New Delhi: It's 7:30 in the morning, and about 25 teenage boys sit in small groups in the Boxing Hall of the capital's Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium.
There are double the number of girls in the hall, they're either shadow boxing, or busy sparring with their partners.
In the ring is MC Mary Kom, India's only female boxer to win an Olympic medal, and she's the one, the young boxers are watching in amazement.
The 31 year old has returned to the ring after a long break, during which she had her third baby, Prince, and a surgery to have gall bladder stones removed. But there's no way you'd guess that. She's lean. And looks every bit mean, as she beats a fellow Manipuri boxer, in the core group tournament that's on before the selection trials for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
As the referee declares Mary's name as winner, she hugs her opponent, and does her signature namaste around the ring. Her young audience applauds.
Mary's ability to do a role reversal never fails to amaze me. The menacing look on the face is replaced by the warmest smile the moment she's off the ring.
Taking off her gloves, she asks me, "Tumne London mein bola tha tumhare liye gloves rakhne ko, uske baat mulaakaat hee nahi hui, ghar pe rakkha gloves tumhare liye" ("You'd ask me to keep a pair of my gloves for you, but I didn't meet you after London, I've kept a pair for you at home"). I thought, "Wow, she remembers?". I leave her for her post-bout recovery with her physio.
Mary hasn't competed since her semi-final bout at the 2012 London Olympics. And it's been just a month since she's returned to training. British coach Charles Atkinson worked on her comeback at Pune's Balewadi Complex last month. "I missed the ring. Things keep happening, things will always happen, but this what I missed the most.
I am only about 60-70% fit now. But I'm glad to have made a comeback this quickly", says Mary. A comeback to the sport is not new to the Manipuri. After the birth of her twins Reng Pa and Nai Nai, she won a world title too. But things are slightly different this time around. Mary has had to devote a lot of her time to promotional events and felicitation functions after her bronze at the London Olympics. It's an addition to her already long list of duties, as mother of three, wife, and of course, a star athlete. But as always, Mary does the balancing act incredibly well.
And even having to travel with a baby who is less than a year old, is something she takes in her stride. "Prince is better than my twins. He is a smiling baby, and very easy to manage. I am very lucky. It's because he is such a good boy that I've been able to return to the ring this quickly", she says.
Being back isn't going to be all that easy. Mary is well aware that age isn't on her side any longer, and there are younger girls who've been working very hard to make the cut for the Commonwealth and Asian Games.
"I will of course give my best, and get back to 100% fitness. But if I am not good enough, they should not pick me. Why should they? The best and most deserving girls only should represent India", says the pugilist. Even during her break, Mary kept herself abreast about the progress of her fellow boxers. But while Mary has been out of the ring all this while, the Boxing Federation's ban by the international body, and its impact on India's boxers, specially the women, has her worried. "If you don't go on exposure trips, how will you know what the competition is like?", asks the 5-time world champion.
The girls themselves though couldn't be happier to see Mary didi back amongst them. The ones from Manipur get to see her often. But for a bunch of them from Haryana, it's the first time they're sharing the same boxing hall as the Oympic bronze medallist.
The moment they're done with their sparring sessions, they come to her with their smartphones, to get themselves clicks. Mary obliges, even though her stretching session with her physio is getting interrupted time and again.
Just a few months after her feat at the London Games, Priyanka Chopra visited Mary in Imphal, and spent a few days there, to prepare herself for the biopic on the boxer. Priyanka will be Mary Kom in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film, due for release later this year.
So how does she think it's going to turn out to be? "She is a good actor, she is a superstar also. She has a coach I think. She will do well", says Mary shyly. "But I think if it can inspire girls, then I will be the happiest. It's not only for boxers, or just sports persons. All girls must know this that they can and must continue to do what their passion is, even after marriage and having kids. I know things are different in big cities, and women work after marriage and babies. But there are very few big cities in India. No?"
Our conversation is interrupted as a young boxer comes to Mary to show her boxing glove. "Yeh toh khatam ho gaya, iss se kaise hoga, nahi chalega yeh. Mera glove de do isko" , Mary tells her physio. ("This glove can't be used anymore, give mine to her) The young girl runs to fetch a pair of gloves from Mary's kitbag.
And that for me, sums up the story of the amazing MC Mary Kom. Of course a lot of stars and seniors give away their sporting gear to juniors, and to those who need them. But MC Mary Kom gives not just India's boxers, but its women, more than just that. She gives them inspiration. The inspiration to chase a dreams, and never ever give up.
And while I'm sure Priyanka Chopra is going to give her best in what could be the role of a lifetime, nobody can quite be MC Mary Kom. Just for that reason, I hope she competes till the Rio Olympics of 2016, and wins that gold medal she has dreamt of, for so many years.