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The Rediff Special / Madhumita Chakraborty

'We will show the world that Indian women are not helpless human beings, but are capable of doing what no liberated modern Western woman has ever dared to do'

They share a not-so-common love -- mountaineering -- and the will to trek thousands of kilometres, braving frozen, jagged terrain to prove the indomitable spirit of the Indian woman. Madhumita Chakraborty spoke to Bachendri Pal, who will lead a nine-woman team to the Himalayas.

The 4,000 kilometre 'Himalayan Traverse', as it will be called, will last seven months and pass through Bhutan, Nepal, Leh and the Siachen Glacier before concluding in the Karakoram Ranges. Excerpts from the interview with Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest:

When will the Himalayan Traverse be flagged off?

The date is going to be decided by Prime Minister Deve Gowda. He will be flagging us off. But it will be in the first week of February, as per the PM's convenience.

On January 29, President Shankar Dayal Sharma invited us all to Rashtrapati Bhavan to bless us. We are, of course, very excited and very honoured with all this encouragement.

The encouragement is understandable as you are attempting a big challenge, something unattempted earlier.

Well, no. It is wrong to say that a traverse along with route is unattempted to date. The Indian army has travelled on this route, although they did so to safeguard our borders. An Indo-New Zealand team has also trekked across most of the areas we will be passing through. But yes, no woman has ever trekked this distance.

Our traverse and our team of nine Indian women will be a trend-setter for the entire world. We will show the world that Indian women are not suppressed, submissive, helpless human beings who hide behind purdahs, but are capable of doing what no so-called liberated, modern Western woman has ever dared do.

You've been a keen crusader for women in your own way. Right after you conquered Mount Everest, you successfully led an all-woman team to Everest. Next, in 1994, you led an all-woman rafting expedition across 2,500 kilometres in the mighty Ganges, from Hardwar to Calcutta. And now this expedition. Why do you emphasise women undertaking such adventures?

You know, when I first expressed the desire to become a professional mountaineer, the objection that my family, relatives, and the people around me raised was that mountaineering is not something women should ever think of. According to them, the only profession women should take up --- if at all they insist on working-- is that of a school teacher.

With due respect to teachers, I confess that since I had no inclination to take up teaching, I had to cross many hurdles, many humilitations, much more difficult to cross than the boulders of Mount Everest. For me to get out of my rural society itself was a long struggle.

Somewhere along the line, all this set me thinking about women in India. Are we born merely to produce and rear children? And even if this were so, what type of training and upbringing can we give our children if we ourselves are uneducated, unexposed to the world and happenings, steeped in superstition? It is often said, and I strongly believe, that only strong mothers can led to a strong nation.

But how can this strength come from trekking and mountaineering?

Many people suffer from a misconception that mountaineering is just climbing and descending mountains with a rucksack. Well, it is much, much more. Any person who has had some experience in this will tell you how the adventure toughens a person, both mentally and physically.

Both trekking and mountaineering are ideal and ultimate tests of human endurance. They teach you how to deal with critical situations, they force discipline and leadership qualities, humility, courage, self-respect, and self-confidence, besides bringing one in contact with people from different areas and different cultures.

How do you expect to instill leadership qualities, courage, and an ability to deal with crises by giving lectures to people sitting within four walls? It is only when they meet with challenges and critical situations that they will exercise their brains to their maximum and also exert themselves fully physically.

What is the aim of this 4,000 kilometre trek?

We want to make history. We want to see Indian women standing in the entire Himalayan belt with our heads high. We also want to collect and spread information about our Himalayas which control the climate of our entire country.

Have you been able to realise the Rs 2.5 million budget planned for this trek?

No. The department of sports and youth affairs has given us Rs 1 million, the West Bengal government has promised Rs 500,000, and the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation, where I work, will donate Rs 300,000. But we'll manage. I told the girls that we will have to enter homes and request food along our route. The girls are ready -- this is also an adventure! People in rural India, as I have seen, are very friendly -- they gladly offer hospitality despite not being rich.

What do you do as deputy divisional manager of adventure programmes at Tata Steel?

My job includes training the Tata Steel trainees in adventure activities like trekking, mountaineering, rowing, rafting, staying in camps, and cooking for themselves. This training is compulsory for all Tata Steel trainee employees. Our institution believes this will toughen its employees and that only people with toughness and quality can produce quality steel -- tough and superior.

Meet the adventurers...

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