The India boxer was returning from the London Olympics. He was standing in the aisle of the plane I was on, coming from London to Delhi, and he was going to sit next to me. He had an attractive face, vaguely slanting eyes, and a moustache over pouty lips. The person who was with him was wearing an India blazer with an Olympic logo — I thought he was a wrestler whose picture I had seen in the newspapers. I was wrong, he was only the coach. The boxer had a slightly swollen eye, not dark enough to qualify as a black eye. When he sat down next to me, the boxer asked the flight attendant if he could be moved to business class. On the way to London, he told her, the captain had “adjusted” them. I thought it good to inform the attendant that the man had represented India in the Olympics. She asked, in a good natured way, “Oh yeah! How was London for you?” He shrugged and then said, “Thank you for seating me next to a pretty girl.”
He didn’t mean me, of course. It was a young German woman on the other side, who had a seat next to the window.
I will call the boxer Shyam Kumar. Shyam asked me where I lived, and when I said the U.S., his first question was: Are electronics very cheap in the U.S.? He then asked about sex. Is sex free over there? I said no, it is almost like it is in India, in the sense that there are customs and conventions. He said, But there are no blocks, parents and others saying things?
I didn’t quite know how to answer that. He now turned to the German girl. He asked about her nationality. How old you are? Twenty, she said. Boyfriend? The young woman laughed at his questions and leaned forward in her seat to meet my eye. I think she was amused by his queries. She began to explain to him that she was going to meet her fiancé, an Indian man, who had a security agency in Gurgaon.
I also going to Gurgaon, Shyam said, and then tried to indicate through gestures that he was headed elsewhere, Gurgaon was only a place he was going to pass through. He had little fear or hesitation, and, despite my initial irritation at his questions, I began to find him endearing. Shyam asked the girl if the man she was going to meet was her “first boyfriend.” The woman had trouble understanding the question; she said yes. He asked her more about the boyfriend, what caste he was, and then he loudly declared that they were both from the same caste, the boyfriend and he. Maybe I misheard him but I think he asked her which of the two men was better looking.
Earlier, Shyam had asked me what I did for a living. I said I was a writer and a professor of English. He said, You’ve expressed the thought that was in my mind! My English is well. Other boxers don’t speak English. But I want to improve.
Shyam said he was going to travel to the U.S. soon to increase his weight. Could he take classes there?
Despite his infelicities with the language, he was doing okay with the German. After dinner, I had taken down my laptop in an effort to work. This inspired Shyam. He took down his laptop too. The machine came on after a while and Shyam began showing the girl pictures of himself in the ring, and then a few news clips of his fights. I leaned over and asked him to show again one of the pictures that I had glimpsed. It was a nice shot, his right arm outstretched, the muscles of his lean body standing out in terrific tension. He then showed the German girl photos of a woman from Bhiwani who was his fiancée. Once he asked, What do you think of her body?
I had the aisle seat. The woman sat next to the window and Shyam in the middle. I went back to the work I was doing and fell asleep.
When I woke again, the two of them were still talking. I was grateful for a selfish reason. Shyam was slim but he had broad shoulders and his elbows would press against me unselfconsciously. It was quite uncomfortable for me, although I didn’t mention this to him. But when talking to the woman he sat turned away from me, his elbows out of the way.
We might have been two hours away from Delhi, this was in the morning, when the German girl got up and went to the bathroom with a small bag clutched to her. While she was gone, Shyam said to me, Bhaiyaji, she is very frank. She has told me everything. She has even said to me that her mother has told her she should try other people, not just think of the Indian man.
I offered the observation that he had charmed her. He said, Apni toh hunar hai. I am talented that way. He told me that all he needed to do now was cry in front of her and she would be his.
The girl came back from the bathroom. She was wearing an Indian outfit. I suppose she had made the change for the sake of her fiancé’s mother. She looked attractive and I heard Shyam complimenting her. He had more questions and comments but I didn’t hear them except his asking her whether she would miss him. I don’t know what she said.
He took her picture on his phone: he had pressed himself against her seat and they were facing the camera. I think the girl didn’t like how she looked in Shyam’s photo; she took out her wallet and gave him a passport-size picture of herself. It was evenly-lit and showed her smiling. Shyam held the photo in his hand for a while and then returned it to her. I cannot take it, he said. She was surprised and they had a conversation which I did not hear. The two were silent after that.
We were close to Delhi. After breakfast, Shyam asked the attendant if he could buy a toy car from duty-free. He said he wanted to give it to the girl as a memento. But duty free was now closed. The reading light above me was on and Shyam asked me if I would shut it. I did. I continued to read in the dim light of the cabin, and I heard Shyam asking the girl something and then they fell silent. I didn’t hear them talk for the rest of the trip, which must have lasted for another fifteen or twenty minutes. When the plane was taxiing to a stop, Shyam made a few calls. He wanted someone to be present at Customs. Then, as I was getting up he said, Bhaiyaji, is there any offence for kissing in the plane? He used the words “pappi dena.” I paused. I said there was no rule against kissing, no, but, and here I looked at the girl next to the window and said, you cannot do anything that someone doesn’t want you to do.
Shyam looked serious, even sad. He said, “I will do it, for certain.” Then it was my turn to get up and join the line of passengers exiting the aircraft. Shyam remained seated and beyond him, unable to get out, the German girl. I didn’t see them again.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I’m very proud of Mary Kom and happy that women are boxers.
(Amitava Kumar is a Professor of English at Vassar College, U.S., and author most recently of Evidence of Suspicion.)