‘I Don’t want Segregation; I Want Access & Acceptance’

Manasi Joshi, the reigning Para Badminton World Champion who has a Barbie doll modelled after her, narrates her journey and the challenges ahead

I was 22-year-old when I met with a horrific road accident. I was fresh out of college and working as a software engineer. Like any callow youth, I wanted to work hard, earn a decent living in Mumbai, go for higher studies and settle down. The accident changed it all.

While recovering in hospital, I accepted the new reality. Thanks to the support from my family and friend, I didn’t get into a self-sympathy phase. I understood that it was a struggle but people fight and I will move on with it too.

Playing badminton also helped. I had played the racket game since my school days to the corporate world. I was undergoing the rehab then and playing the sport helped me balance better, move swifter. It also took my mind off a few issues which I had started worrying about.

My first faceoff with reality came post-recovery. As I resumed office, I noticed that people’s perception had changed; I was viewed as a lesser person because I lost a leg. I understood that this is how I would be treated in future, and this needed to be changed.

My hours on the badminton court extended. One thing led to another and I started participating in corporate level tournaments, followed by state level championships. I also started posting my pictures on social media and made new friends. Some of these friends encouraged me to move up in competitions. Eventually I played my first Nationals that was held in Mumbai and won a silver medal. In 2019, when the last Para Badminton World Championship was held in Switzerland, I bagged the Gold.

It is not easy to be a para athlete, reach to your highest level and still keep on fighting for your rights. The victory gives only a onetime push: we are written about; rule the social media for a few days; and eventually it dies down. The able-bodied athletes are recognized through the year, have sponsors and ministry supporting them. Para athletes aren’t so lucky. At times most struggle with finances for basic training.

ALSO READ: ‘Quit Self-Pity, Swim Against The Tide’

I have always been an opinionated person but today I have the privilege of voicing my opinion. If I have a disability, I do not need segregation; I want inclusion, access and acceptance. I demand change in social attitude, affordable high-end equipment and aids, equal opportunity in education, employment and healthcare. They say these are apples for you. But other people are getting mangoes, and I too want mangoes.

I don’t want to say ‘I wish I had accessibility’; I demand that accessibility. If I cannot go to a particular venue it means I am not allowed to access it. And that is not my failure, it is the failure of the so-called ‘abled’ who could not get that arranged.

I want to live in a world where people with disability are not living on social security but as taxpayers to the state. Of course, we don’t have social security anyways. People with disability are an invisible minority which is never spoken about because they are not considered a vote bank.

Not all is lost, though. Last year a Barbie doll was modelled after me. When I received the one-of-a-kind doll mode, I was filled with gratitude for the manufacturer. I realized it is not a conversation starter but a conversation supporter. It gives young girls hope to be limitless, to chase their dreams. This is how we start inclusion… by encouraging young children to believe in it.

As an athlete I want to reach to a level where no one faces any kind of discrimination in sports. Currently it so happens. My journey in the field of para sports has just begun. I want to grow and become better. I want to be a contributor to the disability rights movement in India in whichever way I can.

As Told To Mamta Sharma

How To Train Your Nose To Smell Fake News

Spreading fake news has become a common tool for the vested interests to either effectively malign one’s adversaries or unduly glorify one’s proponent. Chahat Awasthi, a journalism trainee at Cardiff University in the UK, lists a few yardsticks to judge the authenticity of a dubious or doubtful piece of information. Watch and comment:

‘Covid Has Brought Travel Inc To Its Knees, Govt Must Help’

Mohammad Ali, a Delhi-based travel business owner, says 90 per cent of the industry is reeling under severe setback and there is no light at the end of tunnel

Covid-19 has left devastation in its trail and the sectors that have been the worst affected are hospitality and travel. I had only recently started a travel business called Trip Astrologer that handled both domestic and international travel and was doing fairly well until the pandemic struck.

In fact I often handled group travel plans of large number of people to South East Asia, especially Thailand and Malaysia. At the fag end of 2019 while we were handling a group trip, we began hearing news about a virus from China. Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore had begun reporting a few cases of Covid by then. We started alerting our clients to follow protocols like wearing masks, washing hands regularly etc. and braced ourselves as a business for a little setback. But none of us had expected this to go on for so long and at such scale.

In March, 2020, the business went down to an absolute zero, no clients. We had bookings for a large number of domestic travellers to Imagicaa Water Park in Mumbai and it hurt when that trip had to be cancelled because of the pandemic. Plus, we had to refund. Our staff strength dwindled.

From March to September, there was no movement in the travel industry at all. And through it all I was paying the rent for both my office space as well as my rented accommodation, plus EMIs. Unlock brought no respite. Some were scared to step out while many wanted to keep money aside for emergencies. Many a people had lost their jobs or suffered losses in business and travel was perhaps the last thing on their mind.

In October 2020, work picked up but it was the bigger players who reaped the profits. Smaller players like us couldn’t do much about it. It is only my savings that saw me and my family through. But there was uncertainty as to how long the situation would last, for savings can sustain us only up till a point and fresh earnings are needed.

Finally in December a few domestic travellers were ready to travel and in February locations like Dubai and Maldives began opening up; small businesses like mine heaved a sigh of relief. But it was short-lived, for while Dubai was okay the RTPCR tests in Maldives cost a lot (they were charging in dollars, which meant a huge jump in prices for Indian customers, say about 50%) and that left many a traveller discouraged. Earlier we had travellers going to European countries, US and other popular global destinations book with us, but there were not many travellers to those countries as well. We were left with very few domestic travellers and even fewer locales where they could travel to, namely Goa, Kerala, Kashmir, Shimla etc.

ALSO READ: ‘Govt Did Little To Help Business Amid Covid’

Then came the deadlier second wave that left everyone shocked and wearier than before. April-May and November-December used to be peak travel seasons and we had really set our hopes high for the summer months. I also had plans to start my business’ website but that also had to be shelved.

I wound up my office space and left for my maternal grandparents’ home in UP in May because I just needed to find my motivation back again. I came back to Delhi in July beginning and felt a little glimmer of hope (even though one can say that 90% of the travel industry is on its knees).  However, I began declining clients who wanted to travel to Shimla-Manali-Kasauli as that route was getting overcrowded.

As a responsible citizen I felt it was my moral and social responsibility to ensure that no destination posed a health risk to travellers or locals because of overcrowding. We all need to behave responsibly if we want coronavirus to be a thing of the past. That, and the government needs to provide some serious support to the travel and hospitality sector quickly. Recently the biggest travel expo of South Asia that is held year after year in India, saw only 20% attendance. If these are not the sign of the times, I don’t know what is. I still am holding on to my courage and optimism.

‘Q&A: Migrant Workers Are Faceless Part Of Our Daily Lives’

Award-winning filmmaker Vinod Kapri speaks about his book that documents movement of migrant workers amid lockdowns and his interaction with Danish Siddiqui

How did the idea of your book ‘1232 km: The Long Journey Home’ come about?

I am basically a film-maker and never thought of writing a book. When the first nationwide lockdown was announced in March 2020, I was expecting this kind of migration and discussed this with my journalist friends that the government was probably not aware of the problems of the daily wage labourers and this is going to be the biggest exodus. My fears came true. We saw millions of people on the road. Being a storyteller I felt I needed to document this journey.

During that time, the mainstream media, except a few, were focused on Tablighi Jamaat incident. I felt it was an injustice to these workers and thought I should be a part of one of the journey. I travelled with them for seven days on the trot, filming whatever I could. Back home, while I was editing the documentary, I realised it did not tell the complete story. It was then that I thought I should write a book because there were moments and feelings that the camera could not capture. That is how ‘1232 km: The Long Journey Homecame about.

What did you learn from this experience?

I would admit that I was not aware of the migrant labourers beyond the work they did. I knew nothing about their families and the challenges they go through staying away from home. After completing the journey with them, I realised the middle or the privileged class never really thought about these people who have been a part of their lives, run our society, build our cities, clean, cook, iron, do carpentry and plumbing work, operate lifts and guard our apartments. We don’t know anything about them their families, their villages. They are nameless and faceless. My journey completely changed that.

But for holding the mirror, you were heavily trolled on social media…

There are a few people whose job is to target, abuse or demoralise people holding the mirror. But largely, it is like a hit job for a political ideology. The trolling is very manufactured, targeted and organised syndication. Whenever we write something, post something in public domain, we are aware that a section of users will troll us, pull us down and try to play dirty, all lies. So it doesn’t really matter. You are not answerable to them. It is our duty to tell the truth and state the fact. To not speak up today means our future generation will be ashamed of us.  

When the second wave of Covid-19 started, I was on the field documenting it. I saw people dying in front of me, I was in and out of hospitals, at various cremation grounds, shamshan ghats for almost 32 days and covered it extensively. It shook me to see the suffering, the irreparable loss, relationship and emotions.

And you met Danish Siddiqui at one of those cremation spots… taking pictures that will later draw both anger and admiration.

I met Danish Siddiqui when he was taking photographs of the funeral pyres at a cremation ground in Seema Puri, at eastern border of Delhi. It was my only meeting with him and I was not aware that he is working with Reuters. We had a small conversation and I told him I was documenting the pandemic. He asked me for which platform was I working. To which I replied it is yet to be decided, and I was just shooting. I asked him what was he working for and he said he was just clicking.

His pictures did receive a lot of backlash. But imagine if that picture of Danish did not exist, how the world would come to know the ground reality. That picture created shivers in people’s mind. I agree partly that death is a solemn moment that needs privacy. But the issue of privacy is secondary when thousands are dying and the government is a mute spectator. The critics used religion to target Danish merely to hide the ground reality.

Danish lost his life in a warzone. Do you think journalists should draw a line…?

No one knows where to draw the line. We can’t predict our death. We may die due to a heart attack at home too. As a journalist, we should uncover the truth. That is the lakshman rekha we should not cross. For that if we end up losing our lives then be it; consider these as professional hazards that we have to face in the line of duty. Just the way frontline workers and doctors are losing their lives in this pandemic, they cannot choose to draw a line for their role…they have to go out and treat patients.

And holding those in power to account is your duty?

Absolutely. As a journalist and storyteller, we are considered as the fourth pillar of democracy and it is our right to question the government of the day, be it the BJP, the Congress or any other political group.

Interview by Mamta Sharma

‘Covid Fear Made Me See Mall Customers As Live Viruses’

Meera Singh, 36, who worked as a cashier at an upscale shopping mall in Gurgaon, explains why she quit her job in Delhi-NCR and went to her native place in Deoghar

I moved to Delhi-NCR in 2007, and in 2015 I joined Sapphire Mall, Gurugram as a cashier for a boutique with international clientele. Besides managing the clients, I handled their GST and other finance-related bills for the boutique. It was a comfortable job till the pandemic struck in March 2020. In June the same year, I decided to quit, and return to my native place in Deoghar (Jharkhand). In spite of several calls to rejoin work, I have no plans to return to Delhi. Let me explain why.

When the pandemic struck, no one had any idea what was going on or what was the way forward. We wondered what the future held finance-wise or when the lockdown would get over. From March 23 (when the lockdown was announced) until June we were on tenterhooks.

Even when the Unlock began, and I rejoined work, it was stressful. In every shopper who came in I saw a potential virus carrier. And since I was the one at the forefront handling cash (cash would be transferred from one hand to another) I felt I was under a lot of risk. Our international clientele base (mainly NRIs) also left me worried, because it were people who travelled from the West to India were considered the biggest risks.

Even though we followed all Covid protocols to the tee, like regular sanitisation, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, the virus was making its way into people’s lungs and lives. The media reports of crowded hospitals and overflowing crematoriums made it worse. With the constant pressure of staying safe in a public place, the stress soon began to tell.

Finally when talks of a pay-cut began doing the rounds, my husband and I decided it was not worth the risk. The pandemic had taught us about the fragility of life; I didn’t want to be away from my children, who were with their grandparents, or my ageing parents and in-laws anymore.

ALSO READ: ‘Life Is Tough For Migrant Workers’

First my husband, an engineer, left for our hometown and I followed shortly after on June 21. It required some effort to manage a seat on the flight from Delhi to Patna. A fortnight was spent in quarantine and then I started thinking about the future. With my expertise in handling retail business at a big mall in a big city, I decided to start my own retail business.

In September 2020, I opened up a small unit that sell cosmetics, and other knick-knacks. I feel I am more in control here because unlike in Gurugram, people who come to my shop are part of a tight-knit community and listen to us more readily when we suggest they follow Covid measures. Plus, you feel secure that your family is right there and you don’t need to travel (which is a huge fight in itself in these times) anywhere. And most importantly, I get to be with my children every day. There’s no wealth in the world bigger than the health and happiness of your kids and other family members.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

‘Woman In A Bartender’s Role Defies Patriarchy, Misogyny’

Ami Shroff, 36, one of the first women flair bartenders in India, talks about following her passion, in a male-dominated profession

It was Tom Cruise who got me interested in bartending, at an impressionable age of 13. I watched his movie Cocktail and was star-struck by his ‘flair bartending’ skills. I tried the same tricks by juggling a plastic bottle filled with water. The first time I met an actual flair bartender was in my college, in 2003. After that, the internet helped me know about it all.

I started bartending as a hobby, a fun thing, a new skill to learn. I began working at bars along with a close friend of mine. It was a semi-profession as we were making money and also having fun. I didn’t see it as a career initially. But work brings more work and somewhere along the way I became a career bartender. Today, I have been in my 18th year in the bar industry and I swear it has been an amazing journey.

Flair bartending doesn’t just mean handling liquor selections. It involves: maintaining inventories of various ingredients like juices and sodas fruits and ice cubes, taking care of the hygiene; making sure the stock is correct, not over pouring or under pouring; keeping the counters clean and your machinery (refrigeration, blenders etc) functional.

Next comes your soft skills. A bartender is essentially a people’s person. Hence, the showmanship and salesmanship must blend well – like in a good cocktail. How you communicate, with your guests and your team matters a lot in the din. How comfortable and welcoming you make others feel makes a difference.

And finally, comes your creativity and artistic skills on display. It is this space that one can play, experiment and create one’s own recipes, own ways of presenting and make the whole experience of serving a drink a pleasurable experience. There is more to it but I have listed the majors.

As a female bartender, it has been a mix of good and bad experiences; mostly good, rarely bad. At times, when I did private events at some farm house or a party at an isolated sort of location, one automatically sees one in a vulnerable, insecure situation (who hasn’t heard of Jessica Lal, after all?).

More commonly, you may get stared at for a bit longer than expected or in a manner that you don’t want to be stared at, especially at events where you have more men or only men. This is where you see gender oddity, a lack of comfort. Having a more gender-balanced venue sends better vibes, makes you feel safer and at your creative best.

ALSO READ: ‘An Airplane Knows Not The Gender Of Its Pilot’

Patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, heteropatriarchy are the most major reasons why there is a lack of women in the bar industry. Odd hours, late nights, alcohol, loud merry-making… do not jell with a sanskari woman. Incidentally, I am often referred to as a “bartender with a bindi’. To me, the bindi is just an accessory, part of your jewellery. And it is pretty.

I was once asked if I would like to advise to young women about making their career choice. And I said I don’t want to burden women with more advice than they have already got. Just try things out, girls. Be financially independent, that is most important. Pursue a career that you find fascinating, that makes you curious, makes you want to learn more about it.

Most often you will succeed in a career that you find absorbing and that you are passionate about. That is all that matters and once you choose the path, it is going to get better and better after that. We can’t change the circumstances that we are in and what might stop each person but at least you don’t be the reason that stops you.

As Told To Mamta Sharma

‘Lockdowns, 1st Wave, 2nd Wave… Life Is Tough For Migrants’

Mohammad Manan, 25, a migrant worker who came to Delhi-NCR from Bihar, says he has survived so far but is worried about an impending third Covid wave

I came to Delhi- NCR nearly a decade ago for work. Supporting a family is no easy task but I was managing it fine until the pandemic struck.  Since then, things have gotten very confusing and uncertain. The recurring lockdowns, the first wave, the second wave, it is a difficult time for everyone.

After the first wave last year, we thought we had survived the virus. But then came the second wave and I had to return to my village Sonbarsha in Saharsa district (Bihar) to be with my ageing parents. Most migrant workers from the locality I live in left for their native places as they did during first lockdown. We braved the first wave, but the second wave was worse than the first, so we decided to leave.

Lockdowns have impacted everyone’s earnings, be it migrant workers like me or people who run businesses. Everyone has been worried about their job or business security. I went home in April and came back in June-end, so basically I stayed in Bihar for two months. I strained my savings to travel in Three-Tier AC in the train because I was worried about contracting the virus. After all I was going back to earn a living and couldn’t afford to fall sick as soon as I entered the city of my livelihood for so many years.

ALSO READ: No Country For Migrant Workers

When I reached Ghaziabad (NCR), unlock had begun and someone else had been hired in my place at the optical shop I worked for. I spent two weeks in agony not knowing what I would do for a living and applied at various places. A family of six is dependent on me. My wife works as a domestic help and supports the family, but in these times one needs to have enough savings. Kabhi medical help ki zaroorat ho to hamare pas hath me kuch paise hon (there should be reserve cash for medical situation).

Luckily I got my old job back. I wish there were work opportunities in my village too. Those two months I earned nothing.

Even though I have my old job back, predictions of a third wave has me worried. What will we do if it is even more dangerous than the second and the lockdown stricter and longer? So many business days that have gone waste. Every month I send some money to my parents and God forbid if anyone contracts the virus! I wish the government improves the healthcare facilities in rural areas and also figured out ways to support people who have lost their jobs or whose businesses were impacted.

Right now, we are just about managing somehow but my biggest strength is my wife’s optimism and courage. She says we need to take one day at a time, and be thankful for each day that we have survived. She says even though our position is shaky we can keep figuring out newer ways to earn. I have picked up some tailoring skills and do minor alterations etc and get paid for it.

So we believe God helps those who work hard. My workplace is around 15 minutes away from my home and I use my cycle to commute. Thank God I use a cycle, with the price of petrol shooting up continuously driving a bike is a costly affair.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

‘PM Interested Only In Optics; Kashmiris Want Statehood Back’

Joy Abhishek Nowab, 18, a polytechnic student, fears that any untoward incident in J&K may cause their Internet services to be suspended and affect his online education

With the never-ending lockdowns, finally the rest of the country has begun to perhaps understand the incessant curfews, the shadow of fear and uncertainty that residents of Jammu & Kashmir have lived under for years. However, while the rest of the country’s students can attend online classes, we the students of Kashmir don’t know when the internet might be snapped off.

I am currently pursuing my Diploma at Polytechnic and post 2019 (after abrogation of Article 370) nearly one and half years have been wasted. Then came the pandemic. I feel the current government at the Centre is more interested in maintaining an image than doing actual ground work. The recent all-party meet also was an image-building exercise according to me.

The all party meet was held at the PM’s residence in New Delhi. Why wasn’t such an important meeting held in Kashmir? The PM could have flown to the state and that would have given confidence to the people that local leaders/representatives are respected. Narazgi to hai hi Kashmir ke leaders me ke kaise unhe jail me dala gaya ya nazarband kiya gaya. (There is resentment among Kashmiri leaders for being put under house arrest or jail). But perhaps the PM wanted to show that the power on Kashmir is in his hands.

Nowab says there is resentment among local leaders against BJP policy on Kashmir

They have talked about turning Jammu and Srinagar into smart cities, but the ground reality is that very little work is being done. We Kashmiris want development but we also want to be included in the decision-making processes. I hope the government gives us back our statehood soon and holds free and fair elections only after that.

My father’s side belongs to Kashmir but my mother’s side belongs to Punjab, both states that have been riddled with militancy at one point or another. Sometimes I wonder if we could drive militancy out of Punjab and restore it to normalcy, why can we not do the same in Kashmir! Where is the political willpower?

ALSO READ: Has The Nation Forgotten Kashmir?

We have grown up in the shadow of guns and security forces and as kids. In fact children in Kashmir grow up sooner than the rest of the country. We keep an eye on all political news, all local and national developments because our lives depend on it. For youngsters in the rest of the country, news does not hold that importance. Just a few days ago there was a blast at the IAF base in Jammu and we wondered if our internet connections would be snapped off again and our education would suffer. Thankfully that didn’t happen.

Sometimes I wonder how our future is going to turn out, but then each day I pull out my faith from greater depths and march on towards my dreams. I have a small set up called Nowab Electronics & Electricals and I would love to make it big, but the continuous internet suspensions make it difficult. But as I said earlier I keep my faith.

Ours is a Christian family living in Kashmir and there is a sizeable population of Christians here. My father is a priest as well as a Principal and we talk about faith often; many a times that is the only thing we have to hold on to as we have no idea what will happen in the state. But right now I am really looking forward to the restoration of statehood and dialogues between state and central government leaders. My parents kept my name as Joy Abhishek Nawab to signify that we believe in love and secularism (Joy for Christianity, Abhishek for Hinduism and Nowab for Islam).

‘I Won’t Take Any Vaccine, And I Have My Reasons’

Ginni Khurana, 36, a Faridabad-based homemaker explains why she believes that vaccination is not the most effective way to fight a virus, only a nature-based lifestyle is

I lost both my parents to Covid-19. Last year my mom and I contracted the virus at the same time in June. While I survived despite my diabetes, my mother couldn’t make it. This year, I lost my father during the second wave. Despite the heartbreak and the agony I have suffered in a year, I don’t want to take the vaccine. And I have my reasons for it; please bear with me.

I have worked as a Mathematics teacher and I don’t take anything at face value. I believe in something only when I am fully convinced by it. And right now, I believe that taking a vaccine is not in my best interest. I developed Type II diabetes while I was pregnant with my twin boys in 2017. It is then that I chanced upon a YouTube video by Dr Biswaroop Roychowdhury. He is what you would call a naturopath and believes in the efficacy of traditional methods of healing.

When I tested Dr Roychowdhury’s solutions for my health issues, they seemed to work for me. My diabetes got under control without any medicines. I believe one must go for allopathic medicines only under extreme circumstances and should try a more nature-based lifestyle in regular times.

Ginni would not want her twin children (right) to be vaccinated either

When I contracted the virus last year, I followed his coconut water plus citrus juice-based diet and didn’t go for any medicines. When I got myself tested after a fortnight, I tested negative. I have lived to tell the tale, so to speak. Dr Roychowdhury doesn’t recommend vaccines and since I believe so deeply in him and his methods, I don’t want to do anything that he doesn’t suggest. After recovering from Covid, using the diet I mentioned earlier, I recommended the same to others, including my father. However, he refused to take it and had to get hospitalised and finally succumbed there.

I have been hearing that many corporate offices etc are withholding salary if one doesn’t get vaccinated. A vaccination certificate is becoming an important prerequisite for many things, including inter-state travel. So I will fend off taking a jab as long as possible, until I am forced to take it.

ALSO READ: Covid-19 – Nemesis Of Age Of Reason

I’m not the sort of person who imposes my views on anyone. But if anyone sees my opinion, I recommend them not to take the vaccine. Dr Roychowdhury says, one’s immunity gets strengthened if one remains in a happy state of mind or in other words, happiness is the best immunity, laughter the best medicine. I do my regular Buddhist chanting, stay involved with my kids with all my heart and read a lot to keep myself in a happy state of mind. I believe that I do not need a vaccine.

However, that doesn’t mean I am not keeping an eye on the news surrounding the virus or the vaccines. During the second wave it was said that people who had diabetes were more susceptible to black fungus too if they had contracted the virus, but I am doing totally fine. I am now hearing about the Guillain-Barre syndrome that happens to people who have taken the Covishield vaccine. So many people in my extended family have caught the virus even after taking the vaccine. So what’s the point of taking a jab, may I ask?

I care about my husband and kids, but I still wouldn’t like them to take the vaccine (though my kids are too young right now). Many a research say that vaccines can cause more harm than good. For all of us, what we choose to believe in becomes our reality and right now I choose not to believe in the efficacy of vaccines. Or you may say I choose to believe in the efficacy of natural remedies.

Captain zoya Agarwal

‘An Airplane Knows Not The Gender Of Its Pilot’

Captain Zoya Agarwal, who led an all-woman cockpit for Air India’s longest flight (16,000km) and became the first lady captain to fly over the North Pole, speaks about chasing her dream

Yes, we created history but it wasn’t just because of me. It was the team work of my other team polar girls, Air India management that worked tirelessly behind this project of flying over the North Pole, our ministry and every single person who worked behind the scenes to script history and put India on the global aviation map. We are extremely happy about this, it is a huge deal for us.

This has also given a flight to the dreams of many young girls, not only in our country but across the world. How four frail girls – the other three being Capt Papagiri Thanmei, Capt Akanksha and Capt Shivani – achieved a magical feat, will indeed inspire others to chase and achieve their dreams. Much has been written about our flight from Bengaluru to San Francisco over the North Pole. But the real journey started much earlier, at a very young age.

I come from a humble family and I was always expected to walk in the shadows of elders in the house. My mom wanted to see me married happily and raise children. But I was a dreamer from day one and my parents were primarily shocked by me.

Captain Zoya wanted to fly planes since she was an eight-year-old girl

I decided to become a pilot when I was eight-year old and watched from the terrace of my house all the tiny steel frames flying in the sky. I would think: could I ever fly those beautiful flying objects and the word “impossible” would echo in my ears constantly. However, my will was stronger than the sound of the word “impossible”.

I was academically inclined from the beginning so when I told about my aspirations of becoming a pilot to my parents, my mom cried. My father was a little sympathetic and asked me to first finish the college education and see how things work out.

I used to attend my college, go for my aviation classes and return home by 9:30 in the evening. I also had to finish off my assignments before going to bed at midnight. I would be up again at six in the morning. In three years, I finished all my aviation exams and topped my college as well. My parents realized it would be cruel if I were to let go of my flying dreams. My father took a loan and sent me off to train as a pilot.

ALSO READ: ‘Some Doubted My Orientation, Called Me Transgender’

Before I got the job in Air India, I had a fair amount of idea about the male dominated aviation industry. Women were not looked upon as preferable candidates for pilots from airlines’ perspective.  Airlines managements felt appointing a woman would impact the finances as they would be forced to grant the female staff maternity leaves and benefits. Major airlines from the Gulf started accepting lady pilots only by 2016 and some of them from Far East till a couple of years back. Their role was limited to being a flight attendant.

I was extremely fortunate and proud to have joined the only international carrier in India, Air India where women and men are given equal opportunities.

My journey so far has been extremely exciting, electrifying, and magical. I feel blessed to have reach where I am today. Despite all the challenges and everything else that has come my way I wouldn’t want to have this in any other way.

The seat of a pilot doesn’t know whether it’s a man or woman flying it, we are all doing our jobs as professionals. For every woman out there who wish to dream big, however, due to various challenges that come their way take a step back or quit, I would say be positive, believe in yourself. We all have challenging personal and professional lives, but when you say and believe that “you can do it and it’s not a big deal”, it all falls in place. Stay focused, don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

As Told To Mamta Sharma