In conversation with Padma Bhushan awardee Bachendri Pal
By Sunita Vijay
With a spring in her steps and a risk-taking attitude, there’s no mountain too high for Bachendri Pal!
Bachendri Pal’s iconic glory of being the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest in 1984 is known to every child through social-science books. An unassuming girl from village Nakuri, Uttarakashi district, Bachendri is now 67 years old yet maintains an awe-inspiring child-like enthusiasm and sprightly demeanour! Despite strong opposition from family and relatives, she chose to be a mountaineer – a rare, brave, and bold decision among her contemporaries then. Her passion has only intensified ever since, and a hearty conversation with her can make even the laziest soul spring into action!
“Mountaineering has taught me life skills, humanity, teamwork and risk-taking traits. Like mountains, in life, too, the weather changes its mood every hour. The circumstances can go adverse anytime. You need the help of others to succeed but at the same time be strong by yourself,” Bachendri asserted with gratitude during a recent visit to Dehradun.
She has been an inspiration, a guiding force to several women. “Mountaineering has been a male-dominated sport. It’s disheartening that a woman must work much harder than men to prove her worth. She is still considered weak,” shared Bachendri, as we spoke about her life thus far.
“The journey for a woman has never been easy. You must be prepared for gender-biased comments, lopsided views, discrimination, social pressures to toe the line, subtle pressures to give up. A strong woman can surpass these pressures. Her success can stop wagging tongues. Women are no less. It’s a question of opportunity. You give her an opportunity, and she’ll succeed,” Bachendri added. “I’ve cried at times; at others, I have been made to cry. I was verbally harassed, but being a true sportsperson, I never gave up. Life is the best school, teaching all lessons if one chooses to learn. Through sheer hardships and criticism, I’ve emerged stronger. After scaling Everest, my sole motto was to empower women. I switched into a leadership role after I joined Tata Steel Adventure Foundation, where I was in a position to provide opportunities to girls to pursue this hard sport.”
The Padma Bhushan recipient has many feathers in her cap; her feats and expeditions are nonpareil. “One life is too short when there is so much to do. I could do this much because I am not married, am a free bird,” she mentioned laughingly! “I am kidding. One can do whatever one is passionate about. Just be focused.”
Talking about the ones who influenced her to pick this tough sport, Bachendri added, “My elder brother was undergoing training in mountaineering. His talks and pictures fascinated me. Then an army officer, a guest at my home, motivated me to pursue a mountaineering course. During training, the opportunity to summit Everest came my way. I had only three years experience in mountaineering, but my biggest advantage was my passion and belonging to the hills that provided high endurance to acclimatise to tough conditions.”
Opening up about when she looked at Everest before the summit, Bachendri said, “I’ve no words to express the feeling. I was so excited, thrilled, and full of positivity. It was risky, but the biggest risk is not taking any risk. The expedition had its bitter-sweet memories. It made me believe whatever you do or achieve in life, you do with the support of others. Others helped you in a small or big way; that is why you have achieved. Never cease to display gratitude. Simultaneously, bear a blazing fighting spirit and a relentless attitude to not give up despite all hardships.”
Fit and kicking at 67
“It’s all about the mindset. A mentally strong person can conquer mountains. I had a request from a 76-year-old woman for one of my expeditions. That made me feel young! I eat simple food, avoid fried items. I don’t have a sweet tooth, a habit I picked up from home. I like to eat ragi and carry my potli wherever I travel. I do not rely on others for work. I walk daily and wear a positive mindset.”
Mountains beckon her
Age is no bar when it comes to scaling heights for Bachendri Pal. She has successfully led many ‘all women’ expeditions to generate confidence among us gals!
On 8 March, this year, on International Women’s Day, she is commencing a Trans-Himalayan trek with ten women of 50 plus age, an expedition starting from Myanmar, going via Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nepal, Dharchula, Uttarkashi, Ladakh and ending at Tiger Hill near Kargil, covering about 40 high-altitude passes. It will take five months to complete. The Indian Army is supporting her fully in this endeavour.
Film-maker Bhaawna Sharma on a movie about Bachendri’s pioneering rafting expedition
Among countless accolades and numerous all-women expeditions led by Bachendri, one of her pioneering expeditions will be translated into a film by Indian film and television producer, actor, and writer – Bhaawna Sharma.
Bhaawna is full of beans to cover the glorious story of Devbhoomi’s daughter. “It’s a matter of pride for me to let people know through the film about the record-breaking expedition led by iconic figure, Bachendri Pal. It is based on the great Indian Women’s Rafting Voyage on the Ganga in 1994, comprising 16 women from different parts of the country, a journey of 39 days from Haridwar to Kolkata, traversing 2155 kms.”
“It was difficult yet interesting to connect with fifteen girls. I collected all the notes. They took time to open up and share their experiences. A three-member team, including me, gave it the shape of a story. Bachendriji’s collection of the news clippings that covered the expedition was a great aid,” she said. Bachendri happened to mention this not-much-known rafting expedition in an interview on Doordarshan, and that caught Bhaawna’s interest. Bhaawna feels that this pioneering odyssey is unique and inspiring. The actor to play the leading role is to be finalised. A good chunk of shooting will be in Haridwar, where the voyage was flagged off.
Bachendri Pal shared her views on this – “Many filmmakers have approached me, but I have been sceptical. This is not a biopic, so I agreed. Bhawana is a good combination of hard work and intelligence. She has interviewed all other fifteen girls to create a genuine script. I am very excited that the project is in good hands. I have been taught to worship mountains and River Ganga from my childhood days. This all girls’ expedition was an effort to empower women and know our holy Ganga. People would come in throngs to see the girls.”
She added, “The Ganga is close to my heart with tagged memories of childhood. I repeated the rafting expedition with a 40 member team in 2018 to clean the Ganga. Each day was thrilling to sail through the remotest areas, explore how Ganga changes its course, her mood to devastate shores, drown lives, witness the devotion of people, how it’s polluted while passing through cities and towns and much more. We cleaned the Ganga and even performed the last rites of the bodies floating in it. The journey was deeply insightful.”