Achievers Corner – Vol 1 – Issue 3
A young woman … Attacked by thugs.. Thrown off a running train… Amputated left leg… Bones of right leg held together by a rod… and a near impossible dream of climbing the highest mountain in the world…
In a small district 200 kilometres outside of Lucknow called Ambedkarnagar. Arunima “Sonu” Sinha was born in 1988, Her father an engineer in the army and her mother a supervisor with the health department. Naturally athletic as a child, she loved cycling and playing football & was a national level volleyball player. But sports took a backseat when her job hunt started. She studied law after her post-graduation and was confident about getting started on a bright career path. And when her brother in law suggested that she apply in the paramilitary forces, she did just that.
In 2011,she applied at CISF. When she got the call letter she saw they had got the birth date wrong. Determined not to lose out on a good opportunity due to this technical error, she decided to leave for Delhi immediately to get it rectified. She was confident that once this was done, she would get the job.
She got on the general compartment of the Padmavat Express. The crowd was crushing, but she managed to squeeze herself into a corner seat. With thought of what the future beheld, she set forth on her journey. Suddenly, she was four or five thugs surrounded her and started pulling at a gold chain gifted to her by her mother. Being a single female traveller, they thought she was an easy target. Little did they know about her indomitable spirit. When she refused to hand the chain over, they started coming at her one at a time. She kicked, punched, scratched them and fought them as best as she could. For a brief moment, it even seemed she had the upper hand and had beaten off her foe. Though the compartment was full of people, no one came to the rescue of a girl being robbed and attacked. Since they couldn’t take her on one at a time, the thieves grabbed a limb each and hauled her out the train and threw onto an oncoming train. The force threw her onto the opposite tracks. What happened thereafter took a matter of seconds. Before she could move her left leg off the track, a train went over it.
Trains came and went, passing by the spot as she lay wrecked and bleeding on the tracks that night. It was found out later on when the Mahila aayog asked for a report – 49 trains had passed by the fateful spot. Rodents would come and feast on her oozing wounds, scampering off when trains came. She kept screaming herself hoarse, writhing in pain before finally passing out.
Looking back to that fateful night, Arunima Sinha says “I wonder how I managed to hold on for so long. I never thought I would survive that night. But when morning dawned, renewed hope surged through me.”
Open tracks transform into public toilets for villagers who have nowhere else to defecate. The next morning when some local boys came to take a dump, the sight of her mangled body greeted them. She was to be taken to the Bareilly District Hospital. But the move involved so many bureaucratic hurdles from disinterested government employees that she was left bleeding on the platform for hours before being taken to the hospital.
She was told by doctors that her leg had to be amputated from below the knee immediately to prevent gangrene from setting in. She was losing blood rapidly and was informed that the hospital was out of anaesthesia. Arunima says “With no other choice, I instructed them to go ahead with the amputation. The limb was sawed off while I was fully conscious. The hospital staff was severely encumbered by the lack of supplies, but did everything in their power to make my suffering lessen. The pharmacist B.C. Yadav donated his own blood because there was none to spare. To give you an idea of the kind of hospital and place it was, I need to mention this. After the amputation, as I lay in the OT, a street dog ventured into the room and started feasting on the leg that had just been removed from my body.”
While she was fighting for her life inside the hospital, unbeknownst to her, outside she had become a media sensation. Newspapers and TV channels picked up her story and were going all out, cashing in on the gory details. It was outrageous that a young girl travelling alone was thrown off the train just like that. Both the UP and the national government got involved. Ajay Maken, the then sports minister, arranged for her to be shifted to AIIMS where she was assured to receive world class care. For Arunima’s distraught family, this provided much needed respite. What they didn’t know then was the worst was yet to come.
Initially her story was being grabbed by the state and national governments because of the sympathy votes it could help garner. Then it took a murky turn. When her story captured national attention, questions began to be asked about responsibility and accountability for such a ghastly situation no one wanted to step forth.
Arunima reflects “It’s not that someone was out to get me, but everyone wanted to save themselves. In the mad scramble to avoid the blame that followed, the easiest scapegoat was me. First stories started circulating that I was travelling without a ticket and had jumped to avoid being caught by the ticket collector. A CCTV footage showed me standing in a queue to purchase the ticket. With this theory invalidated, even louder claims that I wanted to commit suicide started doing the rounds. I could have been shouting my innocence from the rooftops, but it would not have made a difference.”
Thinking back to those moments, as she felt helpless and unable to defend herself and her family against this vicious onslaught, lying on the hospital bed, when she was at her weakest and most vulnerable, Arunima says, “I said to no one in particular, ‘Today is your day. Bark whatever you want. But someday I will prove, without a doubt, the truth of what happened to me.’ My left leg was amputated. A rod was inserted in my right leg, from knee to ankle, to hold the shattered bones together. I pondered on the most impossible dream that I could set for myself. And it was then and at that moment, I decided that I would climb the Everest.”
In Arunima’s own words “Every girl cannot climb the Everest to prove herself right. But for me it was never a choice. The public imagination had reduced me to either a victim or an attempted suicide case. This was the only way I could reclaim my voice. When I tried to tell my doctors about my plan, there were two reactions. If I tried to discuss my plan with anyone, either I was laughed at or told that trauma had affected my mental health adversely.”
Usually amputees take months, or even years, to get accustomed to their prosthetic limbs before being able to function normally . The fact that holds testimony to Arunima’s unbreakable spirit is that she started walking just two days after she got her prosthetic limbs!
She proved that the mind holds tremendous sway over the body. Once she decided that this is what she would do, she let nothing get the better of her. Straight out of the hospital she went to see Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Everest. Arunima says “Aside from my immediate family, she was the only person to not dismiss my mission. But she didn’t sugar coat it either. She told me, ‘Arunima in this condition you made such a huge decision. Know that you have already conquered your inner Everest. Now you need to climb the mountain only to show the world what you are made of.’”
After a basic course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, the best school of its kind in Asia followed by 18 months of rigorous training. Arunima climbed smaller, but no less dangerous mountains, had a couple of near death experiences and underwent mind numbing, exhausting, spirit crushing pain preparing to achieve her big goal.
She was supported with a grant from NIM. Then Tata Steel provided her with a generous sponsorship that let her focus exclusively on the near impossible task that lay ahead for her – Mt. Everest.
On 1st April 2013, Sinha and Susen Mahto, a TSAF instructor, who had together climbed Mt. Chamser Kangri (6622 metres) in 2012 under the guidance of Bachendri Pal set out on their ascent of Mount Everest.
The climb was a difficult one, fraught with challenges in each step. Arunima adds “My prosthetic limb posed some unique problems. The ankle and heel would constantly swivel as I tried to climb, causing me to lose my grip often. My right leg was held together by a steel rod. Any pressure sent up spasms of acute intense pain. My Sherpa almost refused to accompany me, assuring me that I was on a suicide mission. Most regular folks don’t stand a chance against the mighty mountain. What chance did I stand?”
Every climber has to traverse four camps on route to the peak of the Everest . Once you’ve reached camp four, there’s 3500 feet to the summit. This area is known as the death zone, notorious for the number of lives it has claimed. There were bodies of erstwhile climbers strewn all around. A Bangladeshi climber she had met earlier breathed his last right before her. Ignoring the cold fear coiling in the pit of her stomach, she trudged on.
“Our bodies behave according to how we think. I firmly took stock of my fears and told my body that dying was not an option.” Arunima recalls.
Her Sherpa guide informed her that her oxygen supply was critically low. “Save your life now so that you can climb Everest again later,” he said pragmatically. To which Arunima replied “If I don’t climb Everest now, my life will not be worth saving.”
And after a hard toil of 52 days Sinha reached the summit of Mount Everest at 10:55 am on 21 May 2013. She had won. There she stood on top of the world!
She raised the tricolour on the peak, deposited some pictures of her idol Swami Vivekananda next to it. And used the last vestiges of her oxygen to take pictures and videos of herself on the peak. She knew she was probably going to die. So it was important to her that the visual proof of her achievement would make it down to the world. Fifty steps later, her oxygen cylinder was empty…
But the story isn’t over yet…
As the saying goes, Fortune favours the bold. Another miracle occurred. Recollecting the incident she says “I have little patience for wonders of faith, destiny, kismet and the like. We chart our own destiny. It is my firmest conviction that luck will favour those who have the drive and the tenacity to win. As I lay suffocating and gasping for breath, I came across an extra cylinder of oxygen. My Sherpa quickly latched it on me. Slowly we embarked on the precarious downward climb.”
Far more deaths occur on the downward climb than the upward one on Everest and now that she had survived the worst, it was time to tell her tale to the world.
She is attempting “Mission Seven Summit”- Climbing the highest peak of each continent and become the first female amputee and first Indian amputee to conquer all the seven summits of the world.She has successfully completed the 5th summit of the Mission 7 Summits. She recently climbed Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, South America. This is also known as second Everest. After completing this, she has also made World record as First Female amputee to climb 5 Mountains of the World.
She has written a book “Born again on the mountain”, launched by Prime Minister of India
Shri Narendra Modi in December 2014.
Arunima Sinha is now dedicated towards social welfare and she wants to open a free sports academy for the poor and differently-abled persons. She is donating all the financial aid she is getting through awards and seminars for the same cause. The academy is named Shaheed Chandra Shekhar Vikalang Khel Academy.
She has been awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India, in 2015.
Adventure & Wildlife magazine lauds the Brave heart climber for her sheer grit, her never-say-die attitude and unflagging courage in face of challenges that could have reduced even the strongest of strong to nothingness!