Neela, who recently became a PADI OWSI in Pondicherry, India with PADI 5 Star IDC Facility Temple Adventures and Platinum Course Director Mark Soworka, recalls her experience, and reveals what it was like from a woman’s perspective.
India is often known as a place of unpredictability, with perhaps the only constant the never-ending sense of change, which usually comes bereft of surprise and filled with commotion. The sheer magnitude of India’s population, the whirling chaos and the many layers of grime on her streets often allow little room to create a positive opinion, especially among those who believe in first impressions. Once given a chance, however, India is ready to give you a home, keep you safe, and consider you one of her own. Unless, of course, you are most unfortunate, even cursed, to be born a woman here.
As a child, I grew up in Chennai, a sprawling city on the East Coast of the country. It never occurred to me then, that one day my most crucial choices in life would be determined by my gender. I was not brought up to think that way, but as soon as I was old enough to understand my own responsibilities, I realized that being a girl was a hindrance – it became something to be “unproud”, almost ashamed of. My daily activities would be limited by virtue of my sex, and my identity soon began to take its shape around it, much to my alarm. In university, I was told on my very first day in class, that it was unbecoming of me to speak so loud and bold, not because it was impolite in general, but because as a young woman, it was shameful to attract attention to myself. When walking alone on the street, men would sneer, stare and whip out their cell-phones to take my picture, in an (often successful) attempt to provoke me. Several little incidents like these would soon add up in my mind to form one big question – when would this change?
That was when I decided that irrespective of what the notions in this country believed about my abilities, the change I desired was one that only I could bring about. In December 2013, with a devil-may-care sort of attitude (quite unbecoming of the Indian woman in me, I might add), I signed up for the PADI Open Water Course at Temple Adventures, a Dive School in the town of Pondicherry, three hours from home. The experience was so fulfilling that I kept coming back, until ten months later, I was sitting for my IDC, alongside three other candidates whose experience far exceeded mine.
Since then, it has only been a crazy uphill journey – crazy, not only because it has brought me to a sense of success and fulfilment in what I do, but also because of the added sense of accomplishment that I had achieved this as a woman and normally this is never easy or straightforward. Pondicherry, though relatively more open-minded than my hometown, was still unaccustomed to the idea of a woman diving professional. Several sceptical customers questioned my abilities, my integrity and sometimes assumed that I was unsuitable for this job as it requires so much physical strength and endurance. Such attitudes often made it that much harder, for I l second-guessed myself several times and I half believed their words. A few, however, saw me as a role model – to them, I was the change that this country needed. Mothers have told me that their young daughters want to come back to dive because they were amazed at my boldness.
Several men who have struggled with skills in the small pool are astounded when they observe me perform them in the ocean with ease. These people far exceed those who discourage me, for they remind me that my identity stops not with my sex, but with the choices I make as an individual. My own colleagues and friends at the Dive Center have never ceased to encourage me. Some continue to marvel at why I choose to pull up anchors and deal with the whims and temperaments of my diving customers when I could be in the comfort of my own home, enjoying the one privilege that I possess as a reasonably well-off Indian woman – a lackadaisical attitude, which is accepted among society, as many women here are deemed nugatory from the beginning anyway. That I chose differently, not only because I was brought up so, but because I chose to do so, has earned respect and sometimes admiration. I became part of the diving community in Pondicherry, finally immune to the assumptions of the outside world. I was finally given the benefit of doubt and the power to be my best, irrespective of my sex.
Today, I am grateful, proud and a little in disbelief of how much diving has meant to me. To be a female instructor here, finally sees its advantage – I am the change, and I hope I am the inspiration for further change.