How the worst tragedy of her life turned Arunima Sinha into a world champion
In 2011, twenty four year old Arunima Sinha was thrown off a moving train by thugs for refusing to hand over the gold chain she was wearing. She lost her left leg when a train went over it. While dealing with pitying murmurs of, “Who will marry you now,” and the absurd conspiracy theories that followed, she made a decision. She would climb Mount Everest. In 2013 she did just that, becoming the world’s first female amputee, and the first Indian amputee, to achieve this feat. Earlier this year she was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India. This May marks the second anniversary of her reaching Everest’s summit. In honour of this phenomenal accomplishment, Arunima Sinha spoke to YourStory about that ill-fated train trip, the hell that followed, why she decided to climb Everest and how it is in the worst tragedies that the human spirit learns to soar. The heroine’s story, in her own words:
There’s a small district 200 kilometres outside of Lucknow called Ambedkarnagar. That’s where I am from. My father was an engineer in the army and my mother a supervisor with the health department. He passed away when I was three. I have an elder sister and a little brother. Upon my father’s death, my sister’s husband, whom we fondly call Bhai Sahib, became the family’s de facto patriarch.
Everyone in my family enjoys sports and I was naturally athletic as a child, though I never had any professional aspirations for the same. I have been cycling since I can remember, loved playing football and was a national level volleyball player. But sports took a backseat when my job hunt started. I studied law after my post-graduation and was confident about getting started on a robust career. But everyone feels the sting of unemployment at some point in their lives. This time I was at its receiving end.
The job hunt
Bhai sahib suggested I apply at the Paramilitary Force in the army, saying that this way I could stay close to my beloved sports while earning a living at the same time. Despite many heartfelt tries, I didn’t get through. The job search was not panning out as I expected and I was getting desperate. In 2011, I applied at CSIF. When I got the call letter I saw they had got my birth date wrong. Determined not to lose out on a good opportunity due to this technical error, I decided to leave for Delhi immediately to get it rectified. I was confident that once this was done, I would get the job.
The day life changed forever
I got on the general compartment of the Padmavat Express. The crowd was crushing, but I squeezed myself into a corner seat. Preoccupied with thoughts about the future, I was startled when some four or five thugs gathered around me and started pulling at the only thing of value I had on that day- a gold chain gifted to me by my mother. Criminals getting on in general compartments in U.P. is, believe it or not, quite common. Being a single female traveller, they thought me an easy prey. When I refused to hand the chain over, they started coming at me one at a time. I kicked, punched and fought as best as I could. For a brief moment, it even seemed I had the upper hand. The compartment was full of people, but no one came to the rescue of a girl being robbed and attacked. Since they couldn’t take me on one at a time, each grabbed a limb and hauled me out the train.
I flew into an oncoming train and the force threw me onto the opposite tracks. What happened thereafter took a matter of seconds. Before I could move my left leg off the track, a train went over it.
The night that wouldn’t end
Much later, when Mahila Ayog demanded a report, it was discovered that 49 trains had passed me by as I lay wrecked and bleeding on the tracks. Rodents would come and feast on my oozing wounds, scampering off when trains came. I kept screaming in pain before finally passing out. Looking back, I really 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 poor villagers who have nowhere else to defecate. The next morning when the lads came to take a dump, the sight of my mangled body greeted them. I was to be taken to the Bareilly District Hospital. But the move involved so many bureaucratic hurdles from disinterested government employees that I was left on the platform for hours before being taken to the hospital.
My leg had to be amputated from below the knee immediately to prevent gangrene from setting in. I was losing blood alarmingly. Here that I was informed that the hospital was out of anaesthesia. With no choice, I instructed them to go ahead with the amputation. The limb was sawed off while I was fully conscious. The hospital staff were 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 I was fighting for my life, unbeknownst to me, outside I had become a media sensation. Newspapers and TV channels picked up my story and reported on the gory details. It is outrageous that a young girl travelling alone can be thrown off the train just like that. Both the UP and the national government got involved. Ajay Maken, the then sports minister, arranged for me to be shifted to AIIMS where I was assured to receive world class care. For my distraught family, this provided some temporary relief. What I didn’t know then was the worst was yet to come.
Initially my story was being pawned by the state and national governments because of the sympathy votes it could help garner. Then it took a murky turn. When my story captured national attention, questions began to be asked that who was responsible for my accident and who all should be held accountable. 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.
Lying there on the hospital bed, when I was at my weakest and most vulnerable, I felt helpless to defend myself and my family against this onslaught. 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 I could set for myself. I decided to climb the Everest.
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 off or told that trauma had affected my mental health adversely.
Usually amputee patients take months, or even years, to get accustomed to their prosthetic limbs. I walked in two days. The mind holds tremendous sway over the body. Once I had decided that this is what I would do, I let nothing get the better of me. Straight out of the hospital I went to see Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Everest. 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.”
I did a basic course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, the best school of its kind in Asia. This was followed by 18 months of rigorous training. I climbed smaller, but no less dangerous mountains, had a couple of near death experiences and underwent mind numbing, exhausting, spirit crushing pain. I supported myself with a grant from NIM. Then Tata Steel provided me with a generous sponsorship that let me focus exclusively on the impossible task that lay ahead.
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 did I stand?
Every climber has to traverse four camps on route to the peak. 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 I met earlier breathed his last right before me. Ignoring the cold fear in the pit of my stomach, I 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. But all that changed once I reached the summit.
The top of the world
On 21st May 2013 I reached the Everest summit. Earlier My Sherpa had informed me that my oxygen supply was critically low. “Save your life now so that you can climb Everest again later,” he said pragmatically. I said, “If I don’t climb Everest now, my life will not be worth saving.” I erected the flag of my country on the peak, deposited some pictures of my idol Swami Vivekananda next to it. Then I used the last vestiges of my oxygen to take pictures and videos of myself on the peak. I knew I was probably going to die. So it was important that the visual proofs of my achievement make it down to the world. Fifty steps later, my oxygen finished.
Fortune favours the gritty
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 that the upward one on Everest and now that I had survived the worst, it was time to tell my tale.
My dream is to climb the highest peaks from each continent around the world. So far I have accomplished four- Everest in Asia, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe and Kosciuszko in Australia. I am headed to South America in June. The Denali Peak in North America is going to be hard, not because the trail is the most difficult but because it is the most expensive. I need 55 lakhs for that climb. But my toughest test will be climbing Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica.
Life lessons from mountaineering
Climbing mountains has yielded the most valuable life lessons for me. It has taught me about confidence, leadership, resilience, team building and leadership. But above all it has taught me the power of humility. It doesn’t matter what you achieve in life. What matters is how those achievements make you a better person. How you treat others is at the core of what makes you a good human being.
I run a non-profit school for underprivileged handicapped children. The school, Shahid Chandrashekhar Azad Khel Academy, doesn’t have much to boast except for its grand name. We don’t have a building, a field or a court. But that doesn’t matter. We take permissions and play in other people’s fields. My students are my life. We train them the best we can and they have made me so proud. But we have a long way to go. I need 25 crores to bring this project to the fruition it deserves but don’t have 25,000 to my name. But this doesn’t deter me. I climbed the world’s highest peak when I didn’t have a leg. What then is 25 crores?
Failure is not when we fall short of achieving our goals. It is when we don’t have goals worthy enough. I reiterate this small poem I wrote when the journey gets too blurry:
Rehne de aasma, zameen ki talash kar
Rehne de aasma, zameen ki talash kar
Sab kuch yahi hai, kahin aur na talash kar
Jeene ke liye, ek kami ki talash kar.
[Let the sky be and seek the earth
Let the sky be and seek the earth
All is here, search not elsewhere
To live beautifully, seek life in dearth]