For the past few months, my brother and I have been working on a documentary based on Pynnehbor Mylliemngap, a martial arts champion from Meghalaya. Since the documentary would take some time to edit, a write-up on the young man seemed apt. Heading to Smit, a small village on the outskirts of Shillong, I went to meet the champion once again. On reaching the indoor stadium where we were to meet, there I saw twenty children in the middle of a training session with the young coach. They were running laps and some were as young as four. All smiles and full of glee, they were curious about the identity of the person who was looking so intently at them.
Each training session lasts 2 hours. Watching them train, I was left in awe of their determination. The word tired did not seem to register in their minds and they performed gruelling exercises. Maybe it seemed that way because I probably could not do half the things they did. Grunting loudly at their kickboxing master, they listened to his every word and followed each movement.
His interaction with them was different from the conduct we encountered during our days of filming. He would usually humour us and show us his parkour abilities. With the children, he was strict and commanded discipline, which was the opposite of his usual jokester self.
“After I’m done training these kids, I’ll then start on my own training,” he says. He has a national tournament coming up in Kolkata. “I still don’t have any equipment so I have to make-do with the make-shift items.” This is his reality.
When I first met Pynnehbor in 2016, I spoke with him briefly, for just a few minutes. I was intrigued. The now 21-year old athlete has been training for 12 years. Fast forward a few months, he had won gold at the World Association of Kickboxing Organizations (WAKO-Asia) Championships in Turkmenistan. You would think that bringing pride not only to the state but the country would be of significant importance but that was not the case. Pynnehbor comes from a village called Smit on the outskirts of Shillong. Raised by a single- mother, it has been difficult for her to make ends meet. I always thought that athletes who competed at a higher level had it made relatively easy- with training being their life. Pynnehbor proved me wrong. “There is no training facility, a few of us used to train in a shed but it’s no longer there,” he notes. “We do what we can.”
Pynnehbor has been training since he was 10-years old. He initially trained under his brother, Kendra. However, he now however has no coach and trains himself with guidance from Lorenzo Warjri, head of the Meghalaya State Kickboxing Association (MSKA). Countries like China spend millions on scouting and nurturing talent with the sole intention of international success. Athletes don’t need to worry about diet and infrastructure because that’s a given.
As I kept talking to Pynnehbor, I realised how difficult his path has been. He had to drop out of Shillong College due to constraints faced with his family and training. However, keen to continue with his education, he has started college again at Morning Star College in Shillong. “It is hard trying to balance everything but I still want to get a degree,” he says. Showing me his medals, his mother proudly talks of her son. She does everything she can to ensure her son gets the opportunity to make his dreams come true. The loans keep piling, a few thousand from here and there and that’s how they’ve managed so far. I asked if they ever approached the government for help, he laughs. Whatever meagre amount they have received doesn’t even cover the costs of their travel and stay.
The martial arts associations in Meghalaya have been going through a trying time. The Meghalaya Association Kickboxing Organization (MAKO) was the only body in the state up until recently when the Meghalaya Sate Kickboxing Association (MSKA) came into force. MAKO has been plagued with controversies of late which have resulted in athletes turning to the MSKA for help. MAKO, which was set up in 1998 is under the Meghalaya State Olympic Association (MSOA). In an interaction with the press earlier this year, the MSOA stated that according to rules, only one kickboxing organization can be affiliated with them. This has caused a lot of confusion with the athletes. “I think these government bodies should be looking after our welfare,” Pynnehbor says. “Instead of focusing on us and helping us achieve our full potential, they are more interested in warring with each other.
But he is thankful for Lorenzo Warji, whom he believes has really tried to do what’s best for them. Lorenzo Warjri is constantly trying to find ways to source funding and helps Pynnehbor apply to various scholarship programmes.
The village of Smit has shown its support for Pynnehbor and he trains children from ages 4 to 20 at the community hall. “The kids are very poor and I understand how difficult it is to pay for lessons, I take INR 100 (US$I.4) per month and sometimes they can’t pay but it’s alright,” he says. His training of the children is intense and rigorous.His pupils go to the local government schools nearby and are mostly children of farmers and daily wage earners. They speak with immense pride of their coach. Pynnehbor sees a reflectionof his own drive and determination in them. “I know how much my family has sacrificed for me and I only hope to give these kids some inspiration,” he elaborates wishfully. “If I can do it so can they.”
Earlier this year, he received an invite to compete at the World Association of Kickboxing Organizations (WAKO) World Championships in Russia. After much talk and deliberation, he along with other martial arts athletes were told that the government would fund their trip and stay. Unfortunately, this did not materialise. “I don’t know what happened,” Pynnehbor tries to explain. “One day we were told we would compete in Russia, and the next we weren’t.”
An episode like that would have dampened the highest of optimism, but Pynnehbor is persistent, “I’m used to this because it happens so often.”
“I do lose hope sometimes and do want to give up but it is my passion, and I have to fight for it.” Pynnehbor elaborates.
Many people have offered to help the young man but most times, these words are just empty promises.
“Life hasn’t been easy for me and after my father passed away the difficulties piled on,” he says.
Pynnehbor is one of ten children but two of his siblings have passed away. His brother Kendra, who received his black-belt in 2010 passed away that same year. This devastated Pynnehbor. His brother who was his closest ally, coach, and supporter had introduced him to the sport. When he died, Pynnehbor gave up. He left kickboxing for a few years. Disillusioned and lost, he turned to dance. B-boying came to his rescue. On asking him why he now focuses on musical form, he says, “It’s because it’s a mixture of the two things I love most- martial arts and dance.”
In October of 2017, tragedy struck the family yet again. His 23-year old sister, Iohdahun, lost her life during childbirth. The baby survived and is now looked after by Pynnehbor’s mother. With training facilities limited, Pynnehbor often finds himself at a stream near his house. It is here that he uses nature as his training ground.
He sees other martial arts athletes now going “Pro” and joining different fight leagues in the country. The money is good, he says but with the Olympics now including martial arts for the first time in Tokyo 2020, he dare not risk it. “That’s the dream and I don’t know if it will happen, but I train hard and even though I stand alone most times, I am optimistic.” Kickboxing has not yet been included but he is willing to wait. After all, discipline and patience is a virtue all martial arts athletes aim for.
Throughout his career, he has had people claim to want to help him, but now that he is older, he realises that most of them were only out to help themselves. “I am not wealthy, my mother is illiterate.”
“We trust people easily and people have cheated us of the little money that we have.” This was saddening to hear. “Now I am more careful because I have to be; my ignorance has gotten the better of me in the past but I’m learning.”
The National Games will be held in the North-Eastern Indian state of Meghalaya in 2022. In each of the last 9 national tournaments he has competed, Pynnehbor has won gold. He hopes that with Meghalaya hosting the games, the government will step up and help athletes like him reach their full potential. “I don’t know about the things that go on behind closed doors. Sometimes I feel like I should focus on something else. What if after all the sacrifices, this does not work out? But then I cannot imagine a life without kickboxing. I only want my work to speak for itself.”
He worries about the future. Not just his own but his family’s future. He hopes that he can one day provide for them so they can have an easier life. But he realises that if push comes to shove, he won’t have a choice but to move on to something else. This is a grim thought for him.
“I’ve been working at this for so long and it makes me happy but I have responsibilities I cannot shy away from.”
Author: Jessica Passah
Jessica Passah is a Staff Writer. She has a B.A in English Literature from Hans Raj College, New Delhi, and an M.A in Public Administration from the Indira Gandhi National Open University.