In a village in West Bengal, Asia’s first female commercial pilot and founder of Literacy India organises a festival that embraces tourism, culture, sports, micro-finance and environmental awareness.

Commanding one minute, analytical, playful, cajoling, contemplative and meditative in the next fleeting moments, Captain Indraani Singh plays multiple roles. The first female commander in the world to fly the wide-bodied Airbus 300 and Asia’s first female commercial pilot, she says modestly, “I’m a natural flyer.”

This heroine of the skies has an amazing ability to give seemingly impossible dreams wing and land them on the solid foundations of reality. Not only is she an Air India pilot but also the founder and managing trustee of Literacy India, a non-profit organisation which is her brainchild. Surrogate mother to thousands of children whom she has helped educate, empower and become masters of their own destinies, she is also an inspiring role model for disadvantaged women.

She manages all these roles like an adept juggler, walking a tightrope between commitment to her job and all-consuming passion to uplift the poor and downtrodden — gesturing with her capable hands when talking to a team member or a villager, and occasionally bending down to tousle the hair of a child.

We met this remarkable lady in Chuikhim village, tucked away like a secret in the folds of the Kalimpong hills (West Bengal), where she had organised the Indradhanush Chuikhim Earth Festival in mid-November this year, the first of its kind in this neck of the woods.

A multi-faceted festival that embraced tourism, culture, sports, micro-finance, environmental awareness, the fete was meant “to serve as a catalyst for change,” as the maverick crusader put it. Chuikhim, with its green terraced hills, plunging valleys and dense forests, is accessed by a bone-rattling road from Bagdogra airport which, in a way, emphasises its supreme isolation. But that was hardly a deterrent for the gutsy pilot whose organisation runs a high school as well as computer, tailoring and beauty centres in the village.

Indeed for the Captain, the world is her cockpit where she is in control. We saw her work her magic with the energy of Goddess Durga during the festival, tapping into the enthusiasm of the locals, for the fair.

Together, they organised football matches, cultural events, health and agriculture workshops and set up stalls to showcase rural crafts and cuisine to visitors from neighbouring villages. Momos, thukpa, chowmein were rustled up by capable mamas at the stalls even as village lasses in colourful costumes danced on stage like stalks bending in the wind. The oldest resident, 99-year-old Bindramaya Chettri, who had settled in Chuikhim when she was a young belle of 14, said that her village had not changed much since her arrival, decades ago. “But this festival will bring in change for the good.”

Painting the sky!

In her youth, Indraani wanted to be a painter but a brief stint in a glider plane revealed to her a world of possibilities and she took to the skies like a bird in flight. Her moment of epiphany, however, happened when she saw nuns toiling in the slums of Kolkata, unmindful of the dirt and filth in which they worked.

Soon after, she started teaching a group of five kids at a construction site in Gurgaon way back in 1996. With the three Es of Education, Empowerment and Employment as targets, Literacy India has today given over 25,000 children and women across India the ability to stand on their own, via their 29 centres across nine States.

The pilot-crusader has been featured in the Limca Book of Records and won awards such as the Women Achievers Award, 2009, presented by the International Congress of Women. She manages it all with sheer spunk, common sense, passion and a simple philosophy of “walk the talk”. She and her team have won the trust of tribals, villagers and even the humble vegetable vendor and housemaid whose children have gone on to become accountants and software engineers while many tribal girls in Maoist-prone areas of West Bengal have been mainstreamed into regular schools in the State.

Unlike anxious, traditional parents, Indraani does not discourage Literacy India children from pursuing non-mainstream careers. Young Doli Ram, for instance, whose theatrical skills were finessed in Indraani’s theatre workshops, is a radio jockey with Gurgaon’s community radio. At the Chuikhim Festival, he played the role of master of ceremonies with flair. Another child, Rahul, acted in Three Idiots as the canteen boy, Millimetre, and five kids from Literacy India have got a break in the award-winning film Neel Chhatri. And if, after the glitz of Bollywood, they find it hard to come down to earth, Indraani has to step in — she asked actor Boman Irani who was on a flight which she was piloting, to give Rahul, his former co-star, a dressing down for shirking his studies after the success of Three Idiots.

“Digital Dost”, a powerful tool in educating the young, put together by the captain and her team over a period of two years, has digitised the education programme of Literacy India. India Crafts is also an offshoot of Literacy India where underprivileged women are trained to craft chic bags and cushion covers which are sold in India and overseas.

Sensibly tough

Indraani’s main asset is herself, her aura of gentle toughness and an ability to get things done. Often a deeply-held prejudice will rear its head — a parent requested that a child from a “lower caste” be made to sit on the floor at the computer centre. Indraani explained gently that the child would not be able to reach the computer if he were to sit on the floor and worked out a compromise whereby he would sit on a stool, while the rest of the students would sit on chairs. “I avoid adopting a tough activist approach,” she says.

The road less travelled can be a bumpy one but the game changer’s total transparency is winning her corporate support.

The Chuikhim Festival was sponsored by SBI Card, Master Card, Air India, Tupperware, Genus, etc. Indraani also has a supportive husband and an 18-year-old son with whom she goes hiking, biking and even scuba diving. She confesses with charming candour that her homemaker skills leave a lot to be desired. “I can’t even stitch a button,” she laughs.