What does it take to become a star? Practice? Talent? Determination? Bimala Tamang displays these traits in abundance as she takes Labisha Uprety for a two-day tour of her life, and leaves trails of innocence and stardom behind, all whilst showing that it’s not always about the money.

 

Rio de Janeiro, 2016 - Lights shine bright and loud at the sporting arena. The city outside is asleep, but the world inside the stadium comes alive. People throng the seats that curve around the arena. Two girls, presumably teenagers, bow to each other standing on a cushiony stage; colored belts that adorn their karate uniforms hang at their waists.


The match begins to rumbling noises that escalate as the last kicks are exchanged. The one on the right is stocky built -- small but powerful. She has a ‘baby face’ that surprisingly shines with ambition. An emblem with a triangular flag screams ‘NEPAL’ on her chest. She sizes up her athlete before going in for the win. A swift kick here and a quick move there; the opponent is down and the audience roar in unison. It is over; Bimala Tamang has won gold.


This is one of the probable variations of many day-dreams that Bimala, her family and coaches share. We set out on a terribly rainy day to meet Bimala at her training institute, Balaju Karate Do Academy, which is well-hidden in the industrial part of Balaju. A large brick building greets us soon enough, and in we go to a balcony, overlooking a large open space. Muffled thuds and screams fill the air, with the occasional ‘HAIYA!’. A number of girls, probably eight, are engaged in karate lessons.


Everyone is dressed in white and has colored sashes above her hips. Bimala is hard to spot, but we see her once we notice that she is the one training the others in movement nuances. She demonstrates to one girl an elaborate kick and there are whoops of praise. She grins.


Her mentor Dhurba Bikram Malla greets us warmly into his office. He complains of the weather. We congratulate him for training a medalist at the Asian games and he beams. Dhurba sir, as he is fondly called by Bimala, recounts his version of the tale of her life -- how she had come from a small village in Dhading to Kathmandu because her father wanted his children to get better opportunities in life, and how it was her father again who had enrolled her in the Karate Do Academy.


“He had always been the athletic type,” recounts Dhurba sir. The ex-British Army soldier wanted his children, regardless of their sex, to grow up as strong people. Bimala has a younger sister who has a black belt in karate, and a much younger brother who has already earned a brown belt.


Bimala then comes in and greets us. She is still getting used to the idea of being famous; it is visible in the hesitant way words come out of her mouth and the way she sits, stiff. But it doesn’t take her long to loosen up as she begins to talk about how she came to Kathmandu and got a scholarship through the academy itself.


Till date, Bimala has won more than 40 medals, including six golds and seven silvers at the 2014 SAF Games, and of course, the historic bronze for Women’s Individual Kata (Karate) at the 2014 Asian Games in Korea.


Her win stirred a palpable controversy on how the country treats its players; Tamang had not been sent as a national delegate, but had gone on independent sponsorship, funded by the Karate Do Academy.


This is a perfect example of the gross apathy of the government towards athletes. She says that the government only selected members of its army for training in Japan and not even bothered accommodating a well-established player like her.


Tamang narrates her rage during her winning match; she could not move ahead to the finals -- not because she was a lesser player than her opponents --- but because her uniform was not up to standard. Nuances like this are to be taken care of by the government, she fumes. She complains of corruption in the department in a light-hearted manner, poking fun at some and laughing at her intended humor. Her face shines with the light yet to come; she has not given up on her dreams for gold. She is training hard for upcoming events; she spends mornings and evenings with her coach – a routine that she rarely misses.



How do you cope with your new-found fame?
“I do get a lot more phone calls than I used to,” she grins. “And people are nicer to me but I’ve always had supportive friends and family and teachers, who would try and adjust my internals to accommodate my absence for the games. It hasn’t been overwhelming (yet).”
A cold chill has settled inside the room but the conversation makes that easier to forgo. Tamang animatedly talks of her friends now; she’s always had more guy pals than girlfriends it seems -- not only because she is an athlete but apparently girls are usually the kind to ‘backstab!’ as she puts it.


She recounts an old fixture and describes how she’d knocked out male opponents too; but before you get this idea that she is the definition of domination; think again. Bimala loves watching Hindi serials; she cannot put down ‘Kumkum Bhagya’ – she heartily blames the addiction on her mother. “Ama le ho k dinbhar herera!” she iterates.


Pulling at her pony tail, she makes a surprising confession; she has barely traveled outside Balaju. Why? “I just don’t feel like leaving this space; my life is here; the Academy, my home, even my college is nearby. A few weeks ago, it was the first time I got to Baneshwor, that too for some felicitation program!”


A few weeks later, I meet her again at her home. Her mother is my key informant this time. Winding narrow steps lead away from the academy and into her home, just 10 minutes away. Her family occupies a rented space in a grey cement house that has forgone the idea of getting painted. We step inside to a cozy sleeping cum sitting area with her siblings snoring on soundly in the bedroom.


Bimala explains that both of the children had the day off, and had tried to escape training; she tries to shrug one awake whilst screaming at him to get ready for training. But he simply turns away and snores some more. We sit and watch one of the countless Hindi serials, both of us yell indignantly at the central characters for their presumed stupidity.


Bimala’s mother enters the room. She is a small woman with a smiling face dressed in her traditional Tamang attire. She looks terribly shy and I feel uncomfortable for having made her that way. She sits down gingerly next to me and says she isn’t much of a talker. “Bimala ko samman karyakram ma ek taal bolnu laethyo, malai ta sarhai darr layo!”’ she laughs. “Tespachi ta ma kaile ni gaina!”


Dhanmaya, 36, talks fondly of her daughter. Did she ever get taunted for allowing her daughter to get so heavily involved in sports? No, she says. She has always had supportive friends and family when it came to her daughters’ choices. In fact, a few days ago, Bimala had just been awarded the national prize for excellence in sports by the Prime Minister; she’d won a sum of Rs. 10 lakh.


Has the government finally taken notice of Tamang then?
Her mother is hopeful but she still sounds irritated when talking of the government’s attitude towards her daughter months ago. She reiterates how a dress had made the difference between a bronze and silver. She recounts how when Bimala was on the verge of disqualification, they had her dad (who works in Malaysia) spend more than Rs. 35,000 (a loan he’s still paying for) on a proper dress. The thought makes her close up momentarily.


So what plans do you have to spend the money?
She laughs. She has no plans. Bimala quips that she does. We laugh.


What plans?
Some plan, she says. But she says she will probably invest in a uniform first before thinking of anything else. On the back of the door of her room hang both her cream karate uniform and a darker college uniform. She moans at having to attend college the next day; today had been a rare free day. The phone won’t stop ringing for felicitations. She gets a call even while we talk from one sangh or the other. I look around as she scrupulously asks directions to the place. The walls are lined with gold frames; her name usually in red.


There are certificates, felicitations from every sporting committee imaginable. The table is well occupied by the one from the Nepal Olympic Committee. Her large check is surprisingly casually strewn across the dressing table. The room screams of a star on the rise.