Darjeeling: At the age of 16 years, Shanti Rai swam across the raging torrents of river Teesta. Today, the Darjeeling native is a rafting and rescue expert, perhaps the first from the country. An avid nature lover and a passionate social worker, Rai is an inspiration for many. She set foot in an otherwise male-dominated territory and has made a prominent mark to boot.
The daughter of Baishamaya and Sundar Rai, Shanti Rai’s efforts have saved lives not just in Darjeeling, but also as far-off as Bihar. Currently, the rafter is working as the lead guide and rescuer at Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) Tourism in Teesta.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
Tell us something about yourself and your childhood?
I loved the outdoors, I still do. I cannot imagine a life sitting in an office, I need to be outside. Right from my childhood, I used to be a very active child; I participated in all the athletic events in school – 100-mt race, 200-mt race, javelin, discuss throw – and would invariably always come first. I was also a district level football player in the age groups of 16-17 years. When the National Games were organised in Sikkim in 1999-2000, I participated in the 100-mt race and marathon. Let’s put it this way, anything that would get me out in the open, I would participate in it. I couldn’t even sit in the class, I used to feel restless.
Your love for Teesta is apparent for everyone to see, how did the relationship begin?
I was born in her lap, so obviously she is like a mother to me. I honestly don’t remember when I started to play in the river, but that is where I actually felt at home. Right from my childhood, I would try and cross rivers, many a times smaller rivers would wash me away, but I managed to crawl back. These rivers are also like siblings for me, I grew up playing with them.
Teesta is (or sadly was) one of the fastest flowing rivers in the world, when did you first cross Teesta?
I remember it like yesterday; the sense of achievement I felt that day. Imagine growing up with Teesta flowing outside your window, and that urge from deep within, a challenge of sorts since you learn to swim, that no other tests of your skills will do, the only way to know you have learned swimming is if you cross Teesta and her raging currents. I was only 16 years old when I was able to cross her.
How did you get into rafting?
See, when you grow up next to a river, the river becomes a huge part of your life. As kids, we would get on a tube and float down to our village. Later, we would see the raft, and once a raft came closer to our village we would swim and touch the raft.
In 1997, Tashila Bridge Tourism Festival was held in Sikkim, and they had organised a rafting competition. I observed the rafts and at night I crossed the river alone using an oar boat. When my brother found out the next day he was very upset and angry, but I could tell he felt proud of me. So from then on, whenever they would raft, they started to take me as a helper. Once was enough and I was hooked on to rafting. All I wanted to do was ride the raft, I didn’t mind being a helper.
In 2000, during the Tashila rafting competition, I came third. I was the only woman in my group. It felt incredible. I was offered a job as a lead rafting guide.
Did rafting and rescuing go together? How did you get involved with rescuing?
In August 2005, I had gone to Malli as my cousin sister had died, and was travelling back, when there was a traffic jam. When we reached the spot, we realized a vehicle had plunged down into the river, and someone was trying to find a way to reach the vehicle. The vehicle was stuck in what is known as “boiling getty,” the water was rushing from all sides.
When I saw the situation, I didn’t think much. I just grabbed the rope and went down. I first rescued one individual, later we made a human-chain and helped rescue a child, then I jumped into the river to rescue a woman, and then took one to the roof of the vehicle. Tragically one youth had tried to swim before I could reach him, and he drowned. We were able to rescue the rest. After that I went home.
Later the word spread raicha and many organisations from Rangpo to Kalimpong honoured my efforts with a ‘Life Saver’s Award’. I wasn’t expecting that, but that’s how my journey as a rescuer began, it was a spurt of the moment thing.
Later, when NHPC Bridge was washed away due to the raising river, many people were washed away, a few were stuck in an island in the river, we initiated the rescue efforts at around 7 am and it went on till 11 pm – that day, we rescued 250 people. So it continued like that.
Rafters from Teesta have travelled as far as Bihar for rescuing, tell us about it.
Bihar was flooded and widespread death was being reported. Rafting experts from Teesta decided to form a team and help the people there. But when my seniors told me not to go as I was a woman, I felt like crying. But I was adamant that I would join the team. Eventually they relented, and we ended up rescuing over 1,200 people in Bihar.
Let’s talk about Teesta, how has it changed in your lifetime?
Please don’t even get me started. I feel terrible these days. Teesta is no more the same. It breaks my heart, earlier she was free, today we can see her being caged. But we cannot do anything. I feel so hopeless.
How has that effected rafting in Teesta?
These dams have changed our river. It has become so unpredictable. The rapids have changed due to the river constantly rising or slowing down. From the dams, they release the water without any intimation, earlier we knew the rapid, now we don’t. People enjoying a leisurely day at Beni (where Teesta and Rangeet meet) have been washed away as the river came gushing down after the dams released the water without intimation.
When tourists come, we take the tourist to the river, and when the river is low, we try to kill the time. But experienced tourists are unhappy. Earlier tourists would see rafts floating down the river and they would want to experience the same. Today the road and the river have diverged; tourists willing to try rafting have drastically declined.
All we can do is hope for a better system to be put in place when the dams release their water so that tourist experiences and safety is not compromised with.
What are your thoughts on more female rafters?
Honestly, I feel like more woman should join, but due to the lack of training, they don’t join. Teesta is not a swimming pool. I have spent my entire life next to her, I learned swimming with her, I learned boating, and then rafting with her. It took a lot of hard work and patience for me to become a certified rafter and rescuer. There is always someone willing to teach to those who actually want to learn the skills.
Any message to the youngsters, especially for the young women who may be reading this?
I fully support those youths who are charting their own course, not listening to what people or the society says about them.
To the young girls out there – be good, we can do everything, we can help others, learn skills, it will help if you help others.
In addition to her rafting and rescuing adventures, Shanti Rai is also coaching 20 young football enthusiasts. She also gives them swimming lessons.