On a misty winter morning at a gym in Kolkata, Pushpa Jha, 15, hits a punching bag with all her might, sweat trickling down her cheeks and temples, while her mother looks on.
Jha had severe malnutrition when she was younger, which affected her respiratory system badly, stunting her growth. Tiny and frail, she’s an unlikely candidate for a gold medal at the World Chess Boxing Amateur Championships, but she won that very title in May of 2017. Now she has set her sights on the 2018 championships, to be held this July in Kolkata.
Her coach, Montu Das, president of Chess Boxing Association of India, says that she has something that many players do not—a desire to succeed against all odds. Her mother, Golapi Jha, agrees.
“She forgets everything when she is up in the ring; she has been wounded and injured twice already during matches, and she often has blood flowing through her nose during physical stress, yet she is adamant to continue,” Golapi Jha, a domestic worker, says.
Chess boxing was invented by Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh in 2003; it combines the intellectual skills required to win a chess match with the physical strength needed to defeat an opponent in the boxing ring. Players face off in 11 alternating bouts of chess and boxing until one of them is either outwitted on the board or knocked out in the ring.
Much to the surprise of its pioneers, this new sport is transforming the lives of a group of Indian girls.
Many of them have learned chess at home, so training focuses on the physical skills needed for boxing, with a half-hour at the end dedicated to chess strategy.
“It has made me strong—not only physically but also mentally,” Jha says of the sport. “I am learning to overcome my fears. It has helped me in getting medical help too.”
She says the prize money had been useful for her and her family. Her local elected representative has also given her small scholarship packages over past two years for her achievements.
Rashmi Saha, 16, hopes to build a more certain future for herself through chess boxing. Her mother cleans the houses of six different families every day, while her father pulls a rickshaw on Kolkata’s backstreets. In total, the family income usually doesn’t exceed Rs 22,000 ($338) per month, which vanishes as soon as it appears.
They don’t have enough money to send their daughter to college, but Saha hopes chess boxing will change that by giving her access to scholarships. Certain schools and colleges recognize certification from the Chess Boxing Association of India when considering applications.
“I’ll appear for my board exams next year and hopefully secure a seat in a college,” she says. She hopes the sport will give her an edge over other students in the job market too. In India, a percentage of jobs in the railways, defense, banking, and other government departments are reserved for people in sports. The Chess Boxing Association of India is currently in talks with committees and government departments to recognize the new sport nationwide as part of these programs. In the meantime, practitioners can apply for the program through either the chess or the boxing streams.
“If my performances are good, I may find a job somewhere using the sports quota,” Saha says.
Debjani Dutta Roy, the headmistress of Kolkata’s Surah Kanya High School, says chess boxing has provided an alternative to domestic labor for her students, more than 200 of whom have trained in the sport so far.
“I don’t know how long they’ll be able to hold on, but they are persisting. This sport has introduced them to an alternative; this has made them hopeful,” she says. “At least, they are not dropping out from school to join the workforce.”
Das agrees. “Many of these girls would have been married away at an early age, right after they dropped school, or would go after some kind of employment,” he says. “Their parents can’t support their education nor could they help them pursue a proper career. Chess boxing has helped them dream of something—a medal, a fantastic performance, maybe a job going forward.”
Saha is already training a few girls in her area. She aspires to become a sports coach when she is done competing.
“It’s relieving that they are able to bring home something. Even though we want our children to have a good life, it’s practically not possible to invest much in them,” her mother, Kumkum Saha, says.
India now has more than 1,200 registered chess boxers, 35 percent of whom are women, Das told News Deeply. The sport’s founder, Iepe Rubingh, who is also the president of the World Chess Boxing Organization, says this is unusual.
“In India, there are a lot more women involved in chess boxing than in Europe. In Europe, it’s 90 percent men and 10 percent women,” he said in an email. He says there will soon be opportunities for India’s women chess boxers on the international circuit.
“We will select the best fighters from India to fight in the professional league in Europe, and if they do well and win a title, the plan is to bring the professional events together with Mr Montu Das to India.”
This article originally appeared on Women’s Advancement Deeply, and you can find the original here. For more news coverage and community engagement focused on women’s economic advancement, you can sign up to the Women’s Advancement Deeply email list.