Hyderabad: Malavath Poorna is from Pakala, a remote tribal hamlet in Andhra Pradesh's Nizamabad district. Her village, which does not even have a primary health centre, has today earned a place in the world map thanks to the 13-year-old girl's stupendous achievement.
On May 25 this year, Poorna became the youngest woman in the world to reach "the top of the world' - the summit of Mount Everest. (Malavath Purna Becomes Youngest Woman to Scale Everest)
Her fellow climber, 18-year-old Sadhanapally Anand Kumar, became the first Dalit to conquer the peak, says his official website.
"Now, I feel I can do anything I set my heart to do. So can so many young girls out there. If they work towards their dream, they can make it happen,'' Poorna, the daughter of a farm labourer from Telangana, told NDTV, soon after her return home from the 52-day expedition. (Narendra Modi Congratulates Two Youngsters for Climbing Mount Everest)
"Poverty is not a barrier if the poor are given a chance,'' said Anand, echoing optimism.
The son of a cycle mechanic, Anand was a school dropout who worked on a farm in Khammam, one of the most backward districts in Andhra Pradesh. But his talent in sports and his father's hopes about his son escaping poverty made Anand go back to a government school.
Poorna and Anand took their first steps in mountain-climbing just eight months before the expedition at a rock climbing school at Bhongir in Nalgonda district. They were among 20 students selected from nearly two lakh children studying in social welfare residential schools run by the state government. All of them are children of farm labourers, rickshaw pullers, domestic help and auto-rickshaw drivers; most of them first-generation school-goers.
Their trainer Shekar Babu, who has conquered Mount Everest, says he was quite amazed at their quick progress.
"It started with adventure training to improve personality and build confidence. But once the activities started, we saw something amazing. These children have a hidden energy that they themselves didn't know about. We started working on it. They started gaining confidence; their entire personality changed. We realised these guys can really do wonders,'' he said.
And they did. After a week at Nalgonda, the next step was a 20-day course at Darjeeling's Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Trainer Parameshwar recalls that at the institute, they were straightaway told that no training was going to be given to the youngsters.
"As soon as the trainers saw them, they said they can't even reach the first camp. We had to convince them that if they don't perform, you send them back. They surprised everybody and reached the first camp within the time limit. Their journey started from there," says Mr Parameshwar.
The tough terrain, high altitude and freezing temperatures posed a huge challenge for them.
Saritha, one of the girls from the school, said adjusting to temperatures that plunged to minus 20 degrees, after living in humid Hyderabad, was a major shock.
"It was very cold. We couldn't bear it. We couldn't even walk. Water became ice in five minutes. We thought we couldn't survive. We had to carry 20 kg. Some of us cried when we touched the cold water,' she says.
But displaying both physical and mental tenacity, the group became the youngest to conquer the 17,000 feet high Renock peak at the Kanchanjunga Range.
In less than three months, the boys and girls, between 14 and 18 years of age, had acquired the confidence and skill that usually take years to acquire.
Saritha's father cried with joy that day. "My father said no one in our family had come to this stage. He was very happy. He was no longer afraid to send me (for such expeditions). My father now feels that his daughter can achieve anything. He is so happy and proud.''
Of a dozen contenders from social welfare hostels across Andhra Pradesh, Poorna and Anan, who displayed the best levels of mental and physical endurance and fitness, were finally selected for Operation Everest.
But climbing the world's highest peak was not going to be an easy task.
In April, in the worst ever tragedy in the Himalayas, 16 people were killed in an avalanche at Mount Everest .The more popular route to the world's highest peak, via Nepal, was virtually shut down.
So the group decided to try another route through China, considered even more difficult than the Nepal one.
Praveen Kumar, an IPS officer and the secretary of AP social welfare hostels, says he was well aware of the risks.
"We took a lot of precautions. We trained and tested their endurance at various temperatures and altitudes. I won't say we have gone to that extent to push them to go to Everest. But it has to be seen in the context of the aspirations of these children. They have some innate desire to express themselves, that they are not inferior, and not just in mountaineering. Our effort was to try and support that dream to whatever extent possible. The world record was a sheer coincidence," he says.
It is a treacherously tough climb even for the fittest and most experienced climbers. There is very little oxygen at the highest altitudes and no amount of training can prepare you.
For Poorna, the most frightening moment was finding bodies still hanging on to their climbing ropes in the 'death zone', between 8000 metres and 26000 feet.
"I was scared when I saw the dead bodies. I thought will I end up like that and wondered if I would ever go back home. Then I remembered the commandments that we are taught in school. I am not inferior to any one, I won't fear the unknown, I won't give up. I prayed to God and moved on.''
Poorna's parents were not too keen on allowing their daughter to go on such a dangerous expedition. Her father Devidas says his daughter explained to them that of the 110 children shortlisted, only two had selected.
"Our daughter convinced us (about letting her go). The school officials explained the risks to us, showed us relevant videos and asked whether we wanted to send her," he says.
"My mother said 'don't go, we don't need the Everest'. I said I want to go. I will come back successfully,'' she says.
Poorna's mother Lakshmi says the enormity of her daughter's achievement, as well as the inherent dangers, dawned on her only after Poorna's return.
Relatives and others had been pouring in to take a look at the girl who created a world record and made her village and her community proud. Devidas says the only thing he had ever hoped for was good jobs for his children.
"I am uneducated. I wanted my children to study. We don't even have land. I want them to do better, get a job,'' he says.
"Now everyone calls it Poorna Pakala,'' declares the headmaster of the hamlet's primary school.
After Poorna's return, there has been a steady stream of visitors, known and unknown, from villages near and far, towns, districts and neighbouring states. They all had questions. How did the parents agree to something so risky? Did they have phones? What did they eat? How did they cook? Where did they stay at night? Someone even asked how they answered nature's call. Poorna answered each question patiently and explained how she managed to accomplish such an uphill task, literally so.
Salmon, a school teacher from a neighbouring school, says, "She has shown that given a chance, anything can be done. She has scaled a mountain that kisses the sky. She has shown that any girl can achieve anything".
At Poorna's residential school in Tadwai, some 50 kilometres from her home, the new achiever gets a well-deserved hero's welcome. Poorna's friends crowd around her; her teachers have organised a special assembly session to felicitate the star student.
Students and teachers speak about how Poorna has made everyone proud; her world record has inspired everyone to reach greater heights in whatever they set out to do.
Her teachers say that till even a few months ago, Poorna was a very shy girl who couldn't speak before too many people. Today she is addressing gatherings and sharing her experiences.
"With determination, you can achieve anything. Despite many challenges, I climbed Mount Everest. One day, I will become a police officer,'' she declares confidently.
Dhanalakshmi, principal of Tadwai residential social welfare school, says there had been nothing extraordinary about Poorna before she set off for the expedition.
"She has evolved and grown. Her confidence, not just in physical activities but even in academics has grown. There are many like Poorna who are waiting for an opportunity to prove themselves. Not only students, even parents now are very hopeful and confident," she says.
For the architects of this mission, it is not just about one inspiring story of individual excellence, it was about encouraging many more like Poorna who will go on to achieve such feats.
RS Praveen Kumar, the man who is teaching the children to dream, is a 1995 batch IPS officer.
Two years ago, he requested the chief minister to post him as secretary in-charge of social welfare residential schools across Andhra Pradesh, as he wanted the opportunity to shape the destiny of nearly two lakh youngsters. He teaches his students that dreams can become a reality; Poorna and Anand, two from among them, who climbed Mount Everest, proved him right.
Praveen Kumar is now ensuring that thousands of underprivileged students to do just that, go after their dreams. He has gone about his task with a systematic plan and vision. His tasks include getting more funds, improving the quality of teachers, training them well and introducing English as a compulsory medium of education and communication in the school.
He has also encouraged a creative learning process and put a ban on guidebooks.
"All of them will become Poorna and Anand. Confidence levels have gone up by leaps and bounds. This shows that poverty is not an impediment in achieving anything. The gap between rich and poor is opportunity. Once opportunity is given, those who work for it can achieve any goal," he says.
He believes that adversity actually toughens them and teaches them how to handle difficult situations with relative ease.
"My mother used to be a coolie. She was rescued by social workers and sent to school, and she became a teacher. Today I am an IPS officer,'' he says.
He is among the many influential people the students meet at the school. All of them came from difficult circumstances but managed to escape the trap of poverty.
One way of instilling self-confidence in the children was to expose them to activities like mountaineering, kayaking, rowing, swimming, canoeing, rifle-shooting, and so on. Girls were encouraged to shed inhibitions and diffidence to talk confidently, even sing and dance. They were encouraged to move away from their comfort zones towards a feeling of emancipation and self-discovery.
Interestingly, every student of the social welfare hostel always adds a Swaereo to his or her name. When asked what it means, Yamini Supriya explains, "SW is for social welfare and aereos means someone who can fly in the air and touch the sky".
Praveen Kumar says they wanted to give the children a sense of community and a new identity that they could be proud of.
"We have banned the word dalit in these schools. We don't want children to get that tag and walk into the world. We gave them Swaereo - means someone who will fly out into the sky and aim high," he says.
To help the children overcome fear and shyness, the concept of E-Clubs was introduced last year.
Every evening after school, the students hold a session where they are encouraged to speak about a topic freely, without any inhibitions. If they make grammatical errors, they are corrected in the the classroom the next day.
The students follow a well-designed daily curriculum of work and play. A government grant of Rs 28 per child per day ensures a freshly cooked nutritious meal for all of them.
A minimalist dormitory serves as living quarters and in some cases -- at Poorna's school in Tadwai being one of them -- the classroom doubles up as living quarters.
Both teachers and parents say they feel respected, valued and involved in the progress of the children. Earlier, parents who could not afford anything else sent their children here; now there is a huge demand for seats.
Often, the reality of deprivation and discrimination is so stark and deep-rooted for these students that role models like Poorna and Anand, in an enabling environment like this, create a renewed world of self-esteem and hope.
Mani is a class X student, whose father had once attempted suicide because he could not afford good education for his children.
Today, his father is a proud man who is confident that his children will do well.
"When Poorna and Anand meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, I was so proud. They have achieved this, and so can I. I have decided to become an aeronautical engineer. I study very hard and come first in class. I try to participate in all activities. When they call me to speak at the school assembly, I feel so very proud and happy,' he sayd'