If you’ve ever been to Books and Bricks (B&B) cafe in Srinagar, chances are that you’ve tasted the food cooked by Krushnaa Patil, a celebrated Indian mountaineer who at the age of 19 in 2009 became the youngest Indian woman to climb the Mount Everest. The new chef is serving the life recipes in style.
Retreating to the mountains with a heavy heart and a new identity devoid of limelight usually follows a plot of an escapist. But in case of ace Indian mountaineer Krushnaa Patil—who gave up her 18-year-old dancing passion and her Bollywood dream, for the love of mountains and went on to climb the Mount Everest at the age of 19—the retreat was more of a salvation.
But before she could come and work as a chef in Srinagar, Krushnaa was looking for a desperate chance to leave her hometown, Mumbai.
“I wanted to go to a place where not many people would know me,” she says. For somebody like Krushnaa who always wanted to be famous, the limelight following her Everest feat, eventually disillusioned her.
“Besides, I was heartbroken after trying to sell mountaineering in Mumbai for three years,” she says. “But, you know, I’m a mountaineer at the end of the day. I can’t sell mountaineering. I can climb peaks like a pro, but to be able to crack a deal with the advertising head or a marketing lead is not my cup of tea.”
After failing to climb the corporate ladder, she felt burned and drained. For somebody who relates herself to the famous sitcom character Monica from F.R.I.E.N.D.S—known for her cooking and Samaritan nature—the phase was distressing.
It was then, a Facebook friend’s job post came as a relief to her.
Her ‘Monica dream’ came true, when she applied for a chef’s post in B&B Cafe in Srinagar and got hired.
The B&B people did not know who they had actually hired, for she had only spoken about her cooking experiences. Her resume carried interesting details—
‘Hamburgers, Cheeseburgers and Hashbrowns in the US; Indian/ Khari food; Teaching students to cook 5 Maharashtrian dishes in Nepal in 2015 (after the earthquake); Good at cooking Bhindi and Bengan; My favourite vegetarian dish is Bharlela Wanga made with peanut sauce and jiggery; Besides friends say, I’m a good cook.’
Initially, none at her workplace had an inkling of her celebrity past. It was only after she shared a video—followed by an article shared by her mother on Facebook—on her achievements that her colleagues knew that ‘there was an elephant’ in their kitchen, who loves to make Pasta.
“It has to do with mountaineering,” she smiles. “All those foreigners on expedition only eat Pasta. I’ve eaten so much Pasta on so many different levels of altitude and frozenness. But now, I can’t stand it anymore.” As a chef, she sees pizza-making as an ‘engineering’ act than cooking, while Burgers qualify as no-brainer food for her. “While every order has a feel to it,” she says, “the best thing I like to cook is chicken-curry.”
Before choosing the valley of Kashmir to ‘rediscover herself’, the Mumbaikar had become the youngest Indian woman to climb Mount Everest at 19 in 2009. She had to raise Rs 30 lakh to climb the highest peak of the world. When she could only arrange Rs 3 lakh, her family came to her rescue and helped her to scale the height.
“But my Everest accomplishment came at a cost,” she says. “It was very difficult to adjust to media and questions, like how did you feel as a girl, Maharashtrian, or Indian on Everest? Thing is, I was barely a freaking person there. Even gender comes later in such a situation.”
Eight years down, Krushnaa says, her Himalayan achievement is hardly at the back of her mind. She now describes the tallest peak just the tip of the iceberg. “There’s a lot of craziness beneath it,” she says. That craziness had paved a way for Krushnaa to be who she is today.
But even before becoming a celebrity climber, she was looking forward to her Bollywood debut by becoming a choreographer.
“Dance was always my first passion, which I learned for 18 years, before I gave it up for mountaineering,” she says.
The transition is not just coincidental to her. She relates it to Shiva, the Hindu God of Dance with his abode in the Himalayas. “For doing an advanced course in mountaineering, I had to fake jaundice to sanction leave from my school, which otherwise wouldn’t grant me one.”
When she came back sunburnt from her advanced mountaineering course, all her teachers would ask, ‘How is your jaundice? Did you burn!’ she chuckles.
She attributes much of her feats in life to the regimental routine maintained by her mother. Her mother, a divorcee, along with her grandmother and three sisters became the bedrock of her success.
“In my family, my mum was the Dangal mother,” she says. “Just remove wrestling and put all sports! She made me to follow a disciplined life where I had to get up early at 4:30 in the morning, do yoga, sports, dance and singing. One heck of a life, you know!”
Perhaps this kind of routine made her achieve where others in her tribe often fumble and falter. Once in Antarctica, she says, she couldn’t feel her body in -50 degrees temperature. But she kept walking at the behest of her tough training.
Among the same mountains, in Kashmir now, she enjoys certain privileges for being an outsider. Armed with a Masters Degree in Political Science and International Affairs, Krushnaa believes she has a better understanding of the conflict as compared to random outsiders who often visit the valley to map its conflict through their own prism.
“With every gunfight, people here are like ‘Yeah, it happened’ and continue working,” she says. “That was like the spirit of Bombay when 26/11 happened. Next day, people went to work. You feel bad about the situation. But given the very vibe or energy, Kashmir is like Bombay. But yes, as an outsider, I feel like what you guys face, we don’t even see 2% of it or understand more than that.”
Being a female driver of a sumo cab is ‘a thing here’. But that doesn’t prevent her giving lifts to people. The cab conversations, she says, become a small window into local people’s lives. “All of them,” she says, “are like, ‘you are from Mumbai. Why are you even working here?’ I could only respond with a smile.”
Krushnaa likes the absence of nightlife in Kashmir, contrary to what many locals believe. “Even in militancy-free Uttrakhand and Manali, no one comes out after 7pm,” she says. “It gives you those Pahadi vibes: the cold, the Bukhari. I think I’m lucky that I’ve seen the good stuff here.”
Krushnaa starts her day with a morning walk on the Boulevard, Dal Lake with her dog, Berry. Breathing in the fresh air, the view makes her connect to the love of her life: mountains. She goes to the cafe and stays in the kitchen cooking all the food on the menu of the B&B Café in Srinagar. She barely gets to take a break and when she comes out of the kitchen it’s already dark. She goes back home and tries to pen down her life at night.
She is yet to decide the name of the book. However, she says, it’ll have every crazy thing she has done in life. “Now, as I see a pattern in life,” Krushnaa, also a motivational speaker, says, “I want to be able to share all that stupidity that it actually fitted. I met so many amazing people and it just fits so well.”
Kashmir, she says, needs energy and bright smiles. “But I don’t know how we all can be happy… Fake it till you make it!”
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