‘It’s not a career for women!’ an Excerpt from Shoot. Dive. Fly
Shoot, Dive, Fly: Stories of Grit and Adventure from the Indian Army by Rachna Rawat Bisht aims to introduce teenagers to the armed forces and tell them about the perils and the challenges of a career in uniform. An extract:
‘It’s not a career for women!’
Myth: It’s not a career for women.
Reality: Major Raj Chaudhary, Engineer Regiment, Corps of Engineers, daughter, mom, wife and national-level shooter.
‘There are some promises that we make to ourselves too’
Dawn is breaking over the Army cantonment near Ajmer when the silence of the morning is interrupted by the soft tread of sneakers hitting the road. A lone runner in trackpants and a thin sweater, a neat plait falling over her shoulders, is painstakingly jogging her way through the chilly winter morning. Her warm breath comes out like a jet of steam in the cold, the sound of her heavy, strained breathing puncturing the quiet.
A little plump and out of practice, national-level shooter Major Raj Chaudhary of Engineer Regiment is getting back in shape for the competition coming up in two months. Since she has recently had a baby, Raj has a lot of fitness training to catch up on. She will be going back to shooting after a long break. ‘It’s like starting from scratch once again,’ she says candidly. ‘I can barely run one kilometre at a stretch now. But I have decided I will get back in form.’
Besides being a new mother, Chaudhary is also an Army wife and an only daughter to ageing parents who live with her. But above all, she is an Army officer with a steely will. ‘Yes, I have a lot of responsibilities towards a lot of people,’ she says, looking into my eyes. ‘Par kuch vaade hum apne aap se bhi karte hain. (There are some promises that we make to ourselves.)’
A gun decided what I wanted to do in life.
Raj’s love affair with guns starts when she is nineteen years old. An outstanding student, she is studying for a physics honours degree from Kirori Mal College in New Delhi with ambitions of becoming an IAS officer. Around the same time, a classmate coaxes her into joining the NCC at Miranda House since her own college does not have NCC for girls.
There, at a Combat Engineering Training Camp (CETC) in 2003, she touches a gun for the very first time. ‘
It was like love at first touch,’ she smiles. ‘Frankly speaking, I had never been into sports. I didn’t play any games or do any physical activity. I was a complete bookworm but the moment I held a gun, I knew this was what I wanted to do in life.’ She did surprisingly well for someone who had never handled a rifle before and was amongst the four girls selected for the national championships. ‘
That was the first time I found out about the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and National Games selections,’ she says. Unfortunately, she cannot go for the National Games selections because it means missing college for a month and the head of the physics department tells her she will not be given marks for the practicals for the time she is away. ‘I couldn’t go but it helped me decide that shooting was what I wanted to do in life.’
When she discusses her newfound passion with her father, Naik Saudan Singh Chaudhary, a boxer and weightlifter in the Army who has taken voluntary retirement, he advises her that the Army is the only place where she can indulge this passion for shooting. That strikes a chord with Raj. ‘I thought if I join the Army, I will get to shoot,’ she says. The fire has been lit! She starts physical training in preparation for the Army Services Selection Board (SSB) and even though she passes the IAS preliminary, she does not write the main examinations because she now wants to be an Army officer.
Training for the Army
Every Sunday morning, Raj Chaudhary, sleeping peacefully in her bed, is shaken awake by her father and sent running. Her training to join the Army has begun. The well-built and grey-haired Naik Saudan Singh cycles down to the mango orchard, around two kilometres from their house, keeping pace with his daughter who is huffing and puffing alongside. Each time she stops, he also stops and hollers ‘Shabash! Aage badho!’ at her, and she starts running again. ‘In the beginning, I couldn’t even run one kilometre,’ Raj confesses. ‘I would just hold my cramped, aching stomach and wait for him to yell at me. But slowly my stamina started increasing.’
The distance to the orchard is not counted as exercise. Once there, her father makes her do two kilometres of running around the orchard. After that, she does sit-ups on the ground and soon after that, her father makes her use the monkey bars in the park to do sit-ups while hanging from her knees. At the end of the session, Raj desperately waits for her mother to bring breakfast for the whole family. They sit down together under the trees and eat, throwing crumbs to the chirping birds and squirrels.
After completing her graduation, Raj clears her SSB written exams, a cakewalk for her since she is a very good student. The physical exams in Bhopal are much tougher than expected but the strict training her father put her through helps her sail through those as well. ‘My father didn’t even come with me to Bhopal,’ she says. ‘He sent me there alone and told me to be independent.’ He was just reiterating a lesson he had taught her early in life. He hadn’t gone with her for her college admissions either.
And even earlier, when she was in Class VIII and had come crying to him after a love-struck classmate had given her a romantic letter, he had refused to intervene, curtly telling her to handle it on her own.
‘If you want to reply to the letter, go ahead and write a reply. If you want to slap him, go back and slap him,’ he had said, making the feisty Raj so angry that she had gone back to school, found the boy and given him a tight slap. ‘I was relieved when he didn’t hit me back,’ she says. ‘Perhaps it was because I was the class monitor!’
A few years later in Delhi, she slaps a roadside Romeo who has the audacity to grasp her hand when she is returning home late one evening from college—only to be slapped back by him. They have a physical fight but Raj manages to snatch his bike keys and take him to the nearest police station, helped by the gathered crowd. From there she calls her father, who comes to the police station almost immediately, proud of his bold daughter. ‘We registered an FIR but took it back when the boy apologized profusely and promised never to trouble a girl again,’ she says.
Excerpted from Shoot. Dive. Fly. authored by Rachna Bisht Rawat, published by Penguin Random House India 2017. MRP: Rs. 199.
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