Parveen Hooda is in high spirits having returned to the national women's boxing camp after a two-day visit to her village of Rurki in Haryana's Rohtak district. Not only had her mother prepared her favourite sugary churma, but she also sent Parveen back to New Delhi with a brand new smartphone.
The gift means a lot for both mother and daughter. "I'd been saving little by little for many months, but I really wanted her to have this as a gift. She has worked so hard and done so much," her mother Neelam says.
Incidentally, it had been Parveen who was bringing in most of the gifts over the last few months. In her most recent visit, the 19-year-old had brought back a silver medal from the prestigious President's Cup in Kazakhstan. It had been won by beating among others, the bronze medallist from last year's World Championships, Karina Ibragimova. Before this, Parveen had brought back a couple of bronze medals from the Cologne World Cup in February and the Indian Open in March.
While it's still early days, Parveen has been making a name for herself with some impressive results in the Indian 60kg ranks - an Olympic weight division. Not too bad for someone who is not only just beginning her senior career, but someone who was actively hoping she wouldn't have to compete with the seniors just a few months back.
In February, Parveen had been content looking to make a mark in the youth category, when she learned that her name had been put forward to participate in the open trials for the National Camp. That was the doing of Sudhir Hooda, her first coach in Rurki. On learning that open trials were being conducted, he had asked the Haryana Boxing Federation to put up Parveen's name in the draw. But while she had won a gold medal at the 2017 Youth Nationals, she was entirely untested at the senior level.
"Sir told me one month before the trials that I was going to be taking part," Parveen says. "I was really scared because I would have to be boxing against all the big boxers. The entire time I was training dar ke (frightened). In fact I was hoping the trials would be cancelled and I wouldn't have to get beaten up."
For all her pre-bout fears, it was her opponents who were in for a surprise. Parveen earned a unanimous 5-0 win over the multiple world medallist Sarita Devi and then beat two other senior boxers to earn her place in the national camp.
It wasn't the first time coach Sudhir had spotted the glimmer of potential in Parveen. Back in 2011, it was he who had introduced her to the sport.
"I had just been elected as the Sarpanch (village chief) of Rurki and I wanted to do something for the youngsters in the village. There was a lot of drunkenness and drug use in the village so I wanted to get the children into sport," he says.
Parveen was one of the first to join his academy and stood out among the others even then.
"She was very small and so was always pushed away somewhere in the corner but even then, she was very disciplined," he recalls.
Parveen, too, gave testament to her coach's faith when she won a gold medal in the girls' 32kg division at the National Sub Junior Championships the following year. But while her talent was not in question, things were not always smooth outside the ring.
"My family isn't well-to-do. We have only a little land which is barren and my father is a heart patient and cannot work," she says. "We have one buffalo whose milk we sell. It was difficult for my mother to raise our family with that money. But she always made sure to support me."
Things got particularly hard when that one milch animal also died and Parveen nearly gave up her sport, only for Sudhir to come to her aid again. "He helped me like a father. He bought gloves and shoes and also made sure I got a good diet," she says.
That backing ensured Parveen had nothing to focus on but her boxing as she won her first youth national title in 2017. But the following year, she hit one of the low points of her short career when she failed to make her weight for the Haryana State Championships and was not named for the 2018 Youth Nationals. While she was eventually called to the national camp owing to her performance the previous year, the damage had been done.
"Before the Youth Nationals, we knew that only the national champion would get the chance to represent the country at the Asian and World Championships," Sudhir explains. "Despite making it to the camp, Parveen wouldn't get that opportunity. She didn't get a chance to compete in any tournament and I felt there was a chance that she would struggle to be noticed in the future too."
As such, it was absolutely necessary that she make a mark as soon as possible in the senior division. The results now suggest that her struggle is firmly in the past, with Parveen's eyes set towards cementing her place as the preeminent lightweight boxer. Her confidence has been growing steadily, too. When she sat with her coach to discuss her impeding bout against Ibragimova, she didn't worry too much. "I told the coach that she's got two arms and two legs just like me, doesn't she?"
Her recent medals not withstanding, Parveen will have to reassert her credentials when the trials for the World Championships take place in early August. She is not worried about how she will perform against them this time around, though.
"When I first came to the senior camp trials I was very worried because I was competing against all these big boxers for the first time. Now, I have the experience and I know that I can face them. I'm not scared any more."