Seven continents, seven summits and Mission Inclusion 

These days, Chhattisgarh-based Chitrasen Sahu, 28, is extremely busy. As I write this story, he is finishing travel formalities and trying to secure the last leg of funding for his upcoming expedition to Mount Acconcagua. At 6,962 meters, it is the highest mountain in the Americas. Previously, in 2019, he had scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, in 2020 Mount Kosciuszko, mainland Australia’s tallest mountain, and in 2021 Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia. He is the first double amputee from India to achieve this and his aim is to scale seven summits present in seven continents. “Half human robo” Sahu, also a blade runner, a national-level wheelchair basketball player and swimmer, a motivational speaker and an inclusion and disability rights activist, is on “Mission Inclusion,” and this is his incredible story.

Swati Subhedar

On a humid summer day on June 4, 2014, Chitrasen Sahu, 21, a civil engineering graduate, boarded a train heading to Bilaspur district in Chhattisgarh from his hometown Balod. At Bhatapara railway station, Sahu got down to buy a bottle of water. Little did he know that his life was going to change forever, and an ill-fated moment was going to snatch away from him his dream of joining the armed forces.

While he was buying water, the train started moving. His hand slipped while trying to board the train, and his feet got stuck between the platform and the moving coach. He lost one leg, and due to medical negligence, a few weeks later, the doctors had to amputate his other leg as well.

Sahu, belonging to a farmer’s family in Balod district of Chhattisgarh, may have had to let go of his dream of joining the armed forces, however, the incident only strengthened the fighting spirit with which he was born. It’s been just seven years, however, in less than a decade, Sahu, now 28, has an impressive portfolio under his belt. Some of his achievements include being a national para-swimmer and a blade-runner, representing Chhattisgarh at the national level in para-basketball and carrying out skydiving and scuba diving with artificial limbs. Over the years, he has also groomed himself to be a motivational speaker and aims to help other persons with disabilities in every possible way.

However, his most distinguished achievement, which has earned him the nickname of ‘half human robo,’ is that he is the first double amputee from India to scale Mount Kilimanjaro (the highest peak in Africa), Mount Kosciuszko (mainland Australia’s tallest mountain) and Mount Elbrus (the highest peak in Russia). His mission is to scale the seven highest summits present in seven continents, just to prove that there is nothing that persons with disabilities can’t achieve. After ticking three peaks off his bucket list, he now desires to scale Mount Denali (North America), Mount Everest (Asia), Mount Vinson (Antarctica) and is presently looking to secure funds so that he could scale Mount Aconcagua (South America) in January 2022. Sahu believes by scaling these summits he should be able to achieve his goal of ‘Mission Inclusion’ — an initiative started by him whose objective is to bring behavioral change in society when it comes to persons with disabilities.

Why the need for Mission Inclusion?

“While standing in a row, we may come across as the odd ones out, however, one must acknowledge that we are still standing in the same row as the others,” said Sahu, who is presently working as an assistant engineer with the Chhattisgarh Housing Board in Raipur. As it happens with most people with disabilities, Sahu had to deal with a lot of negativity that random people threw at him soon after the accident. It was not easy to snap out of it, but Sahu managed thanks to his supportive parents and close friends and later took upon himself the responsibility to motivate other persons with disabilities so that the journey becomes slightly easier for them.

“The aim of my initiative Mission Inclusion is to bring behavioral change in society towards persons with disabilities. In our country, people stare at persons with disabilities. Then, they immediately want to know your story. Mission Inclusion aims to make people aware. For instance, the basic thing is you should always ask before helping a person with any kind of disability, rather than just jumping to help him/her. My vision is to uplift their morale and boost their confidence so that they start believing that it isn’t too difficult to live with a disability once they accept it, embrace it, and find ways to use their limitations to their advantage,” said Sahu, a TEDx and motivational speaker.

He added: “Often, persons with disabilities also have to deal with stress, depression and anxiety. We have volunteers who make sure that they get proper counseling. So far, we have managed to help nearly 2,000 people with counseling … some of them were battling suicidal tendencies. With assistance from other stakeholders, I have helped nearly 100 people in getting artificial limbs and assistive devices. Plus, they also must be financially independent. We apprise them of various existing government schemes and policies that aim to assist persons with disabilities.”

When the need arises, a soft-spoken Sahu turns into a fierce inclusion and disability rights activist. “In 2017, I bought an automatic modified car, but was denied license and registration because of my condition. I fought a legal battle and after 20 months, finally won in the Chhattisgarh High Court. This win paved the way for the reopening of lakhs of such cases in the state. Now, no one denies persons with disabilities driving rights,” said Sahu.

Chitrasen Sahu is a motivational speaker. The aim of his initiative ‘Mission Inclusion’ is to bring behavioral change in society when it comes to persons with disabilities

Scaling seven summits to achieve Mission Inclusion

“In May 2018, Chhattisgarh-based Rahul Gupta, who goes by the moniker “mountain man” held a press conference after a successful climb of Mount Everest. I attended the press meet and was fascinated. I approached him and asked him if a double amputee can climb mountains. Soon, we started training! We worked really hard for the next 1.5 years,” said Sahu.

After extensive training, Sahu was confident of scaling Mount Kilimanjaro. At 5,685 meters, it is the highest peak in the African continent. Gupta accompanied Sahu for the first expedition.

“On September 19, 2019, we started climbing. After four days, on September 23, at 11 am, I was at the peak holding the Indian flag. I have no words to describe the feeling. The last day was especially tough. The temperature had dipped to minus 10 degrees and chilly winds were blowing. We were 12 hours away from our destination. As it’s a volcanic mountain, it tends to get slippery. We kept going and, in the process, I sustained injuries. But we did not stop. When we reached the peak, I went numb with happiness. Five years back I was in the hospital, figuring out the way ahead and five years later, I was at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro,” said Sahu.

After achieving this feat, there was no looking back. Sahu then aimed to scale the highest peaks in all seven continents. Next year, in 2020, his next stop was Mount Kosciuszko, which, at 2,228 meters, is mainland Australia’s tallest mountain. In 2021, his climb to the peak of Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia (5,642 meters), wasn’t an easy one. “I felt sick the moment we started climbing. The temperature was in the range of minus 15-25 degrees. I could see snow for miles, which was beautiful, but the winds were ruthless. It was so bad that I threw up a couple of times. There came a moment when I felt I won’t be able to complete the mission. That thought gave me the required push. I popped a pain killer and picked myself up, after which there was no looking back until I reached the peak.”

To know more about Chitrasen Sahu and his missions, watch this video

Next stop …  Mount Acconcagua

These days, Sahu is busy finishing travel formalities for his upcoming expedition to Mount Acconcagua, which, at 6,962 meters, is the highest mountain in the Americas. I could feel the rush in his voice when we spoke over the phone. He had a long to-do list. However, he was a bit anxious about the task that topped the list – securing the final leg of funding for the expedition for which he will leave from Raipur on January 2, 2022.

“For such expeditions, we have to carry two pairs of prosthetic legs; one that we use and one spare one. We have managed to get funding for one pair. We are still looking for sponsors who could fund the second pair. These expeditions are costly. All inclusive, this expedition is going to cost me approximately Rs 17 lakh. I need special equipment and clothing, which cost Rs 75,000. One pair of prosthetic legs costs Rs 6 lakh. The climbing fee is around Rs 3.37 lakh, and the expedition guide is going to charge Rs 2.25 lakh. Yes, raising funds for these expeditions has been a challenge. Mountaineering is something new, hence there is hesitation. I hope initiatives like Mission Inclusion would instill confidence in people and things will change,” said Sahu.

Chitrasen Sahu with his family

Befriending the mountains

“What I love the most about these expeditions is that mountains can’t distinguish. Scaling a mountain is a challenge for all. The low oxygen level, the snow sickness, the extreme weather conditions … everyone gets impacted by these factors. I just have a carry an additional weight of my artificial legs. That’s the only difference. All one needs is passion, dedication, and the hunger to reach the top,” said Sahu.

And what do mountaineers do when they reach a peak? How do they celebrate?

“I did pushups after reaching the peak of Mount Elbrus! Usually, the first thing I do is to remove my artificial legs, and then I just look around at the mountains and marvel at their beauty. Then the photo sessions begin! Along the way, we meet so many people from different countries. We all become friends and share our stories. That’s what I love about each journey,” said Sahu.

These expeditions are often very risky. In September 2021, almost a month after Sahu reached the peak of Mount Elbrus came the disappointing news that five mountain climbers lost their lives after they were caught in a blizzard. How do Sahu and his family and friends deal with this anxiety? “I have a simple funda. You will never know what’s in store for you. Just keep following life’s journey.”

If you wish to help Sahu raise funds for his upcoming expeditions, you can connect with him at halfhumanrobo@gmail.com or visit his website.

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Do I look like a person with mental illness in this photo?

I have been working for more than three decades in the disability sector in India. There are many issues in the sector which are very close to my heart. However, the invisibility of mental health issue is something that hurts me the most. Misinformation on mental illnesses and psychosocial disabilities are galore in our country. Reasons may be manifold. One of them might be that one cannot ‘see’ a mental illness?

Shampa Sengupta raised a very pertinent point by posting this image on her Facebook page

I lost my mind (pun intended) and became furious when in the month of August I saw that there were thousands of tweets showing a photo of Sushant Singh Rajput, saying he cannot be mentally ill as he is smiling in the photo and along with that photographs of another actor who was wearing flamboyant clothes, (some not-so-typical outfits for men) and with captions that said ‘this is mental illness.’ Basically, implying that a person who is smiling or good humored cannot have a mental illness and the people who do have a mental illness look a certain way.

This article is not about whether Sushant Singh Rajput was ill or not, the highest investigation agencies in the country are trying to find reasons behind his tragic death and we, ordinary citizens, should not get involved in presumptions on the same.

I got angry and took a selfie ( smiling at the phone) and posted in social media saying “Do I look mentally ill” and elaborated how even with my mental health conditions, I am working and smiling – one can never see a photo and judge the person’s mental conditions. This is not the first time I had to assert my health issue; this has become routine for me.

I work in the cross-disability field, advocacy is my area of work. Unfortunately, even my colleagues from this sector do not understand my kind of disability. So, every time, there is a press-meet or open public meeting, they will say, “We will have someone with a disability as a speaker and make a list of possible speakers.” This list would obviously include those with a ‘visible’ disability, and they would conveniently forget to add my name. Another colleague once told me after I failed to attend a workshop, “Shampa is unpredictable, we should not recommend her name to any seminar workshops anymore.” This happened even though I had texted her in the morning of the workshop saying my depression is in terrible stage today. But she did not take it seriously and called me unpredictable in an office meeting. Would she have said same if another colleague with mobility impairments had said that he could not attend a workshop because his wheelchair broke down? Or a hearing-impaired person said that her Sign Language Interpreter was not available, so her attending workshop is futile? If this is the level of understanding within disability movement, what do you expect from the general public?

For most people, ‘mad’ people are those who roam in the streets, with untidy clothes and matted hair. Some avoid their path, some others throw stones at them, children are taught to laugh at them calling them ‘pagla,’ and very few really understand their pain. The media also uses this image of ‘madness’ very cleverly and reinforces the stereotype. How many movies can one recall where a person with mental illness is shown as studying in college or working in an office? Once, a journalist, after, I mentioned in a meeting that I have a mental illness, asked me “Why did you say that? I have never seen you talking irrationally, so you can’t be mentally ill.” I told him, “You might call me tomorrow 50 times and get no response, because the days I am more depressed, I cannot find strength to take a phone call.” He looked and smiled. Did he believe me? I am not sure. Interestingly, he was there to talk to primary stakeholders in a disability advocacy meeting. So, he interviewed my blind friend and wrote about his journey in the next day’s paper.

My journey within the disability sector itself is quite interesting.  I started working as a professional in early 1990s. I became a caregiver of a person with schizophrenia after my marriage. Though professionally I knew how to deal with different kinds of disabilities, I was not aware of how to take care of my own self in this new role. This is an area where most caregivers fail. Our health system, and government does not provide the necessary insights, training, or financial support to the caregivers. Balancing professional life, taking care of a person with a mental illness took a toll on me. I did not even realize at which point in time, I became the primary stakeholder in this ‘disability sector.’

I do not want to discuss my diagnosis or medical history here. For me, the medical part of my disability does not consist of a lot of space. What I believe is the social acceptance which would have made things easier for me. When I talk about mildest physical discomfort, there will be relatives or friends asking me next day how I am feeling. When I talk about my mood swings or depression, there’s complete silence. I do hope by continuously talking about same, I will be able to bring some change. And in future, people will not say “If he is smiling, he can’t be mentally ill.”

Shampa Sengupta is an activist working on gender and disability rights. She is the Founder-Director of Kolkata based advocacy group named Sruti Disability Rights Centre and is working as Joint Secretary of India’s largest membership based cross disability network National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD). 

(This conversation is a part of our series on mental health and illness, as we talk to people whose voices have brought to life, with empathy and without judgement, what is it to live with a mental illness or to care for someone who does.)

Related interviews: Jerry PintoAmandeep SandhuKarishma Upadhya, Shyam Mithiya, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole.