Long ago, in Hoshiarpur in Punjab, shopkeepers would hurry out of their stores and elders would pause on their hookah puffs to get a glimpse of the little girl who had just vroomed past them on her scooter. Three decades later, open-mouthed stares still follow Moksha Jetley as she sits astride her silver-grey 350cc Royal Enfield, leading bikers—mostly men—up precarious mountain slopes to Leh and Spiti or past parched dunes in Rajasthan.
Miles away, on a different terrain, Poonam Darne, a scuba-diving instructor with Ocean Pearls in Havelock Island, evokes a similar reaction of incredulity. “Are you going to take me scuba- diving?”—most tourists hesitantly ask this when they see a woman dive leader. “Their faces fall at first,” Poonam laughs, “but once they have explored the ocean with me, they insist I lead them on subsequent dives too!”
It irritates Anita Deshpande no less when people ask her at meetings, “Who’s the man running the show?” Anita and her husband, Avi Malik, own Temple Pilots, a paragliding school in Kamshet, near Pune. Well, times have changed and now women are effortlessly diving, gliding, rafting, trekking and biking their way through adventure sports. What was till recently an all-boys club is no longer so.
“It’s all about breaking that mental block,” says Poonam, who found her calling during a holiday in the Andamans three years ago when she wore a wetsuit for the first time. Within months, she was off to Thailand on an internship to learn diving. Back in Mumbai, her family thought it was a passing phase—it was only a matter of time before their little girl came back to her secure food products business. But Poonam’s world had, literally, undergone a sea change. “Diving is all I could think of. I couldn’t imagine going back to a 9-to-5 job,” she says, now living by herself in Havelock in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Her husband, Santosh, an actor, comes to visit as often as he can. “I couldn’t have done this without his support,” she says.
Another waterbaby, Sowmya H.S., credits her husband for making an adventurer of her. Co-owner of Ace Paddlers in Bangalore, Sowmya, now a whitewater rescue technician, hadn’t even swum a lap in a pool before her marriage in 2006. “My husband took me kayaking on our honeymoon and there was no looking back after that,” she smiles. A similar plunge into adventure, literally, has given Dehradun girl Rupa Sahi a career she is proud of today. Training to become a bungee jumping instructor at Jumpin’ Heights in Rishikesh, Rupa was helping climbers at the National Institute of Mountaineering get the better of perilous slopes, when she decided she liked jumping off them better. “It was a tough decision, but I am glad I quit my job.”
It was tough for Anita too to paraglide out of a cushy corporate life to chase her dream while also convincing her family that she was doing the right thing. But she hung on and now flies across the country and beyond, to Bali and Nepal, with aspiring paragliders. Many of them are women—“young, savvy entrepreneurs to middle-aged Gujarati housewives who needed to be trained in Hindi, to schoolkids”. To get more women on an adrenaline high, Anita has even devised annual Women’s Day discounts. That said, it hasn’t been all smooth going. The old, set stereotypes accost them from new sources. Like the insurance firms who thought Anita’s job too “adventurous” and refused to give her a life policy!
“A mountain doesn’t know the gender of a climber,” says founder-director of Basecamp, Kavitha Reddy. Like Anita, she too bided her time in a corporate job until she had the resources to take a leap of faith and put her money where her heart was—the outdoors. Running the Bangalore-based adventure sports company with two other women adventure junkies, Kavitha says the turnout of women participants has always been healthy for them. “Whether it’s high-altitude trekking, para-sailing, kayaking, bungee jumping or any other sport, more than half our participants are female. Clearly, women are now more comfortable negotiating risky terrain, and one reason is that they empathise with the all-woman team at Basecamp.” As for the men, Kavitha says, “There is some awkwardness when they see women training them, but they appreciate it too.”
“In 1984, moving out of my village in Garhwal to scale Everest was no less daunting than the actual climb,” says Pal.
Bachendri Pal, mountaineering legend, who is heading to Bhutan for an expedition with 10 women climbers next month, would be happy to hear this. Her struggle to overcome gender bias prompted the setting up of the Women’s Adventure Network of India (WANI) in 2008. “In 1984, moving out of my village in Garhwal to scale the Everest peak was no less daunting than the actual climb. But now, a culture of adventure is taking root, and I wanted to give women a platform to help it blossom,” she says.
India’s first woman skydiver Rachel Thomas had a similar goal in mind when she conceptualised the Women Skydivers of India that same year. But with no sponsors and no funds, the skydiving club didn’t take off. “You need about 10 parachutes to start a club, each of which costs Rs 2.5 lakh,” says Rachel, who’s done 670 jumps. She was a mother of two when she jumped from an aircraft for the first time in 1979. Her feats include a famous unfurling of the tricolour over the North Pole.
One person who must have followed that dive keenly is Archana Sardana. A skydiver who’s even corralled the US skies, Archana is also India’s first base (buildings, antennae, spans or bridges and earth or cliffs) jumper. She now has her sights trained on the 235-metre TV tower in Delhi’s Pitampura.
Archana may have over 300 jumps under her harness but her achievements haven’t come easy. She paid for her skydiving lessons abroad by selling her wedding jewellery and car; her husband even mortgaged their flat. Parents and friends chipped in too. But it’s all paying off now. When she isn’t freefalling, Archana moonlights as a DJ—quite the supermom to her two sons, aged 10 and 8, who are discovering the thrill of nature sports with diving courses.
For our women walking on the wild side, balancing work and home is no different than it would have been in any other job. As Kavitha points out, “For a child, having a mother out on an adventure trail is no different from living with a working mom who is away on business trips.” As a single mother, biker Moksha moved to Manali in Himachal Pradesh in ’07 after her daughter finished her studies, to follow her passion for the mean machines. A skilled mountaineer, Moksha set up Back-n-Beyond, taking people on bike rides to remote mountains and sandy beaches. And the wild gene runs in the family, daughter Prachi now works as a tour officer for Back-n-Beyond.
In all this, what has truly changed over the years is the misconception that women are not cut out for adventure. In fact, many of the female species now believe they have an innate advantage in nature sports. Like Anita, who stresses how in paragliding a woman’s natural ability to align with the elements and go with the flow, rather than get muscle power into action, works to her advantage. “It’s also about intuition, and having a Plan B when things go wrong,” feels Kavitha, while Poonam highlights a biological edge: “Women have smaller lungs and use less air per minute.” So, clearly, nature designed women to go out and explore. And if that doesn’t inspire the ladies, a more down-to-earth fact might—Anita’s insurance firm has finally seen sense: they have given her a life policy.