I was in Delhi last weekend for a media related workshop. Post workshop, I was talking to some friends in the lobby of the Haryana Sadan in Chanakyapuri. That’s when I first noticed her.
She was a slim woman dressed in a conservative 3/4 sleeved white cotton blouse, a simple cotton Saree worn the Haryanvi way, with the pallu draped over her head. She was wearing traditional jewellery and a big bindi on her forehead, her long hair tied in a neat bun with a generous dab of sindoor in the parting.
At first glance, she looked like any ordinary, traditional Indian woman, someone you would pass in the streets a hundred times a day but wouldn’t notice much.
She was different though. There was something about the way she spoke that caught my attention. Her open smile, her gestures, her body language, all spoke of an easy confidence, and self-awareness. Even as I was talking to my friends, my eyes kept straying towards her.
When she saw us, she walked towards us with that same open, happy, confident smile and greeted us with folded hands. ‘Do you know who she is?’ introduced someone, ‘She is Santosh Yadav’.
‘Santosh Yadav? Padmashri Santosh Yadav? The ace mountaineer? The first woman in the world to climb Mt. Everest twice?’ I asked. She must have sensed the slight incredulity in my voice, because she smiled and said, ‘Yes, I am the same Santosh Yadav, may I join you?’
‘Yes, of course.’ I stuttered.
Santosh sat down and for the next hour or so we talked like old friends. She was disarmingly open about her life and wore her extraordinariness lightly.
‘Are you in Delhi for some work?’ I asked.
‘No. I live here in Haryana Sadan. My children go to school in Delhi. I have a son who is 11 and a daughter who is 13.’ Santosh said, her eyes softening at the mention of her children.
‘Do you still do mountaineering’? I asked.
‘No. I took a break after the birth of my children. I wanted to enjoy every bit of Motherhood. Now I run holiday camps for school children in a village near Manali during school vacations’.
‘You teach mountaineering’?
‘Moutaineering is just a medium. We teach the children many things, how to take care of their health, how to take care of the ecology, yoga, spirituality, how mountain climbing is a form of meditation. You see, in all the time I have spent climbing the Himalayas, I have learnt one thing. You cannot separate the Himalayas from Hindu Dharma and spirituality. The only way to preserve the Himalayas is to preserve our faith, our culture, our spiritual traditions, ‘kyonki Himalay hamari sanskriti ka ek bahut mahatvpoorn hissa hai’.’ Santosh replied.
‘At what age did you decide to be a mountaineer’? I asked.
‘When I was studying in Jaipur after my high school days, I used to live in a hostel. That’s when I first fell in love with the Himalayas. So strong was my urge to see the Himalayas, I saved my hostel money and enrolled myself for a vacation course at the Nehru Mountaineering Institute in Uttarkashi.
When I landed up at the institute, I was thin, underweight and had low lung capacity. All the instructors thought I would never make it. They thought I would opt out of the course within a few days. Not only did I manage to finish the course, I managed to top my batch.
There were girls far stronger than me physically who did the course along with me, but I managed to top it because I had no expectations. I had come simply to be in the Himalayas. I did not want to prove anything to anyone. I keep telling this to my children. Don’t do anything under pressure. Enjoy what you are doing, and you will always do well.
‘But your lungs were small, right? And isn’t climbing all about lung capacity?’ I asked.
Santosh smiled and said, ‘Yes, The doctors at the institute were surprised to see that despite the small size of my lungs, my oxygen saturation levels were really good. I was used to leading a very healthy lifestyle. I did yoga. I prayed. I chanted. I meditated daily, and I had a very a balanced outlook towards life. That was the time I realised that there is a very strong connect between the body and the mind and a strong grounding in spirituality helps to cement that connection.’
‘After that I never looked back. I was hooked onto the Himalayas. I answered an exam and got selected for Indo-Tibetan Border Force. While serving at ITBP, I became a professional mountaineer.’
‘Are you still with the ITBP’? I asked.
‘No. I quit my job when I was expecting my kids. I wanted to devote the next few years of my life to raising my kids, the way my mother did, and I am very happy with that decision. My children have turned out to be wonderful human being, fiercely independent, yet grounded and loving. You see, even now, I am sitting here and talking to you, but my kids are in the room, doing their homework. I don’t have to constantly be around them to tell them what to do. I travel around the country to give lectures on leadership and team-building at various educational institutions, but I always travel with my kids.’
‘So where did you do your schooling’? I asked.
‘I am from a small village in the Rewari district of Haryana. I have five older brothers. My father served in the Indian Army for some time. I studied in a local Hindi medium school in my village till tenth grade. A lot of people ask me whether I was a victim of a gender bias, because my brothers studied in English medium schools while staying in hostels in nearby cities. And I tell them, when I grew up in the seventies, it was not very common to send girls away to study on their own, so my father made the best possible choice under the circumstances. My parents adored me.’
‘My parents raised me with a lot of love and affection. Why should I insult them by disregarding all their love and judging them on the basis of this one decision? My parents did send me to study in Jaipur when I finished my high school. They even bowed down to my decision that I would consider marriage only after completing graduation. Yes, I did have to put in extra efforts to learn English, but I took it as a challenge, not a setback. I am speaking to you right now in both Hindi and English, am I not? Studying in an Hindi medium school never stopped me from doing anything that I wanted to do, in fact, it kept me connected to my culture, my people, my land.’
‘Your story is truly amazing.’ I said.
Santosh smiled and said, ‘I firmly believe that all of us have a choice at any given point of time, no matter how bleak our circumstances are. We can either surrender to the circumstances and play the victim for the rest of our lives, or we can accept the circumstances as a challenge and try to overcome them. All my life, I have made my own choices, whether it is climbing the highest mountain in the world or choosing to put raising my children first, above all other priorities. My attire, my career, my decision to quit it, every decision has been a result of a conscious choice.’
I was totally overwhelmed by this woman, by her easy confidence, by her openness and her calm demeanour. She seemed to be so contented, so comfortable in her own skin. She did not need to conform to any stereotype. Meeting and getting to know Santosh has been one of the most inspiring experiences of my life!
When Santosh hugged me and left, I glanced at my friend R. Jagannathan, eminent journalist and editorial director with a well-known English magazine.
‘A different kind of a feminist, huh?’ Jaggi remarked, with a note of awe in his voice.
Yes indeed. Perhaps her brand of quiet, dignified feminism feels out of place in today’s world of shallow, loud, crass, man-hating brand of ‘feminism’ but Santosh Yadav IS a different kind of a feminist.
The RIGHT kind.