MC Mary Kom, India's four-time women's world boxing champion, returns to her home town of Manipur.
By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi
A diminutive woman, no more than five feet tall, feints and sways away from a punch.
Then, dancing around the boxing ring, her left hook slams into her much larger opponent, making her rival wince in pain.
A gong sounds, the referee strides forward and lifts her arm and the crowd explodes. This is the woman India calls "Magnificent Mary" - MC Mary Kom - mother of two young twins and four-time world boxing champion.
She's preparing for the Women's World Boxing Championships in Barbados, where she is hoping to win a fifth title, but her long-term goal is the London Olympics in 2012.
"When I was small, I was very interested in fighting - karate, kung fu and boxing. I used to always watch action movies, all the Jackie Chan movies," she says breaking into peals of laughter.
Her halting English and infectious smile only adds to her charm and in a country where her sport is not that well-known, she's become quite a star.
But to get a true picture of her status, you need to travel all the way to India's north-east and her home state of Manipur, right beside the border with Burma.
She grew up in the countryside amidst lush green paddy fields with mountains swelling in the distance.
Her parents still work in the fields, as she once did.
The fields where Mary Kom once worked
It was a tough upbringing in a state hit by a violent insurgency. Even our presence brought soldiers out from the neighbouring army base.
Inside the family home, one she visits only occasionally, the neighbours have dropped in as well as Mary Kom boils water to make some tea.
"She never told us she'd taken up boxing," her father Tonpa tells me.
"We only found out when we read in the papers of her success in a local competition. In fact, I didn't really want to encourage her to become a sportsperson because I thought it would cost a lot of money, more than we could afford."
Mary's success has made quite a difference to her parents' economic circumstances. "She supports the family now," Tonpa says.
But it's not just her family that's proud of her.
During a visit to her primary school, the Loktak Christian Mission School, she's immediately mobbed by the students who crowd around her clamouring for her autograph.
The school's run by the local church and its modest grounds are where she first made her mark as an extraordinary athlete.
"She used to run up and down the dirt track outside the school because we didn't have a proper running track," says one of her teachers, Surchandra Singh.
"She used to be so fast, like the wind," he says grinning.
Autograph hunter at Loktak Christian Mission School
Now she's an inspiration not just in her village but the entire state.
At a crumbling indoor stadium in Imphal, the Manipuri capital, 60 boys and girls trade punches under the watchful eye of their coach, Ibomcha Singh, who looks like a cross between a Zen master and Mike Tyson.
This is also where Mary Kom first began boxing 10 years ago and under the same coach.
He laughs as he recalls how she came up to him one afternoon and asked to join his training sessions.
"I said 'no' - you are a girl and besides you are so small and thin. Then she started crying. After giving it some thought, I took her in."
Honour boards line the stadium walls and one name leaps out: MC Mary Kom, World Champion.
This modest training ground has now become India's boxing nursery and many hope to follow in her footsteps.
A ripple runs through the group as Mary Kom walks in clad in a t-shirt, sweat pants and trainers.
A warm-up session begins followed by an intense sparring session with the coach.
"Gold at London 2012, that's what I want," she says afterwards, breathing heavily as she wipes the sweat of her face.
"After that I can retire," she says, breaking once again into that infectious laugh.
Despite her good humour, the pressure on her is intense. After all she carries the hopes not just of her Manipuri community but a country of one billion people.
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