Having a Soda With the 14-Year-Old Indian Girl Who Conquered Everest
Meeting up with Poorna Malavath, the youngest girl ever to summit Mt. Everest, is not easy. Malavath, who became a minor celebrity in India after the successful climb, in May 2014, just a month or so shy of her 14th birthday, is in town for some meetings related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Summit. She's been brought here by the advocacy group Nine Is Mine, a campaign for children’s rights that is petitioning the Indian government to allocate more of the country’s GDP toward education and health.
Malavath’s schedule is packed: She spoke at the U.N. to ambassadors from India, Kenya, and Ireland, and at UNICEF. She attended a UNICEF meeting about social media and participated in at least one drumming demonstration. There are rumblings about a seminar on Long Island later this evening. When we finally do meet up — after a couple days of trading emails with one handler, a series of miscommunications with another, and a half hour of wandering aimlessly around Times Square — it becomes somewhat clear why this get-together has been hard to arrange.
"There!" exclaims Rayadas Manthena, an Indian-born Wall Street VP who goes by the name Roy, and who is helping me on the final leg of my expedition to connect with Malavath. He points triumphantly at a sea of people wearing matching royal blue T-shirts wending their way slowly up Seventh Avenue toward 42nd Street. There are a handful of adults and a soccer team’s worth of children, several of them visibly handicapped. Somebody’s filming. There’s a lot of stopping to take photos. This is not a seamless operation.
The kids represent some of India’s most disadvantaged, explains Steve Rocha, one of the campaign’s organizers: Among their number are Dalit, or untouchables, India’s lowest caste. Some belong to tribal groups. There is at least one visually impaired girl. One kid is wearing hearing aids. One has a deformity of his arms or shoulders. "India has one-third of the world's poorest people," Rocha says. "Two hundred million children in India are malnourished."
We hatch an impromptu plan to park the group at the Disney Store so that I can take Malavath aside to ask her about her adventures on Everest. We head north for several harrowing blocks, running the gauntlet of Times Square. Malavath, Rocha tells me as we walk, derives from a nomadic tribe that’s now settled in a rural community in the southern state of Telangana. Her parents are very poor agricultural laborers, subsisting on 2,000 rupees a month, which is roughly equivalent to a dollar a day, well below India's poverty line.
We reach the Disney Store and the kids mill around out front, shifting restlessly from foot to foot, fiddling with their backpacks, a couple girls idly brushing each other’s hair. Rocha explains to them what’s about to happen while I scan the group, trying to pick out who looks like they just took on Everest. No one stands out.
Then Rocha says, "Poorna, you come with us," and a bird-boned girl with a long braid emerges from the bunch. She's wearing skinny jeans and sneakers under her blue tee. There are tiny studs in her ears, a thin, feminine chain around her neck, and a small silver-tone bracelet around one wrist. Her backpack dwarfs her. She bashfully shakes my hand with slender fingers and gives me a broad smile full of gleamingly white, too-big-for-her-mouth teeth, the kind you only find on adolescents awaiting their growth spurt.
Next door, at McDonald's, we settle into an upstairs booth to chat while Malavath drinks a Sprite. Her English is far from perfect, but we bumble along, and sometimes Manthena or Rocha interjects to interpret. I already know the basics of how Malavath came to climb Everest. She attends a state-run boarding school — called an Andhra Pradesh Social Welfare Residential School — for underprivileged kids with qualifying test scores. The secretary of her school system is a man named Dr. R.S. Praveen Kumar, a former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who got a master’s in public administration at Harvard, then returned to attempt to reform the schools that serve his country's poorest kids. He imagined the Everest expedition as a sort of social welfare-oriented My Fair Lady experiment: If he could transform a Dalit girl, among India's least privileged citizens, into an elite mountain climber, enable her to reach the highest point on earth, what rousing effect might that have on the rest of his country’s disadvantaged youth?
“I’m a sports girl,” Malavath says of why she was picked to be one of more than 100 students in her school system to receive rock-climbing training. In her regular life she plays volleyball and an Indian sport called kabaddi. She wants to take up cricket, but the U.N. trip got in the way. “I play games well,” she says. “That’s why they selected me.”
When the second cut came, Malavath was one of 20 sent to Darjeeling for ice- and snow-climbing training. It was there that her coach, Shekhar Babu, who summited Everest in 2007, showed her some videos of the mountain. She knew nothing of Everest before she began training. I ask if the videos frightened her, but she insists they gave her confidence. "I wanted to prove that girls could do anything, that social welfare students could do anything."
The Everest summit, which Malavath attempted with only one other student, a 17-year-old boy named Anand Kumar from a different district, took 52 days. In the lead-up, Malavath says, they prepared physically and mentally for three months, jogging daily, meditating, and doing yoga.
Nothing could have prepared her for what happened when they actually got onto the mountain. There are two ways to summit Everest: from the south in Nepal, and from the north in Tibet, which is controlled by China. Nepal has a strict 16-and-over policy for Everest expeditions; China does not. So Malavath's team attempted from the Tibetan side. While they were acclimatizing at base camp, they got news that an expedition on the Nepalese side had been caught in an avalanche and 16 Sherpas had died. But Malavath didn’t think of turning back. "We are Swaeroes," she tells me, referring to an influential alumni organization for her school system. "We don't have reverse gears. The sky is the limit. That’s the motto."
Later, when she encountered six dead bodies nearly 11,000 feet up the mountain, she again took comfort in what she calls the "Swaeroes 10 Commandments," which include such bolstering sentiments as "I am not inferior to anyone" and "I shall always think big and aim high."
"I was scared,” she admits. "But at the time, I remembered my parents, my teachers. I wanted to complete the dream of my secretary, Praveen Kumar." I ask if she cried, and she laughs and shakes her head. "No, no, no."
When she summited, she hoisted the Indian national flag, the Telangana flag, and the Swaeroes flag. A day later she was able to call her parents, whom she sees only once a month, by satellite phone. “They felt very happy,” she tells me. She remembers they cried joyful tears, but can't recall what else they told her.
Prying details about the actual expedition from Malavath is difficult. There’s a language barrier; she’s got a teenager’s timid reluctance to answer questions; and she has an endearing quality of talking with her hands instead of actually verbalizing her thoughts. (I keep worrying for the safety of my tape recorder and her fountain drink.) “The whole expedition is very dangerous and very difficult,” she tells me, twisting a thick rubber band, printed with the hashtag #casteoutcast, around her wrist.
I turn my questions to life since she’s returned. Some things, she tells me, are back to normal: She hasn’t done any mountain climbing in the year and a half since leaving Everest, focusing instead on her studies (current topics: math, physics, and chemistry) in hopes of one day following in the footsteps of Kumar and becoming an IPS officer. Once she graduates, she’d like to take on other peaks, Kilimanjaro and K2 specifically.
Some things are quite different: "Before Everest I didn't know anything about any other cities. I just knew my village and my school,” she tells me. Now she’s traveled all over India. "I met my prime minister, Narendra Modi," she says excitedly. "I met the chief minister of my state." Any mountain climbers? Before her Everest bid she was introduced to Arunima Sinha, a former Indian national volleyball player who lost a leg after being pushed from a moving train, and who summited Everest wearing a prosthesis in 2013. "She inspired me a lot," Malavath says.
She adds that she would love to meet Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to conquer the mountain, in 1984. Also on her list: "President Obama and Malala[Yousafzai]." Malavath hadn't heard of Yousafzai until this trip — Malala was also in town for the U.N. summit — and she's become a big fan. "She has the courage to go against the establishment," Malavath explains.
In India, she tells me, girls don't get a lot of chances to dream big. "Lots of people say, 'Boys are great!' 'Boys can do anything,'" Malavath says, getting animated. "They encourage only boys. Girls don't get encouragement." (Her parents, she says, were uncharacteristically quite encouraging, as was her older brother.)
Since the Everest summit, Malavath's gotten a lot of letters from students at other schools, telling her how much her success has meant to them. "'You’re great!' 'You've done a good job!'" she remembers. "'As a girl, you proved girls can do anything.'" She giggles self-consciously. "'I like you!'"
Our conversation winds down and it's time for Malavath to go. As she stands, I'm struck again by how delicate and small she seems, like even a dainty gust of wind could lift her off the ground. It's very hard to imagine her taking on one of the most hostile environments on earth, a mountain that has bested plenty of adults, some of them professionals. It's also hard to imagine how a group of adults decided it was a good idea to send her.
But if I'm concerned, she's not. She flashes me another of her megawatt smiles to say goodbye, and wanders out of the McDonald's, eager to rejoin her friends.
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Photo Credit: AP Photo/Saurabh Das