned her daughter to the academy. “I feared no one would marry a boxer girl," she told TOI. “But then Coach Sir made us understand, we agreed. Monika loves the game. I hope she succeeds.”

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