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On top of the world at Baluchi!

Photos: Sandeep Saxena

WOMAN ON TOP: Santhosh Yadav regales as with her tale of the conquest of the Everest over food and music at Intercontinental The Grand in New Delhi.

JONIYAWAS. SANTOSH Yadav's greatness lies not in the fact that she was born in this nondescript village populated by a hundred-odd people in Haryana's Rewari district. Her greatness lies in the fact she got out of it. Not today when we are celebrating 50 years of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's tryst with destiny but more than a decade ago when she climbed the Everest in 1992 and followed it up with a return visit as the leader next year. One step at the Everest, and life has not been the same. They call it `on top of the world' feeling. They can only say it. She has experienced it all.

Yet, it was not always that way. And Santosh Yadav was happy playing a sister to her five brothers. As she recounts, sitting at Baluchi restaurant of InterContinental The Grand Hotel in New Delhi, "I used to walk down five kilometres for my school. We did not have pucca floor. We had no mattresses to sit on, so we used to carry our gunny bags. On the way back whenever it used to rain, we used to make a hat out of the bag!"

And then one day, this little girl expressed a desire to study more. The father, steeped in tradition, had other ideas. But then what do you say to a little girl who only wants to study "a bit more"? And off Santosh Yadav went to Jaipur. Admitted to Maharani College, she was denied entry to Annie Besant Hostel. It was a denial that was to open many, many doors for the assuming girl who has to be coaxed to speak about herself and then recount her engrossing tale.

She found a room in Kasturba Hostel. And if ever a quirk of fate played a role in one's destiny, it was this. "The hostel was facing the Aravallis. I used to watch villagers from my room going up. But after a while they used to disappear. One day, I decided to check up myself. There was nobody but a few mountaineers. I asked them if I could join. Their surprising affirmative answer motivated me to take to climbing. I saved money and enrolled for a course at Uttarkashi's Nehru Institute of Mountaineering," she recalls, neither wistful, nor proud, just factual. This time, she needs no cajoling to make a statement.

Sipping her soda with lemon without sugar, she recalls that fate played its part once more. "My semester which was to end in April ended on May 19. And on May 21 I was supposed to be in Uttarkashi. So I did not go back home, headed straight for training and wrote an apology to my father without whose permission I had enrolled."

Well, fate has played its role on more than one occasion with Santosh Yadav. As a staffer helpfully offers her Kasturi Kabab to get on to the main course, she recalls, "I was taking coaching from Rau's IAS Study Circle near Connaught Place and putting up at place given to me by Indian Mountaineering Federation. My family was affluent but I could not ask them for money. One day while waiting for bus number 620, I walked into a hotel and met a Good Samaritan." Soon she made it to Civil Services. Now besides climbing the highest peak in the world, she had also joined elite service.

Now the world waits for her word. "Bring some Paneer ki Sabzi and some tomato soup if possible," she asks the waiter for food with all the genuine warmth of small town India without the affectation of urban politeness. "In mountains we used to have lots of potatoes. We carried fresh vegetables which stay that way for about a month. Also some tinned food. We had boiled chana and chocolates too. Now of course we have MTR and Tasty Bite cooked food which just needs to be put in boiled water." Meanwhile, it is time to move to the main course and savour some tikkas, some rice, some chapatti and the famous dal.

"I am a light-eater. I take five almonds in the morning alongwith some fruits and sprouted grams and two slices of bread. For lunch I go in for green vegetables while dinner is pretty light. I prefer vegetarian food though I have occasionally tried non-vegetarian fare after my marriage," says the woman who believes there is nothing, absolutely nothing which can equal the feeling of reaching the top of Mt. Everest. "The moment I reached there, I was blank. It was after sometime that realisation set in when my team-mates in the base camp started celebrating. But to hoist the Tricolour there gives a different feeling all together. But the most difficult task is to balance your emotions as coming down I more dangerous."

Incidentally, a man died in her arms on the way to Everest and another - Mohan Singh - could have met with the same fate had she not shared her oxygen with a visibly panting Singh.

Meanwhile, she takes time out to admire the ambience of Baluchi, which she claims, takes her "back to childhood, back to the village". "It is so nice, so homely, so beautiful. I am taken back to my village where I spent my early years in a haveli. The music, the walls, the utensils... ."

True to the hint, the ghazal singer starts a song which encapsulates her journey from a small village of Haryana, to Delhi, to Jaipur to Uttarkashi to... Mt Everest. "Us Mod Se Shuru Karen Phir Yeh Zindagi... "

Well, it is not time to begin life afresh yet. Not at InterContinental Hotel overlooking the Ranjit Singh flyover. It is time still to share a few moments with Santosh Yadav, the only woman to climb the Everest twice, and a lady brave enough to attend the celebrations surrounding Sir Edmund Hillary's visit while on the doorstep of motherhood. She has time still for some fans, time to tell us that she loves painting, that she is acquainted with good music. That she can do a bit of housekeeping, she can cook though she never learnt it. And that she enjoyed the hospitality of the hotel where she likes everything on offer except Pepsi. "I never take Pepsi or Coke. It is harmful for mountaineers. Even at home I don't serve it. It is bad for health. Just plain water will do," she says before getting into her car on the way to Chanakyapuri.

Joniyawas, did one say? Well, never mind. The place might still be small and dust-laden but thanks to Santosh Yadav, it shall forever be a part of the annals of Indian history. After all, this is the place where Santosh first breathed, much before she embraced the Himalayas, and much, much before she came down for that memorable evening at the InterContinental.


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