“My life has been all about risks”, says Arunima Sinha, 27, with a casual air as only someone who’s lived beyond her comfort zone all her life. An affinity towards sports was but natural, as she belongs to a family of sportspersons. Having a father in the Army only helped as it opened up avenues in terms of facilities and infrastructure. She considers herself lucky to have received a grounding in sports so early on in life. “Sports is in my blood”, she says. Perhaps that is the source of the unflinching support she got from her family when she contemplated taking up mountaineering as an amputee.
Indian Express online spoke to Arunima on the sidelines of the felicitation ceremony organised by Mountain Dew to honour real life heroes or adventurists – Padma Shri Arunima Sinha, Padma Shri Shital Mahajan, Ghost Ryderz and Col. Satyendra Verma.
In April 2011, Arunima, then a national level volleyball player, made news as a theft victim in a train. Instead of being a passive victim, she actively tried to resist the goons when they tried to reach for her gold chain. Despite showing exemplary courage, she was overpowered and pushed off the train. The resultant injuries included an amputated leg and a rod in the other. Yet, she made it to the headlines once again two years later when she became the first female amputee in the world to have scaled Mount Everest, and the first Indian amputee to have done so. She was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour, in 2015.
When Sinha first mentioned a desire to climb the Everest, a psychiatrist was sent to her ward in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, to assess her mental health for any signs of trauma. Now she laughs as she looks back at the incident.
Her mother asked her why she wanted to complicate her life further, considering she had a job offer from the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). Sinha justifies her mother’s feelings saying, “any mother who’s had the misfortune of witnessing her child go through such a traumatic accident, yet miraculously make it alive, wouldn’t want to expose the child to further danger.” She then told her mother she didn’t want to merely exist. She gave her mother an ultimatum asking if she would or wouldn’t support her in fulfilling her new dream. It was now a question of her spirit and self-confidence. Once the word “wajood” came into the picture, her mother, in turn, became her most vocal cheerleader. When Sinha had difficulties in finding sponsorships, her family was ready to give up their family home to fund her summit expenses. Her mother, drawing from her wisdom gathered over a time spent as an educated health inspector in the Army, told her these hardships are transient. “She told me to single-mindedly concentrate on my goal, and that all the naysayers in due course of time will become my supporters,” Sinha remembers. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened.
Volleyball on wheelchair is a valid sport. So, why mountaineering then? “I never sat on a wheelchair during my recovery, never wanted to sit at all. It’s also a bit psychological. I thought if I sat on a wheelchair once, it’ll remain stuck to me for a lifetime,” she explains. Everything would have been finished. “Khatam”, she says with a deadpan expression. She took up running initially, inspired by the Paralympics. She used to clock 20 mins for a 100m sprint. However, more than the prosthetic leg, it was the rod inserted in her right leg which posed problems. Apart from being painful, the threat of dislodging was serious and she was advised against continuing sprinting by the doctors at AIIMS. She still hopes to be able to take it up in some capacity. She likes to keep busy. After all “an idle mind is a devil’s workshop”, she says.
Arunima cites a second reason: to silence her critics and disprove the allegations levelled against her (some people alleged she was trying to commit suicide by jumping off the train while others said she was trying to evade being caught travelling without a ticket). Sinha knew, being a simple girl from a middle class background with no connections, that her side of the story wouldn’t be taken seriously. “My strategy, now, was to respond by being absolutely mum,” she stresses. Where people’s thinking ends, she decided to begin from there. Mountaineering then presented itself as the most out-of-the-box option.
Understandably, mountaineering didn’t come without its challenges. The ankle of her prosthetic wasn’t movable, making it difficult to walk sideways against a wall. Arunima still has to face basic challenges like squatting on an Indian style toilet seat. Mountaineers exposed to frostbite have to amputate their fingers themselves when no one is looking. Volleyball’s team building nature assisted her in mountaineering. “Mountaineering isn’t as solo a sport as one may think,” she says. “While the main goal is to reach the peak, one also keeps an eye out for others on the way. Nobody is left behind, and until everyone in the group reaches the summit, the mission isn’t accomplished. It’s an endeavour to take everyone along till the last mile,” she explains. Considering the risky nature of mountaineering, a mistake may mean death.
Here, she credits the “Indian jugaad” in her genes for enabling her to come up with climbing techniques suitable for her. Her mentor Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to have scaled Mount Everest, kept her morale up when she used to find her spirit sagging. Poetically, Sinha says, “Bachendri ma’am uprooted the thorns in our paths and laid out blooming flowers instead. She supported me wholeheartedly on every leg of the journey. When I used to come back with bloodied legs after scaling a summit during training, she’d pat my back lovingly and say ‘Arunima, my tigress, I know you’ll definitely scale the Everest summit!’ Just those encouraging words were enough to drive away all my pain and all that’d remain was pure determination. She drove home the point that my dream wasn’t mine alone, it had now become the nation’s dream too. Her words would play like a video on loop in my head while I was climbing the Everest.”
Another key learning she took away from mountaineering is that there is always another peak to climb, another mountain to summit. But what mountain could present a challenge as formidable and worthwhile as the Everest? “Sponsorships”, she says promptly. She insists that private companies are crucial for funding expensive sports like mountaineering. Despite being a world record holder and having summited the highest peaks of four out of seven continents so far, she still finds it difficult to garner sponsorship for her projects. She feels it’s a vicious cycle where less sponsorships result in less participation. She gives an example. A video filmed by a bunch of kids scaling a skyscraper went viral on the internet overnight. Upon reaching the Everest summit, Arunima filmed a similar video of hers as a proof despite the warnings of her sherpa because she was running low on oxygen. She rues that the video didn’t get much viewership.
In the light of this, she feels glad that platforms like Mountain Dew’s ‘Naam Bante Hain Risk Se’ are there to highlight such outliers’ achievements. The campaign has clocked a reach of 3.1 million and generated over 35,000 Twitter conversations and over 25,000 shares. She feels such initiatives are indispensable in contributing to a sport’s popularity and garnering sponsorships.
Sinha herself is seeking funding for her new pet project- an international-level sports academy for the underprivileged and the differently abled- the expenses of which run into crores of rupees. She is currently siphoning off all her prize money and grants into buying land for the academy, named ‘Pandit Chandra Shekhar Vikalang Khel Academy’. She is hopeful of crowdfunding for the construction of the academy. “All that I’m asking for donation is one brick from each person who reads this,” she requests. She is supporting the current enrolled students completely on her income, including funds for gear, equipment, registration fees for tournaments and tickets for train travel apart from daily expenses.
She is confident of achieving this goal too, albeit with a little help from the people who love her. After all, “the biggest risk one takes in life is to not take risks at all”, she signs off.