BOOKThe biography of Autar Singh Cheema, the first Indian to reach the Everest summit, traces the life of the unsung hero

Autar Singh Cheema realised his mountaineering dream on May 20, 1965 by becoming the first Indian to reach the summit of Mount Everest (Tenzing Norgay was a Nepali citizen when he reached the summit with Sir Edmund Hillary. He later accepted honorary Indian citizenship).

On the 46th anniversary of Autar Cheema's feat recently, Hay House India released a book on the little known hero who died in 1989.More than Everest: The Extraordinary Life of Autar Singh Cheemahas been written by Harish Dhillon on the request of Cheema's wife, Ajindar. Autar Cheema was a captain when he was sent on an Army expedition to Everest. He later became a colonel.

A paratrooper, Cheema was born in Rajasthan. His wife (based in Ludhiana) says that despite hailing from “the desert sands of Ganganagar”, he achieved great heights, literally and metaphorically, and he always took this as a metaphor for every human's potential to succeed. She recalls, “He would keep telling the children, ‘If I could do it, why can't you?'”

No one else in his family took up mountaineering, but what was important were the lessons he brought home. Among them was humility, says the proud wife.

“He would be invited to give inspirational talks, but he never gloated.”

Before this biography, Dhillon has authored books on spirituality (Indus Source publishers) and a couple of novels. The author says he thought it would be a cut-and-paste job. But when he started going through the material, he realised it is worth all the effort. Also, there were no deadlines, no constraints over photographs and pages, he recalls. He worked on it for about a year, he says, describing it “a labour of love”.

The idea of a book on Cheema first came when Hillary died and the world took note and the family realised they too had an illustrious Everester in their family whom people do not remember. It was then they began to collect information on Cheema, who was a recipient of the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri. Was it difficult? “No,” says Ajindar, “because he was known to a lot of people and they looked forward to talking about him.”

Ajindar, pleased that the book is finally on the shelves, says: “It's more for my grandchildren. They've never met him. I wanted to tell them what kind of a man he was.”

In the process, perhaps, the rest of India will get one more genuine role model.