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Pretty Tough

Age and gender simply do not matter when you’re faced with a challenge. Three spunky women tell their stories. Here's finding out how did they do it? And, more importantly, why?

entertainment Updated: May 29, 2012 16:23 IST
Veenu Singh

Age and Gender! None of that matters when you choose to face a challenge. At least, that’s what these three women have learned.

One, Premlata Agarwal, is the oldest Indian woman to climb Mount Everest. The other two, Priyanka Chand Oswal and Ela Vohra, participated in Mission Army, the reality show on the National Geographic Channel that asked people to go through actual army training – without prizes.

How did they do it? And, more importantly, why?

Priyanka Chand Oswal
Who: Priyanka is a second-year science student from Pune
What: Was one of the five finalists of Nat Geo’s Mission Army programme
Looking back: “Mission Army changed my whole perception about the Indian army. I have great respect now for the people
who work there.”

At 19, Pune-based Priyanka Chand Oswal, is a regular teenager. A second-year BSc student at Garware College, Pune, she likes catching the latest movies and hanging out with her friends. She has no association with the armed forces – the National Cadet Corps (NCC) camps at school were the closest she ever got to army life. But she was intrigued by it. “At the NCC camps, I realised how different life is for people in the armed forces,” Priyanka recalls. “They’re disciplined and always on call. It was really interesting.”


So, when she saw the ads for Mission Army, she applied – though she didn’t mention it to her parents. “I thought I’d tell them only if I was called for auditions,” says Priyanka, the youngest of four sisters. “And there was a mixed reaction when I did tell them. My father was encouraging but my mother was not keen. Still, she didn’t stop me.”



Stepping up to the plate: "Army life is hard," says Priyanka Chand Oswal. "After a month of exercise and rigorous training, I realised how difficult the life of a soldier is."

At the auditions, Priyanka found she was one of just nine girls competing against 600 boys. “Usually in such situations, girls tend to feel weak, but I felt very strong and wanted to prove myself,” says Priyanka. A few of the male contestants did try to discourage the girls, she adds, but the army officers were encouraging.



“Before entering the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun, I had just a basic idea about life in the institute,” she says. “But after a month there in training, I realised how difficult the life of a soldier is. During our course of commando training, my knee started giving me trouble and I was not able to bend it properly. But the officers at the institute motivated me to not give up.”



There was no gender discrimination, says Priyanka, who went by the nickname of ‘Call Centre’ during the training because she’s a non-stop talker. “Even though we were two girls pitted against three boys in the finals, there was no discrimination of any sort,” she says. “The only time I ever felt bad about being a girl was when we had to do the mountain sling obstacle. For these exercises you really need strong arms.”



Now, that the show is over, Priyanka is considering a career in the armed forces. “My perception of the armed forces has changed a lot after Mission Army,” she says. “I have great respect now for the people there. In fact, all my friends who laughed at my decision to take part are keen to try something similar. This reality show was not about 15 minutes of fame. It was about realising your potential in all kinds of situations.”



So now, Priyanka is attempting to join the Indian Air Force – she has already finished the nine hours and 20 minutes of flying essential for it. “But if I don’t get through, I will definitely try for the IMA,” she says.



Premlata Agarwal



Who:

Premlata Agarwal is a homemaker.


What:

She is the oldest Indian woman to have climbed Mt Everest and the first person from Jharkhand to do so.


Looking back:

“I come from the Marwari community, so I’m heartened and delighted at the support and encouragement that I got from my husband and my in-laws. They never stopped me from going on any expedition. They just asked me to be careful and were proud of me.”



If 45-year-old, Premlata Agarwal is bursting with pride, she has every reason for it. Not only is she the oldest Indian woman to have ascended the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, she is also the first person from Jharkhand and even the Marwari community to have such an achievement to her name.


Up above the world so high: Climbing Mount Everest can be dangerous. "Fortunately, I’ve always been into fitness," says Premlata Agarwal. "I go jogging and do yoga."

Born and brought up in Darjeeling, the mountains were Premlata’s first love. She was passionate about trekking even when she was a child and was initiated into mountaineering a few years ago. “I used to visit Tata Sports Complex to encourage my daughters to play tennis; it was there that I learned about a hill walking camp being conducted by Tata Steel Adventure Foundation (TSAF) under the guidance of Bachendri Pal. So I enrolled for the camp,” says Premlata.



Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Everest, motivated Premlata to take adventure sports seriously. So she participated in several TSAF expeditions – the Island Peak Expedition in Nepal (20,600 ft) in 2004, the Karakoram Pass (18,300 ft) and Mt Stok Kangri (20,150 ft) expeditions in 2006, as well as the First Indian Women’s Thar Desert Expedition in 2007 which involved a 40-day camel safari along the international border from Bhuj in Gujarat to Wagah in Punjab. These achievements were also recognised as national records.



“Without the support of my family, this would not have been possible,” says Premlata, the mother of two daughters, one of whom was married last year. Despite belonging to the conservative Marwari community, Premlata’s in-laws and husband always encouraged her to take on new challenges. “They just asked me to be careful and were proud of my achievements,” she says.



Premlata felt confident about climbing Everest. “I have always been inclined towards fitness and go to the gym regularly,” she says. “Plus, I jog and do yoga, which I also teach. So even at 45, I don’t have physical problems.”



Still, she began toughening herself up by going on a climbing exercise on the Island Peak, followed by tramping up and down between Everest camps on the lower levels to acclimatise herself. On May 6, she started off from Everest base camp at 18,000 feet and by May 19, she was at 26,000 feet at Camp 4 in the South Col. “But just as I was about to summit, ice formed on my oxygen mask and I couldn’t breathe,” Premlata recalls. “So I took off my right glove to clean it, but it got lost.”

At that height, in that cold, Premlata couldn’t continue without a glove, and she had only one hour to get to the peak before descending. “I really didn’t know what to do,” she says. “My glove had simply disappeared. Then, suddenly, I saw a woollen glove lying nearby. And it was for the right hand! I quickly put it on and started the final ascent. It felt like a miracle!”

Ela Vohra

Who: Ela worked with IBM Pune and is currently a cadet at the Indian Military Academy (IMA)
What: Was one of the five finalists of Nat Geo’s Mission Army programme
Looking back: “This is like a dream come true! My dad is a colonel in the Indian Army so I grew up dreaming of olive uniforms and shiny medals. I have experienced the army in reel life as a civilian and now, it’s my turn to experience it as a soldier in real life!”

The daughter of an armyman, 23-year-old Ela Vohra spent her life dreaming of olive uniforms, shining medals and camouflaged tanks.

She was working with IBM in Pune when she stumbled upon the ads for Mission Army. “I was browsing the Indian army website for information about the service selection board (SSB) date, when I saw a link on the side to the Mission Army website,” says Ela. “My curiosity was aroused, so I clicked on it and read about how the contestants would get the chance to live the life of a soldier. That was enough for me to apply.”

Girl alone: Ela Vohra (extreme left) was obsessed with the army from childhood. "Being a lady cadet at the IMA was awesome," she says.

Her parents were pleased. “My father is a colonel and he knew there was a soldier in me,” says Ela. “I’ve always been obsessed with the army in any case. Once, when I was a child and we’d been travelling, I woke up in the car to see a tourist bus in front of us. Immediately, I was convinced that it was a bus full of terrorists and wanted to have it captured!”

Ela went to Mumbai for the auditions. That was tough – there were eliminations at every level. But she found herself among the top five contestants from Mumbai. After being cleared by the army medical board as being fit for service, off she went to the IMA in Dehradun.

“I had an awesome time being a lady cadet at the IMA,” grins Ela. “Our welcome began with push-ups and sit-ups. Yes, this was the flavour of the Indian Army!” Next, the team moved to the Commando School, Belgaum, where they learnt how to survive the impact of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). “The schedule that a commando undergoes during the 35 days of training was inspiring,” says Ela. “Since I’m a girl, this was an opportunity I would not have got otherwise.”

Ahmednagar came next, where they drove and fired from tanks and BMP fighting vehicles, and then it was on to the Deolali ranges, where the Mission Army participants got a taste of the ARTY (artillery).

“This was very special for me because I got a chance to step into my father’s shoes,” says Ela. “The shooting ranges are still fresh in my heart.”
But the most unforgettable moment for Ela was the visit to the CBS (corps battle school). “I was totally taken by the life of the soldier,” she says. “I realised how tough it is, but in spite of that, our soldiers are always ready for us and the nation.”

After Mission Army ended, Ela cleared the SSB and is now a cadet in the IMA. “It feels like my dream has come true,” she exults. “I have experienced army life as a civilian in reel life and now I’m experiencing it as a soldier in real life!”

Strong, Stronger...

Priyanka Chand Oswal
1.She was an NCC cadet before trying her luck with Mission Army. Only the tough ones sign up for the NCC
2. She was a regular at the gym
3. Played badminton and rode horses to cool off
4. Went through the daily IMA grind: an hour and a half of push-ups, sit-ups, running, rock-climbing and more. If that’s not back-breaking, we don’t know what is!
5. Practiced Meditation and Peace

Premlata Agarwal
1. A hundred suryanamaskars and 30 minutes of pranayam every day
2. A week of rock climbing at Mount Abu to acclimatise herself to extreme weather conditions
3. Traipsing up and down Tiger Hill in Darjeeling. With a 20-kg load on her back
4. Walking up and down her parents’ four-storeyed house at 4 am every day with a 20-kg load on her back (again)
5. Walking on ice in freezing Sikkim in December, a technique known as Ice Craft
6. Gorging on healthy, home-cooked vegetarian food, though she popped the occasional egg at Everest base camp

Ela Vohra
1. A five-kilometre cycle run to and from work every day
2. A 30-minute run every day
3. An hour and a half of push-ups, sit-ups and a six-kilometre run as a part of the IMA daily drill. Phew!

- From HT Brunch, June 12

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