Against all odds: Ten Indian women who made history

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Bachendri Pal

First Indian woman to climb Mount Everest (1984, aged 28)

Bachendri Pal. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Bachendri Pal. Photo: V.V. Krishnan
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

Bachendri Pal was a woman of the mountains. She grew up in a hilly village, mastering the terrain on her trips to cut grass and wood from the jungles. However, even her parents did not imagine her becoming the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest in 1984.

The historic ascent was filled with danger. Two previous attempts to put Indian women on top of the mountain had failed. Pal had to climb without a rope because of some issues. That meant she could slip on the hardened morning snow and fall to her death. During the ascent, her team was hit by an avalanche and the camp buried. Some members of the team gave up due to injuries and fatigue. But Bachendri Pal was made of tougher stuff.

When she finally reached the top, it opened up the world for her. It was an “awakening of [her] abilities.” After the historic climb, Pal went on to lead more than 4,500 women on expeditions, founded the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation in Jamshedpur, and won a Padma Bhushan in 2019.

“For me, my journey to Everest symbolised women’s empowerment. It was an awakening of my abilities. In the end, the choice is yours — to stop or keep pursuing”Bachendri Pal To Harpreet Kaur Lamba, BusinessLine

Aditi Pant and Sudipta Sengupta

First Indian women to stay in Antarctica (1983)

(Published in The Hindu on December 18, 1983)

(Published in The Hindu on December 18, 1983)
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

As part of a scientific expedition, Aditi Pant and Sudipta Sengupta journeyed from Goa to Antarctica’s icy, testing land armed with grit and determination to contribute to their areas of scientific specialisation. Pant wanted to study the marine ecosystem in the region through the living conditions of phytoplankton, which was what the fish fed on. Sengupta wanted to carry out petrological and minerological studies on Antarctic rocks.

The mission built the first-ever Indian Antarctic base (Dakshin Gangotri) at a time when the world was stunned by the arrival of India, a country that was not part of the Antarctic Treaty. No other country outside the Treaty, not even China, had reached the frozen continent.

Pant and Sengupta went on to stay in Antarctica for around four months, producing stellar research work. Some days, temperatures fell to around -30 degrees Celsius, and blizzards took wind speeds up to 160 km/hour. During the summer, the sun did not set and researchers slept only by their watches. Since then, more women have joined expeditions even as the region remains harsh. Now, at least 80 Indian women researchers and doctors are part of India’s Antarctic programme.

Kalamandalam Hemalatha

Set a Guinness Record for the longest dance performance (2010)

Kalamandalam Hemalatha attempting a World Record at Thrissur

Kalamandalam Hemalatha attempting a World Record at Thrissur
| Photo Credit:
NAJEEB KK

Kalamandalam Hemalatha danced the Mohiniyattam for over five days straight in September 2010. For over 123 hours, she staged everything from Tom and Jerry and Mother Teresa to ragging, farmer suicides and more through her dancing. Every three hours, she took a 15-minute break. She did not sleep and ate only rice gruel and a banana. At 9.32 p.m. she closed her performance, breaking the previous record for the longest dance performance of 108 hours.

Hemalatha was no stranger to grueling performances. In June that same year, she danced for over 63 hours straight before suffering from dehydration, stomach disorders and sore feet. 

Mohiniyattam is associated with the beautiful woman Mohini, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu who appears before asuras to outwit and enchant them. Mohini is said to have performed a dance, which came to be regarded as the Mohiniyattam. The dance form is celebrated as one of Kerala’s artforms.

Fathima Beevi

First woman judge of the Supreme Court (1989)

(Published in The Hindu August 07, 1983)

(Published in The Hindu August 07, 1983)
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

Fathima Beevi’s appointment as first Indian woman Supreme Court Judge in 1989 at the age of 62 showed her determination and love for her profession. She made these inroads at a time when people were asking why women should practice law.

Besides her Supreme Court foray, she was also the first woman member of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal and Kerala’s first High Court woman judge. 

“What we have to take note at this juncture is that she achieved all these in her life at a time when women barely made their entry into the legal profession,’’ former High Court judge K. Hema told The Hindu.  Later, she went on to become the Governor of Tamil Nadu in 1997. Though her term was mired with controversies, such as inviting the late J. Jayalalithaa to form the government in 2001 when she was disqualified from contesting elections, and the report she sent to the Centre after the arrest of the late M. Karunanidhi – she would be remembered as the only woman Governor of the State.

Ketayun Ardeshir Dinshaw

Padma Shri for contribution in evolution of cancer treatment and radiation therapy

Ketayun Ardeshir Dinshaw Photo: R. Ragu

Ketayun Ardeshir Dinshaw Photo: R. Ragu
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

Ketayun Ardeshir Dinshaw entered the cancer treatment field when it was going through a change. Treatment approaches were beginning to change, the machinery to detect and treat cancers were changing and the number of people affected by cancer was growing. At this time, Dinshaw was at the helm of major improvements in the field.

One of them was how she adopted a multidisciplinary approach to cancer treatment. Instead of patients being treated by the first doctor they went to, they were treated incorporating all angles into treatment and rehabilitation. “This approach is the crucial, pivotal point in comprehensive care of cancer,” she told The Hindu.

Dinshaw went on to become the director of the Tata Memorial Hospital, shaping much of its operations, headed associations and societies for radiation oncology, introduced several advanced therapy techniques in India and was a member of several expert and scientific advisory committees.

Dinshaw was humble, empathetic and had a clear vision to let more people know about the disease. She died of cancer in 2011.

Deepa Malik

First woman to win a medal at the Paralympics

Deepa Malik with her Paralympic medal. Photo: Kamal Narang

Deepa Malik with her Paralympic medal. Photo: Kamal Narang
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

In 2016, Deepa Malik became the first Indian woman paralympic medal winner, bagging a silver in shot put.

Malik was always an outdoor person. As a teenager, she adored bikes and played cricket. When she was eight, she developed spinal tumours for the first time. However, it wasn’t until 21 years later that the tumours came back and made her unable to walk despite repeated surgeries. This changed her life.

But she bounced back. She started a garden restaurant that was featured on television. Bikers in her town introduced her to adventure sports. At 36, she began swimming at the national level and won several medals. She even swam against the Yamuna tide and entered the Limca Book of Records. Then, she chose athletics.

She earned the official IPC Asian record in javelin throw and earned national records in discus throw. In 2014, she won a Para Asian Games medal and a gold in javelin throw in 2018.

It all comes down to grit and determination. “If we put our mind to it and we are ready to adapt, we can learn and excel at any age,” she told The Hindu. 

Chetna Sinha

Founder of first rural co-operative bank for women in India

Chetna Sinha: Creating opportunities.

Chetna Sinha: Creating opportunities.
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

Chetna Sinha’s idea for a rural bank for women came after she talked to women selling their produce from small farms in the weekly market in Satara district, Maharashtra. They wanted to save what little they had, but did not have access to bank accounts. So, Sinha started the Mann Deshi Bank in 1997.

As many as 1,335 women pooled their savings (₹7.8 lakh) and set up the bank. Today, it has 37,000 members, deposits of around ₹100 crore, more than two lakh account holders, eight branches, and has given loans to the value of ₹500 crore with a repayment rate of over 96 per cent. 

The journey was not without challenges. Since the rural women were not literate, the RBI rejected their application to start the bank. Taking this as a challenge, Sinha helped these women learn. Then, they headed to the RBI office and called the officer there for a meeting. They told him they knew how to calculate interest rates without the calculator and asked if his officers could do the same. After this, they got the license.

Sinha, too, learnt crucial things along the way. The bank now offers its customers the convenience of saving at their doorstep, different types of loans and flexibility in repaying the loan, digital and mobile banking options through biometrics.

“I realised that it is not just access, it is control of finance, control on decision-making (that women want)”Chetna SinhaTo NK MINDA, BusinessLine

Bhagyashree Thipsay

First Indian to win International Women Chess Grandmaster (1986)

Bhagyashree Thipsay

Bhagyashree Thipsay
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

As a 12-year-old, Thipsay’s first chess opponent was her father in Sangli, Maharashtra. It began when her father keenly watched the 1972 final for the world title between America’s Fischer and Russia’s Spassky. This match was seen as the cold war between America and the Soviet Union playing out on the chessboard. Her father would replay the moves on his chessboard while she would watch. Her father’s interest piqued hers, and before long, she was learning the sport and loving it.

As a girl in her late teens, she played in the National women’s championship for the first time in 1979. She came in eighth place. These championships were dominated by three sisters – the Khadilkar sisters. Six years later, Thipsay changed this when she defeated all three and won. Then, she defeated Hunnerkopf of West Germany in 1986 and won her first International Women Chess Grandmaster’s norm. She became the first Indian to do so.

Well into her thirties, she continued to put up a fierce fight against younger players. She won the National Women’s Championship five times and the Asian Women’s Championship once. She also won medals in Commonwealth Women Chess four times. In 1986, she was awarded the Padma Shree. 

Karnam Malleswari

First Indian woman to win an Olympic medal (2000)

Karnam Malleswari lifts 105 kg in the women’s 69kg weightlifting snatch during the Sydney Olympics on September 19, 2000, a feat that won her the bronze medal.  

Karnam Malleswari lifts 105 kg in the women’s 69kg weightlifting snatch during the Sydney Olympics on September 19, 2000, a feat that won her the bronze medal.  
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

In 2000, Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win a medal in the Olympics when she won bronze by lifting a total of 240 kg. Few saw it coming. 

Malleswari’s foray into weightlifting did not please her father, who was initially against it. However, since her older sister was already lifting weights, he let his second daughter join the sport too, after the insistence of the then Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh weightlifting coach Neelamshetty Appana. His expectation for his daughters was to simply perform well enough to get a sports quota job.

Malleswari’s first lift was at 12, in a thatched shed in her village in Andhra Pradesh. The place, set up in the late sixties, was not meant to train weightlifters for international competitions. It lacked facilities and the equipment it had was outdated and rusty. Here, Malleswari trained using railway track plates.  

Malleswari’s visit to the SAI Bangalore camp in 1990 to see her sister led to her joining the camp herself. Then, it was countless hours of disciplined, determined training. She had no social life, one of her coaches told The Hindu in 2000. After hours of training, she would sit and listen to Indian music. 

She went on to win medals in the 1994 and 1995 world championship, three gold in Asian championships and won an Arjuna award in 1994. In 2000, she bagged a historic win in the Olympics. Now, she runs an academy where 55 weightlifters are given free diet, training and residence. Malleswari’s journey from her village’s dolesome gyms to the Olympic stage at the young age of 25 is one of grit and determination.

Arunima Saha

First differently-abled Indian woman to climb Mount Everest

Arunima Sinha practicing rock climbing in an artificial wall at Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru. File Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

Arunima Sinha practicing rock climbing in an artificial wall at Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru. File Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

In 2013, Arunima Saha climbed Mount Everest and became the first Indian woman amputee to do so. On the way, she almost died without oxygen, her severed leg bled under the strain, and she saw the dead bodies of other climbers. However, she kept going. “The only thing on my mind was to be alive till I hoist the tricolour on the summit,” she said. When she reached the top after 28 hours, she was reborn.

Her journey there was rough. Before she lost her leg, Sinha was a national-level volleyball player. In 2011, she lost her leg after falling off a train in an altercation with dacoits. For four months, she was in recovery. “Lying in the hospital with an amputated leg and serious injuries, I decided to play the toughest game of my life which was climbing Mt. Everest,” she told The Hindu. 

Under Bachendri Pal, she trained for 18 months and climbed lower peaks to prepare for the Everest climb. She finally reached the top on May 21, 2013, at 10:55 a.m, at just 26 years old. Later, in 2019, she went on to scale Antarctica’s highest mountain after climbing peaks in Europe, Russia, Indonesia and Africa.



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