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My Heroes taught me to ‘Never Give Up’

Michael Schumacher in Buddh F1 track in Yamuna Expressway.

All Around the World with the Most Travelled Indian

By Nitin Gairola

First things first – Who are your heroes? Many people just blindly name their family members and I can see why they do so. Well, after all, it’s your family that will be there for you in trying times and live the role of real heroes. But when it comes to self-discovery and self-development, I strongly believe we should learn from the best out there and not limit ourselves to real people in our lives.

You can learn so much from reading non-fiction autobiographical books and also from blogs, as long as you are very selective in your search and source. This is since books and blogs are like double-edged swords and the wrong ones (for you) may lead you towards a wrong turn that you might regret later. Besides, I would not recommend movies for this as I feel you can’t get the ‘big picture’ from a 3 hour movie that you can get from a 300 page book on a given topic. But, sadly, less and less people read nowadays.

With my father, B.K. Gairola (left).

So, with this context, when I do give the name of real-life heroes from my family (which I will later) then you know that that person genuinely has what it takes to be called a hero. My other heroes are all ‘famous strangers’, from whom I have learnt so much over time, without realising it then. Many of them I have been able to see, some I have actually met and spoken with.

Let me start this very personal story by saying that I was a weak kid. In fact, so weak that I was useless at all sports. But like millions, even though I may not have played any, I loved watching sports. Then a bit later in life I started reading National Geographic and was in awe of great explorers, not realising that they were playing a sport too. But a sport that is without any rules and requires immense physical and mental fortitude. A sport where instead of win or lose, the result could be life or death.

Football is Brazil vs Argentina.

In India all discussions on sports start with cricket, of course. In 1996, when the World Cup was being played in India, I admired a player who was adored by a billion (not just millions).  For many, Sachin represented both inspiration and toil, something that many great people are unable to balance. He did so with amazing grace and held onto his values even post retirement, showing the genuineness of the little genius.

Then there was the Australian cricket team over the years. I had no concept of Australia as a country at that time, but I absolutely admired their cricket team for their insane mania to play a hard but fair game and to play a team game. Their captains may not have been the best players (Border, Taylor & S Waugh) but they definitely were the most inspiring leaders. How can any cricket fan forget the 1999 World Cup semi-final between Australia and South Africa, at which the magic of Captain Steve Waugh, Share Warne and others won the day for the Aussies (by the skin of their teeth, on the last ball).

Yuval Harari in Taj Lands End – Bandra, Mumbai.

Years later, in the latest world cup in India in November 2023, I was at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai to witness the heroic Glenn Maxwell’s double hundred, where they scored an impossible (not just improbable) win against Afghanistan. The whole stadium was chanting ‘Maxwell, Maxwell…’ as he battled cramps and immense pain and never gave up. Besides meeting Sachin, Dravid and Sunil Gavaskar, I also saw Kapil Dev, MS Dhoni, Sourav Ganguly, Steve Waugh, the late Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and so many more of my cricket heroes.

Around that time came the ‘age of cable TV’ in India in the mid-1990s and suddenly WWF was in every household. It’s funny that a thin weak kid would watch professional wrestling but, like millions, I did watch WWF and Bret Hart was my absolute favourite. I realise now that it was because he was always the underdog, the ‘relatively’ weaker person who never gave up. And to add to that, he represented good values. Little did I know then that he was playing a ‘good character’ in this orchestrated show which did have real bruises but was not actually a real sport.

My Grandad, Col P.L. Nautiyal (left) during Vietnam War

I was also hooked to Formula 1 racing from 1997 onwards but I still can’t drive a car properly (if I tried to do so, then I would be in the court most of the time). Again, I admired these drivers for their risk taking mindset and their tenacity rather than the machinery they drove. My absolute No.1 was Michael Schumacher, for the simple reason that he would consistently deliver extraordinary laps. The 2000 Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka is now the stuff of legend when he won his 3rd world championship after a big gap of 5 years during when he was in a weaker F1 car. He finally went on to win a record 7 championships but could have given up after 2 only, post seasons of year-end heartbreaks.

The other hard-as-nails drivers I learnt from were Sebastian Vettel, the never-aging Fernando Alonso and now the all-conquering Max Verstappen. I even went for the first F1 Indian Grand Prix in 2011 at the Buddha International Circuit in Greater Noida/Yamuna Expressway, a race that Vettel won. I got a very close glimpse of all my F1 heroes including Schumacher. In fact, my passion for F1 was so crazy, that in 2012 I even booked a flat right next to, and overlooking, the Race Track in Ajnara Panorama.

With the icons of Indian Cricket.

Football was another sport I watched and for me it represents nations of the world coming together. There is no other sport that is followed so passionately in all 6 continents (I have carefully excluded the 7th), and if anything gets the world together even better than the UN, its football. And in the long-storied history of this historic game, the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) has to be Lionel Messi, at least for me.

In my 34 years of watching football since Italia 1990, if there is anyone who has not given up hope, it would be him. Carrying the World Cup dream of a nation as passionate as Argentina, he waited and waited to kiss the FIFA WC & Copa America Trophies, but his team always fumbled at the final hurdle. But Messi kept holding back his retirement and in the sunset years of his international career won both. First Copa and then the coveted World Cup in December 2022 in the most dramatic and nailbiting fashion against France in Qatar (millions would have preferred an easier win for sake of their sanity). A year to the day later I was in Buenos Aeris, the capital of Argentina. The amount of reverence for the game and for Messi that I saw there couldn’t even be topped by Brazil when I had visited Rio de Janeiro’s famous Maracana Stadium in 2015. Argentina was truly next level in its passion and it’s the reason why they are football’s most loved team worldwide.

Besides Cricket, F1 and Football, I also enjoyed watching tennis from time to time. But Pete Sampras or Roger Federer were never the ones I rooted for. Again, it was the less talented Rafael Nadal, and this was even when he was not winning Grand Slams other than the French Open. I realised that he was different, in that he used to go all out to keep every point alive, rather than letting go an improbable return. This perseverance made him win more Grand Slams than any other player in men’s tennis other than the great Novak Djokovic who has won 24. Nadal bagged 22 Grand Slams compared to 14 of Sampras and 20 of Federer, both vastly more talented than him. I could relate to that.

But moving away from controlled, crowd-pulling sports to the uncontrolled environment of explorers, things are very binary here. It’s 1 or 0, you either win or die. I am in awe of modern day living explorers such as Britain’s Sir Ranulph Fiennes who was the 1st man to circumnavigate Earth via its Polar Axis without flying and he has also been to all hot, cold and ice deserts on Earth as well. Another man I admire is Swiss-South African Mike Horn who did the 1st solo un-motorized circumnavigation of Earth via the Equator, then via the Arctic Circle and also the first non-motorized passage to North Pole in winters (along with the great Borge Ousland of Norway). In fact, Mike was the ‘mental coach’ of the 2011 World Cup winning cricket team of India and the 2014 World Cup winning football team of Germany.

Then there is TV survival expert Bear Grylls and war-journalist Levison Wood who are incredible too. Fiennes and Horn are well known but Bear surely is the biggest star (in terms of popularity, not exploration) with his ‘Man Vs Wild’ and ‘Into the Wild’ TV shows. He goes into jungles and deserts with celebrities and you can check out Discovery OTT for these episodes. But it was not always the limelight for Grylls. At 21 while serving as a British SAS (Special Air Service) Trooper, he suffered a badly broken back when his parachute got ripped at 16,000 feet over Zimbabwe. He was bedridden for months on end. For any other man, life was over. For him, it had just started and at 23 he scaled Mount Everest and later became who he became.

Life tested me in a very small (but relatable) way recently. After returning from Antarctica in January this year, due to a combination of cold weather and 3 ultra-long 45 hour (back-to-back) flights in economy, I had a severe lower back spasm. I landed up in hospital and was bedridden for a week before I got discharged. The next 2 months were all about the recovery and the only thought I had in my mind was the need to move, to see the world. True to my risk-taking style, I booked flight tickets for my next trip from the hospital bed itself, just to make sure I get back on my feet fast. It is with this madness and passion that I operate and it helped this time, not to mention my physiotherapist pushing me too.  This was my test and the Bear Grylls story truly inspired me every day. He often chants, ‘Never Give Up’. It’s almost like a mantra for Bear.

Now this is where I can’t help but state a cliché. Everyone says their dad is a hero but in my case there is some truth to it, beyond emotions. My dad, Bal Krishna Gairola, was a very senior State Bank of India (SBI) officer back in the day and is retired now in Doon. You see, not only did he come from a zero bank balance but also went on to become the All-India IES (Indian Economic Service) topper and a University Gold Medalist besides being the recipient of the Uttarakhand Ratan Award. Later in life, he had some health challenges but he went past the storm with such grit and grace that I can’t think of anyone else who could have done so any better. That’s where he trumps even survival experts and daredevils for me. I did have his thought too when I was in the hospital this January and wanted to stop cribbing and get going again.

Another person from the family was my grandad (from my mother’s side), Colonel Prem Lal Nautiyal. He was in the army and was on the frontlines of all 3 major wars that we faced in our homeland in the 60’s & 70’s and had even represented India in the grinding and harrowing Vietnam War. Without any intent to do so, the army life made him travel a lot at a time when not many did. To me he represented adventure and courage, though I was too small to know him, when I lost him.

But it has not always been inspiring stories from sports, exploration, army or the corporate world. I have met one of the greatest historians of our time, Yuval Harari, who wrote the ‘Sapiens’ book, that speaks about human evolution, from the cave man to the modern man. This book is a classic example of the ‘big picture’ and I definitely recommend it. Very soon I will also be seeing my favorite rock musician of all time, Bruce Springsteen. Why I mention so is that I started writing poetry after listening to his Greatest Hits album in 1996. He will be 74 going on 75 when he performs his concert live in Sweden in July this year. I am really looking forward to seeing (and hearing) a childhood hero.

So, my journey has not only been a physical one on the face of the Earth, but a personal one which had equal parts of self-doubt and self-discovery. This reminds me that my current organisation’s ex-CEO raised a question to the audience back in 2013, asking what the difference between ‘change’ and ‘transformation’ was. I answered, ‘transformation is permanent’. A part of me is not the same as before, even though a part of me is.

(Nitin Gairola is from Dehradun and has travelled the natural world more than almost any Indian ever. He has set world travel records certified by India Book of Records, has written for LonelyPlanet, and holds National Geographic conservation certifications. He is also a senior corporate executive in an MNC and in his early days, used to be a published poet as well. More than anything else, he loves his Himalayan home.)