Premlata Agarwal – A Woman Extraordinaire

<p>India is an incredible country in many aspects but sadly not in terms of adventure sports opportunities it offers to women, especially its <em>Middle-aged Married</em> women. We take this for granted, that they will stay at home, care for their children, and maybe will take up a 9 to 5 job to supplement the income of their husbands. Adventure has always been the domain of hardy men, boys and maybe young girls or spinsters but definitely not of <em>Middle-aged Married</em> women, especially the ones with kids.</p> <p>How many of us know a woman, a homemaker, exactly like our mothers or aunts, with family and kids, who broke loose all the above stereotypes and dogmas to follow her passion and live a life extraordinaire? <strong><em>Padma Shri Premlata Agarwal</em></strong> is exactly that.</p>

Breaking away from the traditional role of a housewife assigned to her, she went on to become a woman of many firsts. Ms. Premlata is the first Indian woman to have scaled the Seven Summits, the seven highest continental peaks of the world. On May 20, 2011, she became the oldest Indian woman to have scaled the world's tallest peak, Mount Everest (29,029 ft.), at the age of 48 years. She was also the first person from Jharkhand state to scale Mount Everest. Her many achievements have earned her a place in the prestigious Limca Book of Records as well.

However, the story of this extraordinary woman has a very ordinary beginning. As a child, Premlata was a hearty and healthy kid never backing from any sports or physical challenges. Despite being the last runner to cross the finish line and deemed a laughing stock, she was optimistic to never leave a race mid-way with the fear of defeat. One of nine siblings, hailing from a joint family of 30, eventually Premalata had to give up on her love for sports and adventure due to societal norms. As an obedient daughter, she got married in her early twenties and with an open heart accepted her duties of a wife, a daughter in law and a mother.  

It was her role as a mother that led to her unusual association with mountaineering. When her daughters were growing up in Jamshedpur she visited the JRD Tata Sports Complex in 2001, for admitting them to a tennis training. On the notice board there, she saw a call from the Institute for the Dalma Hill Trek (a small hill on the outskirts of Jamshedpur), organized by the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation. Casually, she decided to try it out. Much to her surprise, she stood third in the trek defeating more than 500 participants which included some professionally trained mountaineers.

While visiting the TSAF office to collect her certificate, following her win, she was awed by the many pictures on the walls of legendary mountaineer Padma Shri Bachendri Pal’s Himalayan adventures. Following the trail of these frames, she entered an office and found herself standing right across the legend herself.

On hearing Premlata’s desire to get her daughters admitted to the TSAF mountaineering course, Bachendri Ma’am replied back “Why don’t YOU join instead?”  After giving this proposal much thought and bolstered by her recent performance in the trek, Premlata conjured up the courage to announce to her family her decision to pursue mountaineering. It took a while before they were convinced by her decision, mostly because they knew Premlata wasn’t one to be budged. To reduce their apprehensions, Premlata promised that her other responsibilities wouldn’t be neglected. This was a challenging time for her and also the time when she learned to strike a harmonious balance between her duties as a homemaker and her training for expeditions.

 Premlata never looked back from here on. At every step of the way, it was her unshakable willpower, her family’s support and Bachendri Ma’am’s encouragement that led her to go on challenging adventures and create histories. Starting with BC Roy Peak (18000 ft.) in 2001, Thelu peak (19700 ft.) in 2003, Island Peak (20600 ft.) in 2004, International peaks like Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (19,395 ft.) in 2008, Mt. Aconcagua, Argentina (22842 ft.) in 2012, Mt. McKinley (16049 ft.) in 2013 and King of them all Mt. Everest (29029 ft.) in 2011, her repertoire is inspiring and unbelievable at the same time.

She accords the credit of these climbs to the guidance and mentorship of the indomitable Padma Shri Bachendri Pal, the constant support of Tata Steel, the TSAF team, and her guides in all her arduous climbs and trekking expeditions.

Unknowingly through her own journey, Premalata had played with the boundaries that are drawn for Middle-aged Married women in India and experimented with the glass walls created by the society around them, shackling them to a life shadowed by their husbands and families. We can only imagine how tough it must have been to convince her skeptical family about her challenging plans. A task not without rewards though. Today Premlata is the greatest inspiration for her daughters. No one can convince them that adventure is restricted to a gender or an age or marital status for that matter.

Premlata’s one of a kind story, so extraordinary and littered with achievements, must be told to girls and women across India so they realize how adventure does not have to stop with marriage or kids or at 40. Her courage and resilience have broken many a glass ceilings. In doing so she has not only broken these invisible barriers for herself but has become an example for numerous women out there who needed someone like her to believe in their own strengths. It is women like her who liberate young girls from the shackles of social expectations which keep them docile and averse to adventure. It is women like her who break open generations of women from the mental cage of physical weakness.

May we know more such women, May we stand behind them, May we be them.

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