If you are a cardiac surgeon in the making, start by stealing a nation’s heart. That could well be the prescription of Miss World 2017 Manushi Chhillar, the medical student whose blue surgical cap recently made way for a jade blue crown.
Fresh from the glow of having ended a 17-year wait for India with the title she won in China’s Sanya City on November 18, the leggy beauty landed in Mumbai early on Sunday, proud of having broken another, more personal, dry spell. “Finally! Indian food after 40 days,” screamed a temporary Instagram post of the 20-year-old, whose eyes lit up when they found an Indian section at the Hong Kong airport on the return journey. Although her mother had packed a suitcase full of ready-to-cook Indian snacks like poha and upma, the sweet-toothed vegetarian wolfed down piping hot “Indian bread and chhola” with relish.
On Sunday evening, she looks like a couture version of a mermaid in an emerald off-shoulder Gauri and Nainika gown paired with matching gemstone earrings, her flawless skin and auburn curls embellished by the dappled evening sunlight inside a five-star hotel. There is a pageant-patented poise about her and the dimple on her left cheek appears unfailingly after every question. “There is more pride in being called India than Manushi,” she says, recalling the grand welcome at the airport with chants of “India, India”.
But her favourite homecoming refrain is: “I have a friend in every country now.” Given that the Miss World pageant had 120 participating countries, that means 119 friends from places with “hard-to-pronounce” names. The camaraderie was so strong that “the final day seemed like a rehearsal”, says Chhillar.
Born to doctor parents Mitra Basu and Neelam Chhillar, modelling happened to the Haryana girl by chance. The extrovert in her loved being on stage and the nerd in her lost herself in her books, says this product of St Thomas School in Delhi who was studying in Haryana’s Bhagat Phool Singh Medical College before she took a break last year.
It was a contest in Delhi’s AIIMS, where she was crowned Miss Campus Princess, that set the tone for her history-making victory—the sixth for India that put it on a par with Venezuela in terms of beauties churned out. After several modelling assignments for print ads, Chhillar found herself crowned Miss Haryana and later, standing at the altar of the fbb Colors Femina Miss India. “I didn’t even know how to do make-up and hair then,” she says.
Though she doesn’t believe in lucky charms, the two rings—a pearl one on the index finger gifted by her mother and a coral one on the ring finger gifted by her father who calls her his dragon—may have worked their magic. She also took a small Ganpati idol gifted by her aunt to the pageant.
An intuition kicked in when she entered the final five. That was when she caught a glimpse of her parents in the audience. “I instantly felt that something good was about to happen,” Chhillar says about the “emotional” moment that was the spark for her final answer which was lauded by many for reigniting a dormant debate on the economic worth of an otherwise thankless job—motherhood. “To me, my mother is very beautiful and the epitome of a woman. She knows how to balance a busy professional life with family life,” she says.
The 20-year-old is a Kuchipudi dancer—she wowed everyone at the Miss World pageant with her dance moves —and is also a poet who has captured moving experiences in the dissection hall, pressures of practicals and emotionally demanding clinical postings in words. During her first posting in surgery, for instance, she came across a breast cancer patient who had come in with her four-year-old child. “It was a serious case at an advanced stage. I felt helpless as I realized you cannot cure, you can only assist. I called up my father to ask how he handles such cases,” says Chhillar. “He told me it’s important to keep your emotions in check.”
As one of the winners of the Beauty With A Purpose contest at Miss World 2017, she hopes to turn the spotlight on menstrual hygiene. As an MBBS student in rural Haryana, she had come across women who used wood pulp and torn curtains instead of sanitary pads. “They had no access to sanitary pads and some felt shy asking shopkeepers for one,” says Chhillar, who had later tied up with an initiative selling affordable sanitary pads.