The head turners

They ride with pride on roads less travelled. This Women’s Day, SANGEETA YADAV gets up-close with some wonder women in unconventional roles

Aiming For The Sky

Mountaineer Nungshi - Tashi

From scaling Mt Everest in 2013 to other summits in Africa, the Americas, Europe, Oceania and even Antarctica, to being an all-rounder in school and saving others during climbing expeditions, Nungshi and Tashi Malik have been literally on top of the world. This July, they will be graduating in Sport and Exercise from New Zealand under New Zealand-India Sports Scholarship.

Last year, the duo conquered the highest peaks in all the seven continents under their seventh expedition, Mission 2for7. This expedition was dedicated to preventing female foeticide in India.

“Mission 2for7 was the most difficult one as some places had 22 hours of daylight, many polar high-pressure systems and temperatures averaging minus 35 degrees. This mission was not just to set a record but to spread awareness about the importance of girl child. Hailing from Sonipat in Haryana where female foeticide is rampant, we wanted to send across a message to the people that a girl child can make India and our parents proud,” 23-year-old Nungshi Malik says.

When they were born, people were unhappy because they were girls and not boys.

“In our locality, the birth of a boy was celebrated by banging a thali with a spoon. There was complete silence when we were born. So, we decided to take a thali and a spoon with us and when we reached the peak, we celebrated the victory by beating the thali with the spoon,” Tashi recalls.

It was Tashi’s father Colonel Virender Singh Malik who supported them in their venture and has been a pillar of strength ever since.

“People now tell their children to be like us. When we told others that we wanted to be mountaineers, they were aghast. Sarcasm was thrown at us and we got advice that was meant to create fear. ‘Do you realise you are a girl? What if you lose a limb? This is for jawans, police and village boys’, ‘you won’t get a good, educated groom with such a background’, ‘how will you earn a living from such stupid passion, your parents are stupid in letting you on this path’,” Nungshi recalls.

After completing their Mission 2for7, the girls got selected by the US State Department for its annual Global Sports Mentoring Programme which aims at empowering women in sports around the world.

The twins completed their bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Sikkim Manipal University and Certificate in Peace Building from the School of International Training, Vermont, US. At the young age of 23, Nungshi and Tashi are the world’s first women twins to scale Mt Everest, first twins to climb the famed ‘Seven Summits’ and have completed last degree skiing to the North and South Poles to complete the prestigious ‘Adventurers Grand Slam’ and ‘Three Pole Challenge’.  Their dozen plus mountaineering world records are the highest by any South Asian man or woman.

Interestingly, climbing is not their only passion. Bollywood is where they would love to act. If a bio-pic is made on them, who can portray their lives better?

“Definitely Priyanka Chopra or Gul Panag. They look sporty and can portray us well on the 70 mm screen. But if you ask me, we would love to play the part ourselves. Our emotions will come out better and we will be able to do a good job,” Tashi, the younger of the twins, says with a laugh.

A reputed Bollywood production house had offered to make a biopic on the sisters in 2013 soon after the release of  Everest, but they turned it down.

“We feared that they would distort the story substantially and that no actor or photographer would be able to do a good job of portraying the dangers of extreme altitude climbing unless they really went into the act and shot actual climbing. Only Hollywood has that capacity and standard. Look at how well they portrayed Into Thin Air and Vertical Limit. Our movie will be of that class,” Tashi insists.

Conquering all odds of unfavourable terrain, facing life-threatening climbs and harsh weather conditions, these two bravehearts have come a long way. But a trip down memory lane gives them a chill as they lost 10 very good friends during expeditions.

“It’s a life and death situation out there on the mountains. We’ve lost 10 good friends. Every time we see Facebook, the news of a friend who died in an accident during an expedition or got buried in an avalanche depresses us. Many times, we come across decomposed bodies and shattered clothes of mountaineers who got killed in an avalanche. Those are intense moments. We feel for the climbers because they had the same mission like ours to complete the climb but couldn’t make it. You get traumatised. It could have been us. A lot of negativity comes in but then you focus on your mission and with full determination, complete the mission,” Tashi says.

More than the trauma, mountaineering is physically stressful and requires strict fitness regime.

“We are put on a high protein diet before and after the expedition. During the expedition, we don’t eat that much and end up losing 48,000 calories a day. We just have lots of water and soup to keep hydrated. We have a loss of appetite because of the environment but we eat a lot of energy bars which tackles our hunger pangs,” Tashi tells you.

When the sisters are not climbing, they are engaged in a more uphill task  that of campaigning for a better livelihood for sherpas.

“There is lot of talk to improve the lot of sherpas but nothing has been done so far. Other than Mt Everest, where one requires a guide, there are no other climbs where you have any assistance. We don’t want to do anything for these underpaid guides who risk their lives. The avalanche that killed many sherpas was so unfortunate. The international communities didn’t help their families. Instead, it was other sherpas who came to their rescue. For us, it’s just one event and a peak to climb but for them it is their livelihood. It is time that we, climbers, took on some responsibility to help them. There should be a special fund for them. In case there is an untoward incident, at least the families will be looked after. In fact, we should have a funding for the mountaineers as well,” Nungshi says.

Their upcoming plans? From August, they plan to write a book on their journey and hope to inspire millions, especially girls, to dream big.

“If funds permit, we would like to attempt the highest peak of New Zealand, Mt Cook by year end. For some time now, we have been trying unsuccessfully to mobilise funds for our much bigger and bolder adventure — the Twin Girls 4Ice Caps Challenge. It has evolved from our dream to ski the world’s four largest ice caps in Greenland, South Pole (Antarctica), Patagonia and the North Pole that will involve ski over 5000 km of ice averaging minus 40 degree temperatures. Few people in the world have successfully completed it,” Tashi says.

With twin objective of promoting mountaineering as a sport and to empower girls through mountaineering and outdoor adventure, they have started The Nungshi Tashi Foundation.

“Apart from continuing higher studies in sport and exercise up to the doctoral level, our goal is the establishment of a world class centre of excellence in mountaineering in India. We see mountaineering as a journey of self discovery and our favourite quote remains Edmund Hillary’s ‘we don’t conquer mountains but ourselves’,” Nungshi says.

In The Fast Lane

alisha

She grew up around cars, bikes, rubber and petrol. She followed in the footsteps of her father, a former seven-time national champion. Alisha Abdullah is now a known name in the racing circuit. She is the only Indian woman who is the fastest superbiker and car racer and has won several championships.

“When I told the people around me that I want to be a motor racer, I got mocked at and people took me too lightly. They all thought it was just for glamour, but I proved everyone wrong. It gives me more push when people say I can’t do it,” Abdullah says.

Ever since her childhood, Abdullah has been fascinated by go-karting. At the age of 13, she won the MRF National Go-Karting Championship and the Best Novice Award in the National level Formula Car Racing in 2003.

“I was just another kid into racing for fun. I started off by coming last in the races but I never gave up. I fought,  I learnt and I changed.  All these things moulded me into being a much stronger person. I also met with an accident but it’s all part and parcel of life in the fast lane,” Abdullah says.

The 26-year-old racer from Chennai moved to Formula car racing and managed to bag fifth place in the JK Tyre National Championship, 2004. But later she switched from Formula car to motor racing.

“I just wanted to try motor racing as well. So, I made the move. The journey has been good. Every performance has been good. I learnt from my mistakes. I’ve been working a lot on improving my weakness,” she recalls.

Her winning races bothered a lot of men but she remained focussed. To help society, Abdullah has set up the Alisha Abdullah Racing Academy for Women.

“I want to pass on the skills to others. I have my own racing academy for women. Making a career as a motor racer is not easy. It’s a rich man’s sport and you need a strong backing. It’s all about your dedication, passion and sacrifice. Women are no less, but we need to be given more chances for which we need more sponsors,” she says.

Her father RA Abdullah, a famous bike racer and seven-time national champion fuelled her passion for racing.

“He gifted me a 600 CC superbike on my 18th birthday. That’s when I knew motor sports would be my vocation,” she says.

If not a racer, she would have been a chef or a tennis player. That’s the way to race through life.

Riding High

esha gupta

Call it adrenaline rush or just the love for bike riding, over the past few years we have seen many women taking to solo motorcycle trips. One such woman is Esha Gupta who is aiming to make a new Guinness World Record by covering 38,000 km, travelling through 17 States and 110 towns and cities. More than just a target, it’s an initiative to send out a message that India is not unsafe for women.

“This initiative took off in January 26, 2016 with the help of my friend Ankit Gandhi. Throttle Club, which brings the entire biking fraternity under an umbrella, spearheaded this cause. We people think so much about the negativity that we’ve forgotten the positivity and good people around us. My solo ride is meant to shift people towards positivity,” Esha who has covered 35 cities thus far, tells you.

After working for over 11 years in an MNC as a senior facility manager, Gupta decided to quit and take a much needed break to Leh-Ladakh. But fate had other plans for her.

“I was never into riding motorcycles until 2013 when I was backpacking in Leh-Ladakh. I met a group of foreigners who were travelling from Delhi to Ladakh on bikes. They asked me to join them which I refused as I was on another schedule. Once I reached Ladakh, I realised that the public transport was really bad. That’s when I thought of riding a motorcycle. After returning to Bengaluru, I asked two of my friends for bikes but both refused as they were really possessive about their bike. So I bought one for myself in 2014,” Esha says.

This 37-year-old lone woman traveller has covered several long journeys on her Bajaj Avenger 220DTsi motorcycle (Mickey). In 2014, she completed her solo golden quadrilateral nationwide motorcycle ride covering nearly 7,000km. An avid biker, Esha’s tryst with her newborn passion has been a learning experience that made her fearless and brought a big change in her. Now she finds riding a motorcycle a confidence building workshop.

“I feared that I would not be able to handle a big machine. When I got Mickey, it was parked in my basement for a week before I even went and tried to start it. I took three-four trials to get used to it. Gradually from riding on crowded roads to inter-state highways and beyond, I conquered all my fears. When you are in a tough situation, that’s when you realise how strong you are. You realise nothing is too big if you try. That belief made me handle difficult situations that come in life,” Esha, who is also a certified fitness instructor and dancer, tells you.

Once she toppled while taking a U-turn. But nobody on the road came to her help.

“My hands were shivering and my biceps hurting. I saw for myself how people don’t help in a road accident. Everybody watches you as a spectator,” Esha tells you.

She came across people who couldn’t believe that a woman could do long solo trips on a motorcycle.

“In every city, people were amazed to see a woman on a mobike trip. At traffic signals, they would often peep through their helmets to see if I was a man or a woman. That was really funny,” she recalls.

An encounter with children gave her a reality check about women bikers in India.

“Once, a girl came to me wondering if I was a girl or a boy. They got confused as I was wearing a nose ring as well as a helmet and riding gears. She asked ‘Didi aap ladka ho? I took off the helmet and asked them ‘aapko main ladka lagti hoon’? She shook her head and said no. Then I asked her why she thought that way and her reply was ‘because my mother says that girls don’t ride a bike.’ There are many such children who have been conditioned wrongly. The mindset needs to be changed,” Esha feels.

Youngest among three sisters, Gupta got full support from her family and friends in achieving her hatke dream.

“We lost our parents early. My sisters and friends never thought that riding a motorcycle is a boys’ thing’. We never limited ourselves,” she says.

And this is one woman who travels light. A set of tools and spares for Mickey, four sets of clothing, essential toiletries, a laptop and dry fruits in her backpack  that’s all it takes for Esha to embark on a cross nation journey. All she is heavy on are her experiences, some good, some bad.

“I drove to Andhra Pradesh and it took me three hours to complete a km. When I finally reached a proper road, I broke down.  There are times you can’t do anything, you just have to go ahead. It rained so much in Odisha that I  had to take a diversion as the highway was under construction. All that dirt there had turned into slush and the soil was ultra slippery. You can easily skid. It was scary to ride in those conditions,” she recalls.

Having spent all her bank balance on her dream, Gupta believes in the philosophy of living your present and preparing for the future.

“Life has taught me that you live for today instead of tomorrow. You should be satisfied as a person and feel happy that you made it thus far all alone. With this belief, I’m getting stronger and stronger,” Esha says before gearing up for yet another journey.

(The article was published in Sunday Pioneer – http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/special/the-head-turners.html).

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