Pooja Bajaj is one among a handful of women solo bike riders in India. Fiery and bold, she takes on challenges that even her male counterparts may not want to attempt and is also a fearless advocate of women's rights. In June, as she rode through the perilous Spiti Valley, one of the most difficult terrains in the world, she met with an accident and was left with multiple fractures. 26 days later, she was back on her bike. “Courage is of the soul,” Pooja tells Aksheev Thakur, and says her scars represent the undying spirit.
‘Scars are beautiful’ and solo bike rider Pooja Bajaj carries the angry scars on her shoulder with great pride. To her, they symbolise the undying spirit, not the injury that preceded them, or the surgery that caused them. She remembers instead, her trip to Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, which is considered to be one the toughest adventure terrains in the world, where she rode through the perilous, gravel-covered roads.
Pooja had always dreamed of taking on the Spiti Valley Challenge and in June, embarked on a 12-day expedition. On Day 10, a fellow-rider cut into her lane without using the indicator, leading to a major accident.
Pooja was left with multiple fractures in her clavicle, a fragment of which dislocated in the thoracic region.
This kind of injury can be a permanent setback to a passionate rider – the trauma of the incident is enough to put off even the bravest from attempting such a challenge again. Not Pooja. Her perseverance and grit brought her back to her beloved bike.
“The nearest basic hospital was 100 km away from the accident spot,” she recalls. “When I got there, I was only given first aid.” Three days later, she reached Chandigarh, where she received a sling. “Every hour was agony. I had to wait six days, to reach Bengaluru, to undergo surgery.”
Worried and upset, her family requested her to quit riding. Pooja’s first question to the surgeon after the surgery, however, was if she could return to her passion.
She hit the gym just four days later. “I needed to work on stamina. I didn’t want the fear to settle in – I had to get back onto my bike. I needed to focus on my legs,” she said. “Still, I couldn’t handle even the lightest bike, so I increased my workouts. On day 26, I was back to riding.” Pooja has now finished riding over one lakh kilometres.
Fighting against the odds
Born into a middle class family in Lucknow, where even buying a cycle seemed an unattainable dream, Pooja had to work doubly hard to turn her own desires to reality. Back then, she would rent a cycle. She describes herself as having been a ‘backbencher’, who “got decent marks.” She received her first cycle in class seven. “I started participating in cycle races and won laurels.”
Her father worked in the railways and was always on tours, while her mother, who needed medical attention from time to time had to be taken to hospital. “So I learned to ride the Bajaj Chetak when I was 14.” In class 10, a year later, she switched to motorbikes and joined began doing her solo tours when she joined a college in Delhi.
She had begun supporting herself financially after class 12. “Since I knew about automobiles, I would work part-time at auto expos and had also worked at a McDonald’s, but I managed to make ends meet somehow. I bought my first second-hand bike with my own money,” Pooja says.
Opened fitness startup
Although she had dreamed of joining the armed forces, she didn’t pursue this as her family refused to allow it. She is, however, a National Cadet Corps ‘C’ Certificate holder. And anyway, destiny had other plans for Pooja. “Joining MBA was accidental. In the end, though, the course did help me when I conceptualized my sports and fitness startup, SoulBlaze, which, today, has a presence in Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Delhi,” she says.
Women's president united human rights forum Bangalore
She manages to have time left over and uses that for activism. Pooja is the president of the United Human Rights Forum (rural and urban), Bengaluru. “I work for women’s empowerment. Earlier, I had worked with sexually abused children and rape victims in Maharashtra,” she says.
On women’s safety
The rape and murder of the young veterinarian in Hyderabad had raised the issue of safety of women. Even though Pooja is trained in martial arts, she does feel unsafe when she is out in the dark, despite being on a bike as well. “At night, there are young boys who want to race, or who may try to stop me. Even though I take precautions and carry both a knife as well as pepper spray, the issue of safety does bother me.”
The titanium rods and multiple screws that hold Pooja's shoulder together never did become an impediment to her determination. Being one of the few women bike riders in the country, she uses her position to break stereotypes. “Bravery is not a quality of the body, it is of the soul,” she says....