This is a story of the triumph of will. A story of courage, determination and dedication. A story of hope and resilience in the face of challenges. In 2011, twenty four year old national level volleyball player Arunima Sinha was thrown off a moving train by thieves for refusing to hand over the gold chain she was wearing. She lost her left leg when a train went over it. As she lay in the hospital bed, with one leg amputated, Arunima Sinha took a vow that many would think impossible. Her goal, from that day onwards, was not just to become adept at walking with a prosthetic leg but scale the highest point in the world – Mount Everest. In 2013 she did just that, becoming the first Indian female amputee to achieve this feat. It was a feat – which many would consider impossible – that not only brought back her self confidence but made her an inspiration for everyone back home. In 2015, she was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India.
ABILITY’s friends at India based PHYSIOTIMES spoke to Arunima Sinha about that unfortunate train journey, the agony that followed, the role played by physiotherapy in her rehab, why she decided to climb Everest and how it is in the worst tragedies that the human spirit learns to soar. Here’s Arunima’s story, in her own words…
Please tell us in brief about your early life and family background.
I come from Ambedkar Nagar, a small district in Uttar Pradesh 200 kilometres away from Lucknow. My father was an engineer in the army and my mother, Gyan Bala, a health supervisor in a government primary health centre. My father passed away when I was three. I have an elder sister Laxmi Sinha and a younger brother Rahul Sinha. Upon my father’s death, my brother in law Mr. Omprakash, whom we fondly call Bhai Sahib, became the family’s de facto patriarch.
Share about your days of struggle to get a job.
Everyone in my family enjoys sports and I was naturally athletic as a child. I have been cycling since I can remember, had previously represented by school in football and later my college at national level volleyball. 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.
Upon my brother-in-law’s suggestion, I decided to get a job in the paramilitary forces so that I can carry on with my passion for sports along with a regular source of income as well. Despite many heartfelt attempts, I didn’t get through. The job search was not turning out as I had expected and I was getting desperate. In 2011, I applied for a head constable’s post in the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). 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. My whole life has been a struggle. I was in struggle physically and mentally too, but my family was always with me.
Narrate in brief the fateful accident that changed your life forever.
They say our lives are scripted in advance. We just play our part and fate intervenes in mysterious ways to ensure that no one deviates from the script. It was a wrong date of birth on my CISF interview call later that led me to my taking the train journey that changed the course of my life forever.
I still get frightened when I think of that incident. On the night of 11th April, 2011, while on my way to Delhi from Lucknow by Padmavat Express, I was attacked by a group of local robbers. They tried to snatch my gold chain which was gifted by my mother. Being a single female traveler, they took me for an easy prey. When I refused to hand over the chain, they started coming at me one at a time. I tried to resist them. I kicked, punched and fought as best as I could. Thanks to my athletic physique and fitness, I gave them a tough time. For a brief moment, it even seemed I had the upper hand. But, being a lonely girl, I could not resist them for longer and eventually, I was overpowered by them. The compartment was full of people, but no one came to the rescue of a girl being robbed and attacked. Those inhuman guys threw me out of the running 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, another train coming on the parallel track ran over my legs.
What do you recall the most from the night you laid there on the railway tracks after the accident?
The whole experience was very scary. I discovered later 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.
How did you get to the hospital and your experiences of the treatment you received first hand?
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. Pintu Kaanshyap was the man who took me 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 left leg had to be amputated from below the knee immediately to prevent gangrene from setting in. I was losing blood alarmingly. Here 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 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. My right leg also didn’t remain completely immune from the accident. A rod was inserted in the right leg – from knee to ankle.
The accident created an uproar and got a lot of media coverage. What do you have to say about that?
While I was fighting for my life, without my knowledge, 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 traveling 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.
You had to face some allegations despite what you went through.
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 traveling 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.
You were shifted to AIIMS, Delhi eventually. How did your treatment go there?
On 18 April 2011, I was brought to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences for further treatment, spending four months at the Institute. I was provided a prosthetic leg free of cost by a private Delhi-based Indian company. I was in common wealth ward and from there my prosthetic leg journey started.
What is the role played by physiotherapy in your rehabilitation?
Physiotherapy played really a huge role in my rehabilitation. It actually gave complete movement to me and helped me regain functional freedom. Basically physiotherapy has so much of power and it benefitted me a lot.
When was the decision to climb Mount Everest actually happen?
I was an amputee now, and people were looking at me with pity in their eyes. Honestly, I was tired of explaining people that I didn’t attempt suicide. I tried to convince people but failed mostly. Whenever I saw my missing leg, I used to think, I will never let it be my weakness. Losing a part of your body at an early age is a big thing. I was terrified with my disability and the people who were criticizing me. Then I decided, to answer them with action not words.
I was on the hospital bed and was reading a newspaper. I read an article about Everest. It mentioned that there are 15 routes that connect to the Everest. Out of those 15, 14 have been targeted by mountaineers and one route is yet to be followed. My bhaisaab (brother-in-law) was sitting beside me. I told him about this route number 15 and my desire to conquer it. He took a pause and said if you have determination then, of course, you can achieve it. After searching the records, my bhaisaab told me that no one in the world has climbed the peak with a prosthetic leg. These words were enough to lit a spark in me. I pondered on the most impossible dream I could set for myself. I decided to climb the Everest.
You had the option of choosing something easier. What prompted you to take such a bold move?
Yes I had many options of choosing something easier, but Mount Everest is a game where you can develop your self confidence and I wanted to do that, also I converted my weakness in to my strength. 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.
Please tell us about your first interaction with Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to scale Mount Everest in 1984.
After I had decided to climb the Everest, I needed guidance to start preparation. I asked a journalist to get me Bachendri Pal’s number. She arranged it for me in just two hours. I called Bachendri Pal and introduced myself. I just requested her to meet me and she agreed. Straight out of the hospital, With stitches on my leg, I boarded the train to Jamshedpur to meet Bachendri Pal. She welcomed me and listened to me. Besides my immediate family, she was the only person to not dismiss my mission. But she didn’t sugarcoat 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.”
A mountaineer spends whole life to get his/her body acclimatized. How did you manage in such a short time?
After I met Bachendri Pal, I didn’t turn back to my home. I started training from there. Since then, I stayed on the mountains. The reason was I had to acclimatize. Everest is the highest peak in the world. It took 52 days for me to complete the mission. Before starting the summit, I had covered the peaks surrounding Everest. I did this to acclimatize by body.
How did you go about training & preparation for scaling Mount Everest?
I did a basic course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi, the best school of its kind in Asia. This was followed by 18 months of rigorous training. There was “no Sunday, no Diwali and no Holi” for me. I climbed smaller, but no less dangerous mountains, had a couple of near death experiences and underwent mind numbing, exhausting, spirit crushing pain. I was not used to carry my weight so I learnt that first and then I used to take weight of small stones and have trained myself that way. 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.
What were the key challenges in your journey and how did you overcome those?
I started my expedition on 1st April, 2013 and reached the summit of Mount Everest on 21st May 2013 – exactly after 52 days. My first feat on the way to the summit was wrought with injury. I was so happy to have reached the base camp that I lost my balance and fell to the ground, injuring myself in the process. Mistakes, in fact, came and went on my way to the top. There were many points in the trek where there were no ladders to support me to the other side of the wide gap. I was forced to, on such instances, jump across gaps which if I missed, would have ended my life.
My prosthetic limb posed some unique problems. Sometimes blood used to come out of the stitches. 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. I saw dead bodies of mountaineers scattered all around. Some had turned into skeleton and some were covered with sheets of snow. 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. I told myself that neither I can go back from here nor I can die before reaching the summit. 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. Seeing me struggling immensely with the artificial leg, my Sherpa kept on advising me to return back. But, I overturned his advice. I told him that I just can’t die before conquering this mountain. Thereafter, he started motivating me for the rest of the expedition.
On May 21st 2013 you finally made it to the Everest Summit. How was the feeling?
May 21st was the best day of my life. I had turned my weakness into a winning force on that day and had answered the whole world. I still can’t fully explain that feeling, of spending those few six to seven minutes on the summit. I felt like throwing my arms in the air and screaming. I wanted to tell everyone that I’m on top of the world, especially to those people who thought a woman and an amputee couldn’t do it. I took off my mask and screamed, and my Sherpa (the local guide for the expedition) just stared at me. At home you have so different feeling about your national flag but on top it is completely different. I felt very proud at that moment.
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.
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 from nowhere. 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.
I used to feel bad when people called me crazy, when I was on my hospital bed and planning to climb the Everest. But now when people call me crazy about my goals, I feel happy. Now I understand, if people say you are crazy about your goal that means your goal is very close.
What made you then think about conquering the other peaks from each continent around the world?
My dream is to climb the highest peaks from each continent around the world. So far I have accomplished six – Mount Everest in Asia (May 2013), Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa (May 2014), Mount Elbrus in Europe (July 2014), Mount Kosciuszko in Australia (April 2015), Mount Aconcagua in South America (Dec 2015), Mount Carstensz in Indonesia (July 2016). I want to dedicate my achievements “to those who lose hope” so that they never lose heart and achieve their dreams. By conquering all the seven summits I will prove that physical disability can never be a hindrance in achieving your life’s goal if you have mental strength, strong will power and firm determination.
Please share some 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. Mountain always teaches to lean down.
Who have been your inspirations?
Swami Vivekananda has always been an inspiration for me. His quote, “ARISE, AWAKE AND STOP NOT TILL THE GOAL IS ACHIEVED” inspired me a lot in making my dream come true. As tribute to his teachings I place his photograph on the summits that I conquer. It is the influence of Swami Vivekananda that after that tragic incident I got an aim of my life and I didn’t lose hope. I am grateful to his teachings and his lessons. He is a master for me, a source of inspiration and motivation for me. I will be devoted to him till I die. His thoughts and ideals have influenced me deeply and motivated me to do something in life not only for myself but also for those who are like me. His inspiration has driven me to establish a sports academy for the physically challenged people. I also took inspiration from Yuvraj Singh and other famous personalities who won over cancer and other life threatening conditions to bounce back and prove their mettle.
Who inspired to write the book ‘Born again on the mountain: A story of losing everything and finding it back’?
I myself started writing the book when was on AIMS bed and Mr. Omprakash (bhaisaab) motivated me a lot for this.
You deliver talks and motivational lectures on several forums. What is your key message when you speak?
Never give up and work hard. Always remember your goal and work on it.
What are your current engagements and activities?
I have achieved my goal but now I want to help physically challenged people to achieve their goal so that they can also become self-dependent and nobody looks at them with pity. I run a non-profit school Shahid Chandrashekhar Azad Viklang Khel Academy (Freedom Fighter Chandrasekhar Azad Sports Academy for disabled children) where we have almost 150 underprivileged handicapped children. My dream is to make these physically challenged people achieve their dream. I want to train them, make them independent and strong through sports. The objective of my sports academy is to provide training to people with physical disability and to empower them through our complete support so that they can get equal opportunities and full participation in society.
Also now we are on a mission to make Jalalpur rid from Hepatitis-B. We are giving free vaccinations to them and have almost reached 2 lac population. (lac in the Indian numbering is equal to one hundred thousand)
Your advice to our readers.
Failure is not when we fall short of achieving our goals. It is when we don’t have goals worthy enough. Never forget your goal, respect it and work hard and you will be the winner.
I reiterate this small hindi poem I wrote when the journey gets too blurry:
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
All is here, search not elsewhere
To live beautifully, seek life in dearth]
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between India’s PHYSIOTIMES and ABILITY Magazine