Pintz Gajjar, mean machine: The woman who rides with wolves

19th Oct 2014
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Gajjar: Birdwatcher, Biker, Painter, Teacher and Photographer
Gajjar: Birdwatcher, Biker, Painter, Teacher and Photographer

Slow beginnings

Published in 1992, Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés wrote in her book Women Who Run with Wolves,

‘Within every woman there is a wild and natural creature, a powerful force, filled with good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing. Her name is Wild Woman, but she is an endangered species.’

Elbow deep in many pies, Pintueli “Pintz” Gajjar’s life is a reflection of three important stories: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Women Who Run with Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

Gajjar grew up chasing butterflies, bugs and woolgathering. You don’t always meet people whose childhood recollections resemble a novelty postcard, and she’s one of those rare birds. Between dappling in crayon art and playing with marbles, Gajjar was a child birdwatcher who relished in gazing at the avian life that had made her family almond tree home. If not that, then you would’ve probably found her hidden under a Marigold bush with a magnifying glass.

After graduating from Sir JJ School of Arts in Bombay, Gajjar married early at the young age of 20. Once she hit 30, family responsibilities meant putting everything else in the backburner. If this new life wasn’t proving to be difficult, the demise of her father had Gajjar whirling downhill. With the loss of the family patriarch came the loss of her idealised version of family. In 1988, Gajjar was a divorced woman.

‘What did I want? How can I make myself happy? What would make my dad happy, were he alive? And, what was more important – my happiness or unhappiness, would directly affect my own daughters. I knew it then that coping was the only way out, and I had to have a fresh look at life. So, instead of hurting, I decided to do things that would have made my dad happy. And that’s when I started living.

‘I had to sacrifice a lot in order to give space, time and energy to my own children and although I missed out on a lot of things in the prime of my life, I also know that the time spent with my children was the best time of my life. Life is all about balancing out and taking it as it unfolds.

‘The past few years have slowly seen me changing from deep inside. Having crossed the half century of my life, the new innings have had a new kick-start, to say the least.’

For more than two decades Gajjar had taught, until she’d decided to quit cold turkey on turning 50. For the next two years after, she held sessions with students and wildlife conservation shops, along with training programmes for teachers and education councillors, with the collaboration of the Rajkot Zoological Park, Wildlife Conservation Trust and Gujarat Forest Department.

In 2006, she was part of the first batch of Green Teachers, a distance education course with CEE, Ahmedabad, earning a gold medal. An educationist, naturalist, environmentalist and artist, she has a deep connect with people and nature.

Education sesson with students
Education session with students

‘No matter who or where you are, it becomes pertinent to do your bit when you realize that there are millions out there who need a shoulder, a hand or a hug to realize their own potential and being. As an educationist and an environmentalist, I conduct workshops for children on Nature Education and Environmental Awareness.’

Yet, life was incomplete.

We live in a world where our early 20s and 30s are baptised as the prime of our lives. There’s a ‘wrong side of 50’, where you’re expected to take up a mundane hobby and turn to the altar. But, Gajjar was not one to wallow in existential fear, neither was she one to let arbitrary social norms dictate what was and was not her prime.

If there was one dream Gajjar felt was unaccomplished in 50 years of existence, it was riding. So, she put on the gears and broke out the wheels.

Leading 45 men across 49 villages and towns, 9 ports and the Gir Forest

Gajjar’s first expedition covered the coastline of Gujarat, one of the longest in India, in 2011. Dubbed The Gujarat Coastal Marine Pollution Awareness Bike Ride, it covered 1650 km from Lakhpat in Kutch to Umbergaon near Bombay. The expedition itself started out when local club boys wanted to ride across the Gujarat coast, and Gajjar, instead, encouraged them to add educational value to the ride.

What resulted were workshops and awareness campaigns in schools, colleges and NGOs along the coast over 5 days, giving the expedition a place in the Limca Book of Records.

Gajjar and the Boys, Coastal Gujarat Ride
Gajjar and the Boys, Coastal Gujarat Ride

This was just the beginning of a very long journey Gajjar would make.

10 500cc Classic Bullets to go, please

After the Gujarat expedition, the same year, a few women contacted Gajjar. They were planning a trip to Leh-Ladakh. 10 of those women finalised their participation for the expedition, including Gajjar, who was already dizzy with excitement over her lifelong dream slowly coming true. The buzz of this trip got the Royal Enfield Company to contact Gajjar and her girls, offering to give them 10 500cc Classic Bullets for the expedition, a road guide, back-up van and free fuel. Royal Enfield’s munificence caught the attention of UTV Bindass. They offered to document their journey.

The addition of a mechanic and doctor on hand helped ease the fears and apprehensions that plagued Gajjar. Never mind that she hadn’t been near a Bullet in 22 years.

The ball was finally rolling.

For Gajjar this was going to be a long and arduous journey.

‘What does it take to throw caution to the winds, don the riding gear, wear a helmet and take off with 20+ something’s to the world’s highest motorable road? That too, at an age when one tends the garden, takes care of grand-kids in diapers or chills at home?

 ‘Ask me. At 53, almost crippled with a bad arthritic leg, blood pressure on the down side and headaches that happen more often than weather changes, I decided to take up the challenge of chasing my life-long dream. First of all, it takes more than sheer guts to even think about such a feat. Even hardcore riders take their time to plan, get fit, do the daily 100 skips and eat right to get their body going for the long haul. Secondly, the huge investments in the riding gear, bike and the nitty-gritty on the ride have to be taken care of: papers, permissions, tools, weather… so many things to think about.’

This group Gajjar rode with called itself Bikerni. The conception of Bikerni is a story in itself. But, the long story short version is that it’s India’s first official female bikers’ association, and a very ambitious one at that. Some of India’s best female expedition riders are part of the association.

Feeling 20 all over again

Gajjar’s fitness test went surprisingly well. Being a 53 year old arthritic with an unsteady blood pressure made her think she’d fail the test miserably. After 50 push ups and coming in third in a 5 km run, the confidence was welcoming.

The journey started in Delhi, and barely out of the city, Gajjar’s bike conked, stranding them on the Delhi-Chandigarh highway. Disappointingly covering a part of the journey in the UTV van, her spirits reached a high again when she was greeted by a brand new Enfield in Chandigarh, 80 km into the journey.

But, this would only be one event in a series of tough challenges for Gajjar.

Gajjar's watercolour rendition of her journey from Delhi to Ladakh
Gajjar’s watercolour rendition of her journey from Delhi to Ladakh

“Once again in the van… feeling shit and rotten”

Between Chandigarh to Manali, Gajjar raced with her Bikerni mates Sheetal, Chithra and Sarayu, liberated by the wind slapping against her face. Once they hit the infamous Rohtang Pass, though, the group halted for a few days as Gajjar contemplated the seriousness of crossing it. With a sprained toe, apprehensions took over again.

‘I fell twice on the way up- the first time, due to a wrong turn, and the second time I got stuck in slush, and my arthritic leg gave way! I just couldn’t gather enough courage to make it till the pass. I broke down, cried and wondered what the hell I was doing here! If it wasn’t for my good friend, Sheetal Bidaye, who was just behind me, and goaded me on. But for the moment, I was down. The mechanic took the bike till the pass, and I was once again in the van… feeling shit and rotten. Reaching Rohtang, the girls were supportive, understanding and motivated me to keep it up. I had a cup of tea, got the adrenalin back in my system and was again on the saddle.’

Bloated faces and dizzy spells

Gajjar’s journey would next take her to Tandi, a village at the Bhaga and Chandra river conflux, to see the sun dip beyond the mountains, throwing its burnt shade over the peaks. The chill would reach Gajjar’s weakened bones, but it only made her stronger as she crossed the Baralacha La Pass to ride into Sarchu, a camping spot between Ladakh and Himachal at more than 4000 m of altitude. In Sarchu, she was forced to take an oxygen mask. The elevation was too high for her body. With a bloated face and dizzy spells, she was experiencing altitude sickness. With the searing cold in Pang, a small hamlet, ahead, unease began to settle. Once the group reached the More plains, the journey became too vertiginous, requiring an oxygen mask more or less glued to her face.

Gajjar almost broke down.

‘What the hell was I trying to prove? To whom? At what cost? What was wrong with me? So many de-motivating thoughts kept filling my already dizzying head!

‘But, I had reached so far. I was hell-bent on completing it.’

By the time Gajjar and Bikerni reached lake Tso Kar in South Ladakh, her face had swollen to resemble a football. The low pressure kept her light-headed, and there was, now, a heaviness in her chest. But, something stood out. She looked around to see some of the other girls in similar condition, and it oddly consoled her to know she was in the same boat as some of the others. It wasn’t her age. It was the place. It was a natural part of the expedition.

‘Sometimes, some things are hard to swallow. Health is valuable. With that thought, I was whisked away to Leh with 3 others suffering the same fate.

‘At Leh, I got some time to contemplate… to regain my confidence. I had 2 days before the others reached Leh, so I walked a lot, exploring the streets and acclimatizing myself, getting my lungs stronger. I was now committed to completing the ride. Although, I knew that I had missed out some of the fun that the other girls had, visiting monasteries, enjoying the lake at Tso Moriri and crossing the Khardung La was more important. This respite had done wonders to my attitude and altitude problems!’

A new nightmare

At Khardung-La
At Khardung-La

Two days later, Gajjar was back on wheels to continue her expedition. Her Bullet was a mean machine, but it takes a special relationship between a person and her bike to manoeuvre through the unpredictable terrain of the Himalayas. If Rohtang Pass proved a challenge for her, the Khardung La was especially designed from hell. After crossing South Pullu checkpoint to Khardung La, she was greeted with roads that were roads by namesake, but a mix of sand, slush, gravel, besides being bumpy and ragged. Driving all the negative thoughts from her mind, and Sheetal as her rock, she rode through, tears streaming down her eyes, resolve unshaken.

Khardung La was here.

An emotional end to a new beginning

Gajjar, during her trip, was a soon-to-be grandmother. On completion, she would become the first person from her community and family, and the first woman from Gujarat to accomplish this feat. In India, she’d be the only woman above the age of 53 with this honour.

‘I was laughing and crying at the same time, enjoying the moments of a life-time dream! In fact, all of us, the Bikerni-10, were hugging one another, thinking of all the people in our lives and enjoying the glory called Khardung La! It was nirvana.

‘And I am not through as yet – born a rider… will ride until I can!

‘To conclude, I have other hobbies and interests that keep me busy. I don’t need motivation. I’m born with gifts and talents, and I’m resourceful. In short, I’m my own motivation. I am ever-evolving with my creativity, various interests and discovering life.’

A natural artist, Gajjar spends a lot of her time painting birds (seen here: a Hoopoe)  she observes during birdwatching.
A natural artist, Gajjar spends a lot of her time painting birds (seen here: a Hoopoe).

Gajjar is a woman of many characters. She is the Little Prince, a Wild Woman and a determined Seagull all packaged in one.

In 2005, she’d covered a solo trek to the Uttarkhand Valley of Flowers in West Himalay, too, and another to Har-Ki-Dun, in the Garhwal Himalayas.

‘I enjoy travelling alone and often take off to new destinations with my backpack and sleeping bag. When not travelling, I go off birding and photographing.’

Dreams end when life ends

At 56, Gajjar is a free spirit. She speaks of Dipak Joshi, a wonderful man she’s finally found. Joshi is a photographer, birder and adventure freak like her. Together with her daughters, they are her strongest pillars of support, and there is a sweet joy in finally finding someone as mad and exciting as her to share her incredible zest for life.

‘I truly believe age is no bar and we are all entitled to our right to happiness whenever we find it.

‘Women should celebrate their womanhood. Just be who you are! A role model, be an inspiration, be your unique self, go forth and enjoy the journey of your life!’

It’s the only way to live. And, die.

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