By Kahini Iyer Sep. 09, 2019
As Anupriya Lakra is being held up as an inspiration to girls in Odisha and beyond, let’s not forget to honour her parents, too. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Lakra’s journey to breaking barriers as a pilot is the faith her parents had in her unorthodox decisions.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the typical Indian parent desperately wants their child to become an engineer. Still, when Anupriya Madhumita Lakra of Odisha gave up on a hard-won place in an engineering college in 2012, her parents stood behind her all the way. Clearly, they made the right decision, as seven years on, Lakra has now received national acclaim as the first woman from her district to qualify as a commercial pilot. She is all set to join Indigo Airlines as a co-pilot later this month, a feat that has been lauded by Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, who calls her a role model for the state’s girls.
This is an even more impressive achievement when you consider where 27-year-old Lakra comes from: the Maoist-ravaged district of Malkangiri, a developmentally backwards region with few opportunities for ambitious young people. Infrastructure there is poor, and while Odisha has a statewide literacy rate of 73 per cent, for tribal women — Malkangiri has the highest tribal population in the state — this drops to only 41 per cent. The sheer audacity of Lakra’s aspirations to become a pilot is best summed up by a tribal leader and activist from her community, Niranjan Bisi: “In a district that is yet to see a railway line, it is a matter of pride for tribals there that a local woman will now fly a plane.”
For Lakra, a member of the Oraon tribe and the daughter of a humble police constable, getting admission into a government college in Bhubaneswar to study engineering would already have been a big deal. So why did Lakra drop out and instead join Bhubaneswar’s government aviation training institute, even as her family struggled to come up with the funds for her education? The simple answer is that she had hoped to travel the world since childhood, and wanted to make her lifelong dream a reality. Her passion and dedication have seen her through the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that threatened to define her circumstances.
And yet, there is more to Lakra’s story than that of a woman who has overcome the odds. Behind her stood an extraordinary family, consisting of mother Jimaj and father Mariniyas, as well as her brother, all living in a modest house in Malkangiri. Jimaj has never been inside a plane in her life. So after putting their daughter through school and seeing her go for a prestigious engineering degree, how did the Lakras react when she confided that her heart was set on aviation?
Despite their financial difficulties, the Lakra family stepped up to make sure their daughter could complete her pilot training, taking out loans from banks and getting help from relatives to pay many lakhs in fees.
It’s a question that even well-off families who can afford to finance their kids’ whims would have trouble answering. The standard Indian mentality encourages sticking to the path well-travelled — engineering, medicine, chartered accountancy, law, or family business — instead of taking potentially ruinous risks to pursue pie-in-the-sky dreams. This is doubly true of daughters who want to strike out into new territory, and are usually held back by an avalanche of objections. Who will want to marry a girl who doesn’t even have a decent office job or home business, but is jetting off to foreign countries every week? How can a woman be a good wife and mother when she is never there to tend to the home, and who is supposed to look out for her safety?
Regardless of social class or income, these are the parental concerns that are foisted on the majority of Indian daughters who want to pursue their dreams. Sons, forced to listen to lectures about how they will earn money to support their own families, don’t have it much better. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Lakra’s journey to breaking barriers as a pilot is the faith her parents had in her unorthodox decisions. Despite their financial difficulties, the Lakra family stepped up to make sure their daughter could complete her pilot training, taking out loans from banks and getting help from relatives to pay many lakhs in fees. Says Mariniyas, “I always ensured that my daughter gets an education in the field she wanted to.” Jimaj adds, “We are happy that she has become what she always dreamt of… But we never wanted her to stop dreaming.”
Jimaj’s words are a stark contrast to parents around the country who scoff at dreams as a dangerous folly of youth. As Lakra is being held up as an inspiration to girls in Odisha and beyond, let’s not forget to honour her parents, too. Only by refusing to conform to the logic of traditional Indian parents have they helped Lakra shatter those same conventions that should have kept her firmly in her place, in a government engineering college in Bhubaneswar.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.