Photo: Facebook/Malli Mastan Babu
Photo: Facebook/Malli Mastan Babu

Malli Mastan Babu: India’s mountain man

For adventure junkies, climbing is a passion. For Malli Mastan, the first Indian 7 Summiteer, it was an obsession

Dr Malli Dorasanamma knew it was bad news when her doorbell chimed at 2am.

It was early April 2015.

Her brother Malli Mastan Babu had been missing for 10 days in South America’s Andes mountains.

The world would later know that Babu had successfully completed a solo ascent of the 22,142ft Tres Cruces Sur, on the Chile-Argentina border, on 24 March, the same day he left base camp for the summit. It was the last anyone saw of him.

On the way down, at around 20,000ft, he ran into a storm. A storm system had travelled to the far north of Chile and unleashed heavy rain on one of the driest places in the world, the Atacama region.

That’s where they found Babu’s body 10 days later—dead in his tent, frozen inside his sleeping bag.

Malli Mastan Babu, engineer, alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Calcutta, techie, motivational speaker, a 7 Summiteer and a man who had followed the call of the mountains, was dead.

He was 40.

***

Before Independence, the Yerukulas were an itinerant tribal gypsy community. Some preferred the nomadic life, making a living from selling pork, handmade baskets fashioned from dried date palm leaves and bamboo, weaver’s combs and curry leaves. Others were professional criminals. Indeed, the British listed the Yerukulas in their Criminal Tribal Act. The tribe was ostracized by society—they were untouchables. Almost all were illiterate.

Malli Venkatiah was a Yerukula and a wandering salt seller. He would source salt from the beaches of Madras state, load it on donkeys, and move from village to village, selling it. His wife and children travelled with him. The family would pitch a tent outside the villages, and Venkatiah would sell salt. When he was done, they would move on.

At one village, a schoolmaster taught Mastaniah, one of Venkatiah’s sons, the Telugu alphabet. The boy was interested (and did learn the alphabet), but the family moved on.

When he grew up, Mastaniah continued like his father before him, till the 1950s.

That was the time a social reformer and follower of Mahatma Gandhi from Nellore, Vennelakanti Raghavaiah, led a movement for the repealing of the discriminatory Criminal Tribal Act and for the permanent settlement and rehabilitation of tribal communities such as the Yanadi and the Yerukula.

By then, the state of Andhra Pradesh had been created. Members of the nomadic Yerukula tribe were settled with 1 acre of land and concrete houses for each family. One of the settlement sites near Nellore subsequently came to be known as Gandhi Jana Sangam. That’s where Mastaniah, by then married to Subbamma, settled down to a pastoral life as a paddy farmer.

He worked hard, and he did well. “Through sheer hard work and toil on the fields, my husband could add to the 1 acre of land given to us by the government. At times, both of us worked as daily labourers in neighbouring villages," says Subbamma.

Mastaniah would go on to own 12 acres. He and Subbamma had five children. All went to school. If the monsoon failed and he had no money to pay for their education, Mastaniah would simply sell a part of his land. The family is now left with 4 acres.

The eldest child was a daughter, Amasa Mastanamma. She was married off early.

The second, another daughter, Dorasanamma, went on to study medicine and become a practising neurologist in Tirupati with her own clinic and hospital.

Then came a son, Malli Peddamastaniah, who is a schoolteacher.

Then, another son, Malli Chinnamastaniah, who runs the farm and a stationery store in the village.

The last son was Malli Mastan Babu.

All of the children (barring Dorasanamma, who converted to Christianity) and their father bear the name of Mastaniah, after a Sufi seer at whose dargah Venkatiah prayed when he and his wife went childless for several years after their marriage.

Malli Mastan was like any other boy. He loved to climb trees and would sometime go to sleep balanced on their topmost branches. He loved to swim and would cool off—Nellore can be hot—in a fast-moving agricultural canal near the house. And he would hide in the village well when he did not want to be found by his parents.

He went to a local school. When he was in Class IV, he played truant one day and walked a couple of kilometres to a hillock nearby. Named Sangam Hill, it can’t be more than a few hundred metres high, and isn’t very steep. Malli Mastan had no problems climbing it. He liked the view. He enjoyed the climbing. Soon, he was skipping school regularly to climb the hill.

Mastaniah wasn’t impressed.

***

The Sainik School at Korukonda is near Andhra Pradesh’s border with Odisha. It is built around the palace of a former Vizianagaram royal and run by the ministry of defence (sainik is Hindi for soldier). A giant arched gate leads to the school where students in khaki, sporting maroon-coloured belts and caps and with blue socks that complement polished black shoes, walk past a large wall-mounted mirror above which a legend reads: “Am I dressed well?"

Keen to control the wayward streak in Malli Mastan, his father made him take the admission test. He hoped the military discipline of the institution and hostel life would set the boy right.

Malli Mastan cracked the test.

But he didn’t fit in.

“At Sainik School, he was seen as a deviant. He would bunk classes to climb mango trees or would swim in the well along with some resident tortoises," recalls his classmate N. Sarath Babu, who went on to become a doctor. “Punishment would mean extra rounds in the field and more of physical training exercises. Malli didn’t mind those either."

Malli Mastan didn’t do badly in school.

Lt. Col. M. Ashok Babu, the school’s registrar, brings out a copy of roll number 2136’s Class X CBSE exam certificate. It shows that Malli Mastan had scored a respectable 70% to 80% in all subjects, and an A in physical education.

Behind the registrar, in an ornately carved wooden cabinet, sits a collection of trophies won by the school’s students in various competitive fields. While the school regularly sends a number of students to the National Defence Academy, from where they are inducted into the defence forces, it also boasts of alumni who have gone on to achieve heights in other fields.

D. Subbarao, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, is an alumnus. As is Azad, the slain former spokesperson of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). To the right of the registrar’s table now sits a photograph of a mountaineer: Malli Mastan’s smiling visage against the backdrop of the Indian tricolour.

Even at Sainik School, mountains were never far away from Malli Mastan’s mind.

In 1985, the school received news that one of its former students, Lt. M. Uday Bhaskar Rao, had died of exposure at the high South Col of Mt Everest. He was part of the Indian Army’s ill-fated expedition, which saw the death of five climbers.

In a November 1985 issue of India Today, the magazine’s then managing editor (a keen mountaineer himself and a member of the second Indian Everest expedition in 1962) wrote: “The Indian Army expedition had a disastrous run of all three last month on and around the South Col as it geared itself for the final effort to make the summit. The combination of circumstances could arguably have been avoided had it been foreseen, but once the tragedy began to unfold, it moved inexorably to its grim climax.

“The end result: Indian mountaineering’s worst disaster, with one climber falling almost 1,500m to his death from a point about 350m above the South Col and four others dead in their tents on the Col in circumstances which have yet to be fully explained."

The Sainik School authorities installed a statue of Bhaskar on the campus.

“Malli would be seen staring at the statue with a look of wonderment," remembers G. Sarvarayadu, a senior teacher who taught him in Class IX and X. “I think he was in Class X when he told me of his interest in climbing Mt Everest."

“We encouraged it, especially because he was talking of Everest."

But the mountains would have to wait.

***

“Our father wanted his children to study," says Dorasanamma. “Following father’s wishes, Babu wanted to first acquire all the highest Indian education degrees possible for him."

And acquire them Malli Mastan did—a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Jamshedpur’s National Institute of Technology; a master’s degree in electronics engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur; and a post-graduate diploma in management from IIM Calcutta. Sure, he benefited from reservations for candidates from the scheduled tribes, but he was also brilliant, says Sarath Babu.

There were breaks in between. He worked for Satyam Computer Services, now part of Tech Mahindra, for three years till 2001.

Those were Indian IT’s Y2K years, when armies of coders cleaned up software of companies in the US and elsewhere to prepare for the turn of the millennium. Malli Mastan was good at his work, but not a conformist.

His manager expected him to wear formal trousers; he turned up in denim.

He was expected to wear a tie; he would use one, but as a belt.

“He didn’t think too highly of his work. It was easy for him. He would take a fraction of the time others took to complete a project. This left him with enough time to do his own thing," says Dorasanamma. “Naturally, this didn’t go down well with his bosses."

In 2001, he told her he was quitting.

The mountains were calling.

***

One day in 2002, mountain guide Passang Bhutia chanced upon the dark-skinned man, sporting a thickset, drooping moustache, sipping tea at a corner of the restaurant attached to the Yak Hotel in West Sikkim district’s Yuksom town.

A short conversation and a cup of tea later, he came away with the impression that the man was “obsessed with mountains".

It was Malli Mastan.

Bhutia, now a veteran guide, says he had never met anyone like Malli Mastan until then. And never has since.

Bhutia’s work requires him to lead teams and individuals from all over the world up to the remote high-altitude nooks in Sikkim, West Bengal and Ladakh. Germans, Americans, Israelis, Canadians, English—they all seek him out to guide them through unknown mountainscapes. In his area of work, Bhutia has come across all kinds—mountain addicts, nature lovers, dissenters, idealists, romantics, egoists, drifters and hobos.

But Malli Mastan was different, he says, “crazily immersed in the mountains".

A few days after their first meeting, Malli Mastan and Bhutia left on a four-day trek from Yuksom to Dzongri at over 12,000ft, a small trekkers’ outpost on the route to Goecha La and commanding a stunning vista of the Kanchendzonga range of peaks.

While the trek to Goecha La is rated as difficult in most guide books, the trail till Dzongri isn’t really a walk in the park—in 2009, two trekkers died from altitude sickness-related complications on the route. In 2011, another life was lost at Dzongri when a student of IIM Calcutta, Malli Mastan’s alma mater (he founded the adventure club at the B-school), succumbed to altitude sickness.

Still, on his very first trek in the area, Malli Mastan behaved and acted like a local, recalls Bhutia. He would plan every last detail, start early in the day, carry his own load, walk at a steady clip throughout the day, pitch his own tent, cook his own food, fine-tune the next day’s plan with the guide and sort out logistical issues before spending the remaining waking hours reading.

“He would not talk about cities, cars, career or owning property," says Bhutia. “He didn’t seem to be interested in girls, parties or small talk on any subject outside of mountains. He did not smoke or do drugs and I didn’t find him drinking even a drop of alcohol on the occasions that we trekked together. He was only interested in mountains and more mountains and how he could reach higher ground. He was fixated with altitude."

Sonam Bhutia, who runs the Yak Hotel where Malli Mastan stayed during his visit to Yuksom and every visit since, says Malli Mastan was partial to the local millet brew, but nothing else. He would drink alone with a book for company, she says. Never unpleasant, the result of such evenings would often be—and here the slightly rotund Bhutia stops speaking and describes Malli Mastan’s state with a bird-like swaying of her arms.

Like the other Bhutia (Passang), the hotel keeper says Malli Mastan was different.

Yuksom, a quaint and verdant mountain village at 5,400ft, is the starting point for long, arduous treks leading up to and around the base of the world’s third highest peak, Kanchendzonga, and beyond. Malli Mastan outdid the others, she says, remembering the time she saw him carting a rucksack weighing 60kg on a 19km trek. “I tried but couldn’t move it an inch."

Inside the warm and well-appointed study of the Yak Hotel, Sonam Bhutia has preserved the many mountaineering and travel books left behind by Malli Mastan. Among them is Into Thin Air, the personal account of American writer, journalist and mountaineer Jon Krakauer’s disastrous climbing season on Everest in 1996.

The book was gifted to him by a batchmate at IIM Calcutta.

Inside, Malli has underlined some quotations used in the book by Krakauer: “There was loneliness, too, as the sun set, but only rarely now did the doubts return" (Thomas F. Hornbein); “But there are men for whom the unattainable has a special attraction" (Walt Unsworth); “I grew up with an ambition and determination without which I would have been a good deal happier" (Earl Denman); “I doubt if anyone would claim to enjoy life at high altitudes—enjoy, that is, in the ordinary sense of the word" (Eric Shipton); and a line from a character in Krakauer’s critique of guided expeditions, which says, “with enough determination, any bloody idiot can climb Everest".

He has underlined a few more passages.

One says, “And he was savvy enough to understand that the more attention he got from the news media, the easier it would be to coax corporations to open their checkbooks." Another has Linda, Krakauer’s wife, arguing against him taking up a risky journalistic assignment as part of an Everest-climbing expedition.

“If you get killed," she argued with a mix of despair and anger, “it’s not just you who’ll pay the price. I’ll have to pay, too, you know, for the rest of my life. Doesn’t that matter to you?"

Malli Mastan never married.

“He didn’t want to marry knowing that it will hold him back from the mountains," says Dorasanamma. “He knew he would not easily find a girl who could accept his way of life. He was happy being single."

***

A year after he quit Satyam, a year after he met Passang Bhutia, a restless Malli Mastan was admitted to the prestigious IIM Calcutta.

He didn’t fit in.

In 2004, when the rest of his batchmates were preparing for campus interviews, he decided to sit out and told his sister that his future was in the mountains.

With his educational degrees in place, in keeping with his father’s wishes, “there was no holding him back from the mountains. He was free to focus entirely on his dream", says Dorasanamma. “When neighbours would ask my mother what her engineer and MBA son was doing, she could only say that her son is climbing mountains without knowing what it actually meant. In those days, to be honest, neither did I."

His Sainik School friend Sarath Babu visited him at IIM Calcutta.

He met an “elated" Malli Mastan who had just completed a “40km run" and was happy for that reason. “While other students were busy preparing for a corporate career, he was thinking about being on Everest," he says. “No wonder, he felt that other students regarded him as an alien in their midst."

That’s a recurring theme in Malli Mastan’s life.

Yuksom was at the heart of his ambition to lead a sustainable mountain life. He and Sonam Bhutia’s daughter planned to start a computer training centre. “They had rented a place to start the training centre, but locals objected," says Bhutia. “They wondered why a kaala aadmi (dark-skinned man) should do business here. It didn’t take off."

“Malli was always eager to know more about the mountains, but would not easily interact with locals, for whom he would mostly offer a perfunctory smile. He seemed to be a man in a hurry. He was a great man from whom I learnt a lot, but, deep inside, he was really a loner."

But he was a loner with a plan.

He wanted to set the record as the fastest 7 Summiteer, climbing the highest peaks in each of the seven continents.

***

Within two years of graduating from IIM Calcutta, Malli Mastan, funded by friends from Sainik School and IIT and IIM batchmates, achieved the first of his goals. By reaching the top of the tallest peak in North America, the 20,310ft Mount Denali, on 10 July 2006, he completed a scintillating series of climbs covering the seven highest peaks in seven continents. This does not represent the highest challenge in mountaineering, but because of its spread across continents, it tests both the skill and logistical management abilities of a mountaineer.

For Malli Mastan, this entailed ascents of the bleak and remote 16,050ft Vinson Massif in Antarctica (19 January), the formidable Aconcagua at 22,837ft in South America (17 February), the 19,341ft Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa (15 March), the easier 7,310ft Mt Kosciuszko in Australia (1 April), before completing the set with Mt Elbrus in Europe at 18,510ft (13 June) and the granddaddy of them all, the 29,035ft Mt Everest in Asia (21 May). He completed all seven summits in 172 days.

He was the first Indian to climb Vinson Massif in Antarctica—an occasion when Malli Mastan couldn’t help but cry in silent exuberance—and the 16,024ft Carstensz Pyramid in Oceania on 28 October 2006.

Soon after, he hit the road as a motivational speaker. Tapping the vast alumni network of well-placed professionals from Sainik School, IIT Kharagpur and IIM Calcutta, he became a popular speaker, often earning as much as Rs50,000 for a talk, according to Dorasanamma (although there was usually a long gap between talks).

Photo: Facebook/Malli Mastan Babu
Photo: Facebook/Malli Mastan Babu

He also started working with a school in Andhra Pradesh to take students out camping and on outdoor experiences. And he was working steadily towards a career as a high-altitude mountain guide in India and abroad.

He created a website detailing his mountaineering exploits, www.1stindian7summits.com, and a Facebook page to solicit clients for guided expeditions to Mt Aconcagua in Argentina, Mt Elbrus in Russia, Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Island Peak in Nepal, Goecha La in India and Mt Denali, Mt Shasta, Mt Hood, Mt Rainier and Mt Adams in the US.

He learnt Spanish and Russian and was especially focused on building his credentials as a mountain guide in South America, a continent that appealed to him for being culturally and geographically similar to India, according to Dorasanamma.

Malli Mastan had climbed eight of the 10 highest Andes peaks before Tres Cruces Sur. His calendar was blocked with dates fixed for guided expeditions, children’s camps, basic mountaineering courses, treks, adventure outings for corporate clients and motivational lectures, Malli Mastan was soon living out of his rucksack.

Photo: Facebook/Malli Mastan Babu
Photo: Facebook/Malli Mastan Babu

In India, a country with a long history of government and institution-supported mountaineering, but with not much acknowledgement for individual mountaineers, Malli Mastan was navigating an exceptional and uncharted route. On the one hand, he indulged his own passion for solo climbing, and on the other, as a guide, he led small groups across Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. He was working at an anti-career that scoffed at the conventional notions of a career.

“I was one of the many people who thought that he was not utilizing his IIT-IIM education; one that could have seen him as a CEO of a big company," says Sarath Babu.

Sarath Babu is an orthopaedic surgeon at the five-storey Sai Spoorthy Multispecialty Hospital and Trauma Centre, which is owned and run by him in the heart of the bustling coastal city of Visakhapatnam. CCTV cameras report activity from inside the busy hospital to his desktop screen. A Sai Baba photo on his table keeps watch.

“Then slowly I realized that Malli had a master plan," Babu adds. “He was using his management education to promote mountaineering in a corporate style."

That’s evident in some of the documents he left behind

in the Yak Hotel’s study. There are files on equipment suppliers, lists of contacts in mountaineering and media, a logistics diary and neat expense accounts.

But the plan wasn’t to be.

***

In April, Dorasanamma travelled from Hyderabad to South America to bring back Malli Mastan’s body. She felt her brother’s face, head and body—as a doctor looking for injuries that could have caused death, but as much a sister coming to terms, through the undeniable reality of touch, with the stiff lifelessness of her brother.

She felt something give way under her, a sudden drop into a bottomless pit. She felt left behind. Suddenly, back to being on her own. The two were close. When Dorasanamma decided to leave a husband with “bad habits", Malli Mastan supported her. And she encouraged his pursuit of the mountains, despite coming from a background and culture that was totally alien to such a passion. The two shared an apartment at Tirupati.

Even today, she hasn’t come to terms with his loss. She remains disconcerted throughout the day, refuses to attend to patients, considers seeking the help of a professional counsellor and constantly puts up Facebook posts about her dead brother.

From the window of Malli Mastan’s room, where his books, maps, clothes and body-building equipment lie strewn, a spectacular view of the Tirumala hills’ rock face can be seen. Garlanding that scene is a Buddhist prayer flag, fluttering in the air and gently sending a message of peace and tranquility to the world outside and within.

Around 100km away, on a small patch of land along the Mumbai-Hubli highway, Subbamma bends over the freshly laid black granite stone marking the tomb of her son. Her round, heavy face shows strands of her copper-white hair stuck to the streams of tears flowing from red, melting eyes. The right hand that she raises to slap her forehead bears a tribal motif in the form of a tattoo. It has been 77 days since her son was found dead.

The rescue mission involved three countries—India, Chile and Argentina—and gathered momentum after the intervention of Union cabinet ministers Sushma Swaraj and M. Venkaiah Naidu. The prime minister and the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh offered their condolences at his death.

When his body was taken by road from Chennai airport—where Dorasanamma landed with the coffin—to his parental village, Gandhi Jana Sangam, thousands of onlookers spilled over onto the road and threatened to stall traffic on the national highway.

A battery of Andhra ministers and senior officials of the administration and police turned up when Malli Mastan’s bleached and turmeric-powdered body was lowered to the ground with state honours on 25 April.

***

“Have you heard of Mt Kilimanjaro?" Malli Mastan once asked his childhood friend Mani.

“Yes," replied the science teacher at the Praja Parishad High School near Gandhi Jana Sangam.

“How?"

“I saw it once on a map."

“Well, I climbed it."

Malli Mastan craved recognition. In Andhra Pradesh, not exactly known for its mountaineering culture or tradition, he faced a pioneer’s problems. Once, he had gifted a bandana that he wore during his 7 Summits expedition to Mani, his friend of 37 years. Many months later, he realized that the memento had been left ignored in a corner of Mani’s house. He seethed in anger and threatened to snatch it away saying, “You might find it very light, but it was terribly heavy to carry up the mountains."

Mani has since stored it carefully in an iron chest.

Now, after Malli Mastan’s death on an Andes peak over 16,000km away from Andhra Pradesh, Mani wants his mountaineer friend’s memory to survive among his students. About 95% of the 128 students in his school belong to the scheduled tribe category and come from poor families.

As the science teacher, Mani has taken it upon himself to impart education on the great outdoors to them, not through pedagogic lectures, but through interesting and colourful presentations on slides and rolls of paper.

When any of his students get selected to national-level science exhibitions and competitions, he meets the expenses from his own pocket.

Mani makes me ride behind him on his motorbike as we travel towards Gandhi Jana Sangam. Pointing at a huge marble temple coming up, he comments, “Everywhere, people building temples, but no money for building schools. God is great but education is greater."

We reach his house, where we see a huge globe engineered by Mani and his students. The motor that makes the globe spin is malfunctioning, and he has brought it home for repairs.

Photo: Shamik Bag/Mint
Photo: Shamik Bag/Mint

A smiling mugshot of Malli Mastan is pasted on the globe, straddling a portion of the Bay of Bengal and Myanmar. The globe is themed on Malli Mastan’s successful 7 Summit expedition; Mani’s students have pinned the lonely, remote peaks, all of which were conquered, solo, by a fellow native from Gandhi Jana Sangam. It is an interesting way for students to learn geography, Mani says.

With the motor missing, Mani spins the globe by hand. It moves faster. As does Malli Mastan Babu’s photograph. Till it is a blur.

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