Summit of achievement

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ChatAutar Singh Cheema was the first Indian to scale Mount Everest. On the eve of releasing his biography, his wife speaks up

Ajindar and Autar Singh
Ajindar and Autar Singh

In an age when the image is everything, and empty vessels the preferred containers for their ratio of greater noise to substance, it is the rare soul who, after achieving a coveted goal, refuses to crow about it but decides to get on with life and doesn't strive to become a celebrity for all time. But this, apparently, was just what Autar Singh Cheema, the first Indian to reach the summit of Mount Everest, did after achieving the mountaineers' dream on May 20, 1965. (Tenzing Norgay was a Nepali citizen when he reached the summit with Sir Edmund Hillary. He later accepted honorary Indian citizenship.)

This Friday, on the 46th anniversary of Cheema's feat, Hay House India releases 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 Cheema. Autar Cheema was a captain at the time he was sent on the Army expedition to Everest and later became a colonel.

A paratrooper, Cheema was born in Rajasthan. His wife relates that despite hailing from “the desert sands of Ganganagar, Rajasthan”, he achieved great heights, literally and metaphorically, and he always took this as a metaphor for every human's potential to succeed.

Even seen in photographs on the summit, she points out, “He is one of the very few who's humbly sitting. Usually they stand with their feet arrogantly placed on the mountain. But he said, ‘No, one should not put one's feet there.'” Before this biography, Dhillon has authored books on spirituality, including one on Guru Nanak (Indus Source publishers), a couple of novels and now has one on Bhagat Singh ready for publication.

The idea of a book on Cheema first came to a niece of the couple, Preena Sandhu, says Ajindar. When Hillary died and the world took note, Preena pointed out to her aunt that they too had an illustrious Everester in their family whom the public did 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 ready to hit the shelves, says, “It's more for my grandchildren. They've never met him (Cheema). The main aim is to tell the grandchildren what kind of a man he was.”


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