When Anjani Teli got her arm raised at the conclusion of her 52kg category bout against Miguelina Garcia Miguelina of the Dominican Republic at the IBA women’s boxing world Championships on Thursday, she received cheers that might have seemed out of place for a non-home boxer getting a first round win.
It wasn’t just because Anjani had created history -- the 24-year-old’s win by a 4-3 split decision was the first in the history of Nepal here at the boxing women’s World Championships.
It’s also because apart from the Nepali contingent, Anjani had plenty of local support in the crowd herself. Her coach and friends from Rohtak were here as were her family who had come down from Sadar Bazar in Delhi.
“My family is from Nepal but I was born and brought up in Delhi. I’m a Delhi girl only. All my friends are here. My coach Naveen Khokar was here and that gave me further motivation to do well,” says Anjani.
Anjani’s family is originally from Kapilavastu, the birthplace of the Buddha, in Nepal. Her father Gajender though migrated to India in 1990. “He came here because there was no employment and prices were high in Nepal. Anjani was born in India only though,” says her brother Rajesh, who too had come to the KD Jadhav Stadium, where the world championships are underway.
Gajender worked as a construction worker around sites in Delhi and although finances were limited in the family of seven, Anjani doesn’t recall a life very different from any of her friends in her working-class neighbourhood in New Delhi.
“I studied at the Sadar Bazar Nagarpalika school and did my graduation from Jesus and Mary College,” she says.
While she completed her studies as she was expected to do, Anjani always felt she was meant to be a sportsperson. “I have 5 brothers. So I’ve always been raised in a male dominant environment. A little bit of that must have rubbed off on me. I’ve always been tough. I always expected I’d go into the sports line,“ she says.
The immediate impetus to box came after college. “I didn’t have much idea about boxing until after I’d graduated. I knew a little about Mary Kom but I hadn’t even seen the movie on her. But around that time I really had the wish to get into the Indian Army (Nepali citizens are allowed to enlist in the Indian armed forces). I felt the best way would be to get in through the sports quota,“ says Anjani.
Her environment wasn’t entirely supportive at the start. “We are from a simple working-class family. What people think matters. More than my immediate family, my neighbours and other relatives were opposed to me boxing. They said that I’d get into bad company or I’d get scars and not be able to get married. That was the limit of their thinking,“ says Anjani.
It was her elder brother Rajesh who supported her. “Our family is from a small rural part of Nepal. But I felt we are in Delhi, a big city now. Why live as if we are still in a village? I stopped others from discouraging her. It’s her life. Let her live it how she thinks is fit. Slowly other people have also come to accept it,“ says Rajesh.
Anjani, who started learning to box in 2019 at New Delhi’s Talkatora stadium, says Rajesh also encouraged her when she wanted to move to a more challenging training environment.
“I felt I wasn’t improving enough so a friend suggested I start training with coach Naveen Khokhar in Rohtak. Not everyone agreed but I was adamant,“ she says.
It wasn’t just a traditional mindset but the economic burden a move to Rohtak would place on their finances that held back her family. While her father still works on construction sites, another brother drives an electric rickshaw in Sadar Bazar. Once again Rajesh came to her aid. Running a small wholesale business in Sadar Bazar, he told her to focus on her boxing.
“It wasn’t cheap to go train in Rohtak. With coaching, rooming and boarding, her expenses came to 15,000 a month. But I told her not to worry about the cost. I said just box. The money is my headache,“ he says.
While Anjani’s boxing made big improvements in Rohtak, there was another hurdle. As someone who still held Nepali citizenship through her father, she was ineligible to box at national or state championships in India.
“I was only allowed to participate in the inter-university championships because you only need to show proof that you are a student,” says Anjani, who boxed at the 2021 Inter-university championships, losing by a 3-2 split decision to the then national silver medallist Renu.
Eventually, Anjani’s coach suggested she make use of her Nepali citizenship and compete for that country. Although she had made trips back to Nepal every couple of years as a child, the prospect of representing her parents’ country didn’t strike her until then.
While Nepal’s boxing structure is nowhere near as developed as India’s or even Haryana’s, Anjani, despite her background, had to compete from scratch.
“I didn’t get any special favours from the Nepal federation. I had to compete in the national championships like everyone else. I won silver at the 2022 Nepal national championships. This year I was picked for the World Championship team after winning selection trials,” says Anjani.
While Anjani once hoped to box at a high level in India, she and her family have come to terms with her decision to box for Nepal. “Competitively it’s easier to make a boxing career in Nepal,” says Rajesh. “If it takes 10 steps in India, it takes 4 steps in Nepal. In the future they have said they will help with her funding which will be a big help also,“ he says.
And while she once had concerns over whether she would be accepted in a squad of homegrown players, those fears were misdirected. Indeed, Anjani’s teammates, who are all born and raised in Nepal, are supportive of her. They cheered with the rest of the crowd. When Anjani met her family outside KD Jadhav stadium, her teammates greeted her mother Indravati with “Namaste Aunty,”.
“There’s no difference between Anjani and the other team members. We are so proud of her for winning Nepal’s first-ever bout at the senior world championships,” says team coach Deepak Mahajan.
Anjani, too, sees no contradiction in her twin allegiances. “I’m so proud and happy that I could make history for Nepal. I will represent them going forward as well but I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it if it wasn’t for my training and life in India,” she says.