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The Unstoppable Teacher

Shamala Padmanabhan | Educator, Corporate Professional, Fitness Enthusiast and Trekker

Shamala is an educator, a journalist and a corporate professional who worked with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). She is a Fulbright Scholar from Syracuse University, New York. A knowledge enthusiast, she has created huge, branded quiz properties for India like the TCS IT Wiz and Rural IT Quiz of Karnataka for schools, and the famous Tata Crucible.

She is a fitness enthusiast having completed 25 half marathons including the gruelling Ladakh high altitude run. In 2022, Shamala was a member of the 11 member ‘Fit@50+ Women’s Trans Himalayan Expedition 2022’ led by the legendary mountaineer, Padma Bhushan Ms. Bachendri Pal. The expedition covered 4,841 km, 35+ high passes, in 141 days. This has been a world record and first of its kind in this age group.

Her passions include mountains, marathons and music. She is a well known youth mentor and motivational speaker.


1. Can we begin by asking you to recount your days as a teacher?

I have had a decent innings as a teacher. In 1986-87, I taught photojournalism in Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts (CAVA), Mysore. During this time, I was also a correspondent with the Indian Express, Mysore and hence, it gave me a good practical insight into my subject. Later, from 1989 – 1997 August, I taught at Mount Carmel College, where I established the journalism department.

I really enjoyed teaching. It gives a fresh perspective every year, and though you are teaching the same syllabus, the students are changing and their learning abilities too. I felt that it gave me an excellent perspective and I kept learning constantly. In a subject like journalism and communication, unless I am updated constantly, I will become irrelevant with my stakeholders.

My passion for teaching continued even after I moved to the corporate world. At Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), after a couple of years in the communication department, I had a 3-year stint in the TCS Corporate Learning Centre. Since the learning centre was more a bridge between campus and corporate for the fresh entrants, I had a fruitful time understanding the pulse of the youth, especially students who were just fresh out of their professional courses such as engineering, management, etc. However, I moved to the Corporate Communication team once the company went public.

To me, teaching is learning and that too, learning every day! Perhaps it keeps you ‘young’ and agile.

2. From a teacher to corporate career to adventures, how have you managed all this?

Adventure has been my passion and interest since my college days. Also, as an avid rock climber, I have taught rock climbing to hundreds of students and NCC cadets, besides being a guest instructor at the National Police Academy (NPA), where I have taught rock climbing as a Guest Instructor for IPS probationers from 1986-1992. While I was teaching in college, I had lot of opportunities for my treks and climbing, considering college schedule and holidays. Many a times, even the students would be inspired to be a part of some of these journeys. After I moved to TCS Mumbai with Corporate Communications, I had limited opportunities considering the job role.

For almost 10 years, I could not pursue any of my outdoor activities. But thanks to the then CEO Mr. Chandrasekaran (who is the current Chairman Tata Sons), who not only introduced fitness to the entire organisation, but he let thousands of us to dream of running marathons. We had training and fitness sessions organised through TCS, and I must tell you that this helped me a lot to keep my level of fitness, and from mountains I could move to marathons! I had never done serious runs before, except just 3 kms for my NCC Republic Day parade selection.

I had always been more into rock climbing, trekking and mountaineering. Cycling then was my main affordable mode of transport. The intense fitness and marathon training and running couple of kilometres was gruelling, as I had to wake up at 4.40 am in a city like Mumbai if I had to finish my training and rush to the office in the local train. It brough back my fitness, since I had given 10 years gap. Infact, I did my first half marathon after my 50s!

All of us have reasons and excuses, but we need to change. The biggest learning is that ‘Discipline, Dedication and Determination’ take you a long way irrespective of your profession. The 3D mantra, according to me, is very important from a learning perspective, both for students and teachers.

3. The Women's Trans Himalayan Expedition is inspiring. Please tell us a little more about this.

The Himalayan Expedition titled ‘Fit@50 + Women's Trans Himalayan expedition’, was organised by Tata Steel Adventure Foundation (TSAF) in collaboration with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports under the Fit India banner, along with the Indian Army. It was led by the legendary mountaineer, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Ms. Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to summit Everest in 1984.

The 11-member team comprised women in the age group of 50 years and above from various backgrounds, such as retired corporate professionals, retired army persons, housewives, retired locomotive drivers, grandmothers and working women too. While the youngest member was 54 years old, the oldest member was aged 68 years.

The expedition celebrated India’s 75th Independence Day and was dedicated to the ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’. It created a benchmark covering over 4900+ kms, scaled 35+ high mountain passes, in 141 days from East to West of the Himalayas in India and Nepal.

The team which was flagged off on March 8 - International Women’s Day, began their journey of an ultimate human endurance starting from from Pang sau Pass (India Myanmar border) and concluded at Dras sector. The team traversed through Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Sikkim, Nepal (from East to West), Kumaon, Gharwal, Himachal, Spiti, Leh Ladakh, culminated their journey at Kargil War memorial on July 24 to commemorate the Kargil Vijay Diwas, and paid homage to the martyrs at the war memorial. The passes crossed include the toughest Lamkhaga Pass at 17,700 ft; the most challenging and the highest of the passes, Parang La pass at an astounding 18,300 ft; the Bhabha Pass at 16,000 ft, and the Thorang La Pass at 17,800 ft. Over 50 guest trekkers, including 3-4 from outside India joined the expedition for a short duration of 7-10 days at different locations. Among them included a 75-year-old woman who successfully crossed the Lamkhaga Pass.

The objective of this expedition was to raise awareness about health & fitness among senior citizens and to set an example, especially for women, that it is possible to stay fit and healthy and to dream big irrespective of the age. I hope the expedition will inspire and motivate women of all age groups to include fitness activities in their daily lives to stay healthy.

As a team, we had to overcome extreme weather conditions, treacherous climbs, and constrained resources every step of the way. Some of the routes in Eastern and Western Nepal were extremely remote and many a times, the team trekked for days on end between an altitude of 10,000-14,000 ft. While the longest day trekked was 13.5 hours at an altitude above 10,000 ft, the longest distance covered in a day at a high altitude of 12000 ft was 29 kms. The team also shared some memorable and unique experiences including staying at a graveyard, a chicken farm, abandoned buildings and old school verandas.

4. What is your message to others based on this experience?

Never underestimate the power of your dreams. I certainly like to quote Ms. Bachendri Pal: “The biggest risk in life is not taking risks.”

I think all of us, irrespective of the profession and age group, go through physical, psychological and mental limitations and apprehensions. But as the journey of our life and career progresses, the focus and goal should take the front seat. Make it a priority to invest not just financially, but also on your health by just dedicating 45 minutes exclusively for any activity of your choice and this will take you a long way as your mind remains agile. Second and third innings of life do exist! For young teachers, I would like to mention that nature is your and your student’s best classroom. Whenever possible, incorporate outbound activity as part education and learning.

I would also like to mention that I have osteo arthritis of grade 3. But I have been able to manage comfortably only because of proper physical activities including yoga and fitness training.

5. Fitness and women are passionate areas for you. What is your advice to all our lady teachers?

Teaching, I feel, is a very demanding and challenging profession. You, as teachers, are shaping the future of this nation. The minds of young children is your canvas. If a person is fit, it automatically earns health. The ‘ME time’ spent by every teacher will help create a great highway for learners. Develop passion for your profession. All of us have reasons and excuses, but you need to challenge yourself. Your fitness activity (of individual choice and interest) allows you to relax, unwind and get a whiff of fresh air. What’s more, cultivating fitness activities helps you to fight lifestyle diseases, gives confidence with your renewed energy and appearance, and keeps you mentally alert.

You can manage and succeed if you are passionate about what you do. Please remember that even after retirement, you can pursue your passions. You are retired but not tired. So, plan for your second innings and invest your time on health and fitness in the first innings.

The interview originally appeared in the January 2023 edition of the e-magazine


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