Author and filmmaker Nidhie Sharma Talks About Surviving The Jungle As A 13-Year-Old

Nidhie sharma
Nidhie Sharma’s latest book, INVICTUS: The Jungle that made me, is about surviving a highly unexpected adventure in the jungles of Tawang, 10,000 feet above sea level and home to a remote Indian military base at the Indo-China border, and the life lessons she learned on the day that saw her and five other children stare death in the face. It is an autobiographical account of surviving a jungle as a thirteen-year-old.

Sharma has also directed three documentaries for Climate change activist Al Gore’s ‘Current TV’.  “The pursuit of excellence and being a good human being are not mutually exclusive,” says author, screenwriter and filmmaker, Nidhie Sharma, in this interview with Archana Pai Kulkarni.

Some edited snippets from her conversation:

What struck me about your adventure is the fact that anything can happen at any time, and that life can change in a quicksilver moment. How aware were you of this before your adventure? Do you live in a state of heightened awareness and preparedness now?

I was fortunate to have learnt valuable lessons very early – one of them being that life can change in a split second. This kind of experience I believe hardwires you to be in a constant state of preparedness for almost anything that is likely to be thrown at you. That being said, my habit of planning for all sorts of contingencies was developed early on and I believe that day in Tawang will hold me in good stead should the need arise.

In what way did being a fauji kid influence the way you took charge on the day of the adventure, especially when you came very close to dying, twice?

Fauji kids, by and large, are resilient and adaptable. There is this agility that helps them take quick decisions and from my own experience I can also tell you that when your life depends on it and when the lives of the people you are responsible for depends on it, you automatically take charge. The need to survive displaces all fear and it becomes one big surge of giving it all you have.

Over the years, have you been able to process and understand how this childhood adventure has impacted you? What is the greatest lesson you have learnt?

I believe one’s ability to process a transformative event only gets sharper with the passage of time and it’s taken me years to truly understand how fortunate I was to have had this adventure.

Today, I am able to analyse and connect the dots because wisdom in hindsight is six on six and that is perhaps why I chose to share this experience of survival in the wild, which carries within itself a whole host of life lessons and epiphanies – physical, psychological, and emotional. There is an entire chapter dedicated to lessons from the Jungle in my book which when extrapolated to life itself, will be useful to those who read the book.

My biggest takeaway from that day has been to persist, to not give up, even when there is little hope, especially when there is little hope.

The need to survive displaces all fear and it becomes one big surge of giving it all you have.

What inspired you to write a book on your adventure after so many years? Did you write notes about it in your journal/diary soon after, or did you have to rely on memory?

I have been journaling for as far back as I can remember. These journals hold everything from events, feelings, childhood angst, conversations, poems, and a lot more. Although I did not have to depend on memory alone, memory of a day such as this I believe lasts an entire lifetime. How could one possibly forget one’s greatest adventure!

Nidhie Sharma

Nidhie Sharma

The terrain in Tawang, where you had your adventure, was unforgiving. You were at the Indo-China border. What was your most vulnerable moment there? What did you tell yourself to overcome the fear that you faced?

That first terrifying brush with the elements shook me to my bones and for the first time that day, I realised how dangerous my decisions had been. All bravado and this sense of invincibility was washed away in an instant and while the need to survive dominated in that fateful moment, from there on, there was an absolute and acute clarity of purpose dismantling all fears.

As I’ve mentioned in the book, it was a voice in my head that played on auto-repeat all day. I would do whatever it took to ensure the younger members of the group survived. It was my responsibility to ensure that and that’s all that mattered.

You were the eldest among the six children who were out in the wild that day. The youngest was six years old and you were thirteen. In retrospect, do you ever think of the other terrifying possibilities? Do you regret anything?

A lot of things could have gone terribly wrong that day. The ‘what ifs’ have often crossed my mind ever since but the truth is that we made it out alive. Regret won’t change the past but walking away with learnings has and for that I am eternally grateful.

Did your relationship with your five co-adventurers change post the rescue? In what way? Do you all reminisce about that day? Do they blame you or thank you?

We all went back to our respective army cantonments post the summer vacation. We only met a couple of times while still in school and none of the co-adventurers blamed me for that day, perhaps I had been too harsh on myself. We were all just relieved that the day hadn’t ended in a tragedy.

Have you returned to the place of adventure after that day? If so, what were your thoughts? If not, why not?

I had in fact planned to shoot the trailer for Invictus in Tawang but given the travel constraints on account of Covid, couldn’t. I am looking forward to travel there soon.

Your book carries tips for survival in the mountains and jungles. Most of us live in concrete jungles. What survival hacks would you recommend to urban adventurers in these tough times?

Considering how the world has changed with the pandemic, I would only recommend and request everyone to continue to stay safe and exercise utmost caution in the months to come so we can put this behind us soon, hopefully. The pandemic has also created a host of mental health issues with long periods of isolation; so one hopes we can all be kind to one another at this time.

How has this tryst with destiny equipped you to advocate the causes you are passionate about like gender equality, wildlife conservation, climate change and sports education?

The world is continually grappling with gender inequality, destruction of wildlife and their natural habitats and the burning issue of climate change and so now more than ever before, we need to have more conversations that will hopefully lead to actionable changes in our collective mindset. Since I had the privilege of having a gender balanced upbringing, I know how crucial that is for a girl to fulfil her complete potential. Playing multiple sports is instrumental in developing a well-rounded personality, I realised that growing up in an armed forces culture which encourages excellence in outdoor sports and my interest in wildlife conservation comes from the exposure of growing up away from city life, often in the lap of nature in military cantonments. I suppose the causes we are passionate about evolve over time and can often be traced back to how we grew up.

You are a boxer and life is like a boxing match. When and why did you enter the ring, and how does it feel inside it?

Let me put this in context. My father took me to watch my first boxing match and I was hooked to it from the get-go. Later in New York, where I was studying filmmaking, out of interest for the sport I started to watch boxing matches at the Madison Square Garden. I met coaches, trainers and boxers and took membership at a local boxing club to train. I also stepped inside the ring and felt a lot of things – specially the urgent need to hear the closing bell at the end of the round. I felt fear, my knees wobbling and my throat drying up.  There is this adrenaline rush when you are inside the ring. You want to fight hard, but you also know that you could get seriously hurt. I think it takes a lot of courage, self-confidence, and grit to stay on your feet when you face an intimidating adversary.

I follow the sport passionately but not professionally and in my boxing novel, Dancing with Demons, I have used the ring as a metaphor for life – ‘Life is like a boxing match. Tons of people will cheer for you from the outside but you’re alone in that ring to fight your own battles’.

I realised that growing up in an armed forces culture which encourages excellence in outdoor sports and my interest in wildlife conservation comes from the exposure of growing up away from city life, often in the lap of nature in military cantonments.

Your parents were extremely understanding about your adventure, while advising you to exercise caution. What are the two most important qualities that you have learnt from them?

My parents gave me wings to fulfil my dreams while also setting standards for kindness and empathy. I learnt from them that the pursuit of excellence and being a good human being are not mutually exclusive and I hope to always live by the value system I grew up around.

 The world has been upended by a virus, and we have been contending with lockdowns, masks and social distancing. What have your coping strategies been during these times? What is most likely to hold us up?

The pandemic has changed our lives, perhaps irrevocably. It is also highly likely that this could happen again and in the not-so-distant future. ‘It is what it is’ has largely been my coping mechanism stemming from a quick acceptance of the situation. I suppose it’s important to understand the challenge we are facing, believe in science and do what one can to protect yourself and the people you love, even if it means not meeting friends in person or socialising as often as one used to.

My singular approach during these unprecedented times has been to err on the side of caution, to not let my guards down. No one should have to live with the guilt of bringing the virus home and infecting a vulnerable and elderly grandparent or parent.

You believe that the stories we are destined to tell find us. What new stories are we about to hear from you?

Absolutely and I also believe that every story has a time to be told. I do have a few stories in the works and will share soon.

Invictus: The Jungle that Made Me by Nidhie Sharma is published by Pan Macmillan India I Paperback I 224pp I Rs. 399

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