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How India docked in Antarctica

Urmi Popat must like ice and snow. A lot. Five minutes into our chat at her sprawling bungalow in a leafy by-lane in suburban Mulund, and it was easy to figure why.

“My father is a keen adventure enthusiast with a zeal for the mountains. Going to the Arctic and Antarctic was a deep-rooted desire that he had nurtured from his school days, when all he knew of these elusive regions was from Geography books,” Popat says, leading us in to her family’s love affair with the icy continent. “For several years, he kept enquiring whether he could be a part of an expedition to Antarctica, but to no avail.”


Penguins march across Antarctica’s ice-laden landscape. Pics Courtesy/National Centre for  Antarctic and ocean research (ncaor)

Ice Age tourists
Eventually, this trained architect also got curious about these regions that were dubbed as “too far”. The family tracked down an agent in the US and travelled to the icy continent in February 2001-02 thereby earning the distinction of becoming the first Indian tourists to unfurl the tricolour in Antarctica. “Our joy doubled, when we as a family were able to ring in my father’s 60th birthday in a place he had always dreamt of visiting!” recalls Popat, barely able to contain her excitement.

The family reached Antarctica via South America. “We flew to Chile, and sailed from its southernmost tip. When we set on land, in a blink, we spotted hundreds of penguins march across the frozen landscape. We had to pinch ourselves at the stunning imagery, and that we weren’t watching a show on a travel channel,” reminisces Popat. “It transcended all impressions — no amount of books, photographs and movie clippings had prepared me for this spectacle, of having set foot on the most divine, beautiful landscape on earth.”


Aerial view of Bharti, the Indian centre in Antarctica

This globetrotting family had travelled, previously to the Arctic. This area covers regions of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, Greenland and Russia, and includes towns inhabited by humans, hotels and shops. “Antarctica is poles apart, literally. It has research bases of 49 countries, with scientists and few tourists.

Both are dreadfully cold regions, but Antarctica is harsher,” she explains, while comparing the two Polar Regions. In between her travels, Urmi wrote two coffee table books —Dream Destinations and Arctic and Antarctic — Journeys to the extremities of the earth. “It was a natural progression; and I enjoyed the process,” she reveals, as one wondered about the number of country stamps vying for space on her passport.


Urmi Popat’s parents, Shakuntala and Ashvin, unfurl the Indian flag in Antarctica. Pic/ Urmi Popat

India in Antarctica
Flash forward to 2011. Popat was invited to present a paper on responsible tourism options in the polar realms at the National Conference on Science and Geopolitics of Arctic & Antarctica in New Delhi. Going by her experience in this field of work, the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) and the Ministry of Earth Sciences invited her to recreate India’s passage through 30 years of Antarctica research in a coffee-table chronicle. From its early days at the Dakshin Gangotri station to its present site, Bharti, the book follows India’s giant strides in various disciplines of Antarctic science. “Antarctica becomes one of the world’s most discussed regions, as far as environmental issues are concerned,” she says. Urmi recalls being amazed at the dedication and spirit of multiple teams who slog night and day, in inhospitable weather conditions, and away from family, to achieve a common goal.


Urmi Popat

Fact to format
For this book, Popat worked for over a year, collecting amazing, rare photographs and interviews globally, to give readers a glimpse of the real Antarctica, through snow and ice, and human triumph against the odds. The support from NCAOR and the Indian scientific expeditioners to Antarctica helped immensely. Besides this huge task of tracking India’s presence in Antarctica didn’t warrant oversights, be it person or event.

Was it tough for her to translate a vast, complicated subject into a coffee-table book for a diverse reader base, we ask: “This book had to be a repository of exciting, motivating and even hilarious accounts. We included unexplored voyages, anecdotes from crew members, frames of the fastest overland traverse to the South Pole, the Equator crossing ceremony, India’s research stations, flora and fauna, breathtaking natural phenomena, while trying to explain the nuances of the frigid continent.”

90 degree South-India’s Journey to Antarctica was released on July 27, 2012, at the Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi.

In the cold
>> Because of the plate tectonic theory, every piece of rock occurring naturally in Antarctica has a blood relationship with those in India and other continents
>> The Adelie Penguin was named in 1840 after a French explorer’s wife Adele. This species is identified by the white ring surrounding the eye
>> The current station, Bharti, has a life span of 25 years
>> Antarctica’s landscape is dotted with Sastrugi — wind-sculpted snow ridges formed when the wind erodes and drifts the snow

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