Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of a Desi Woman podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi Woman? She is a dynamic, fearless and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale, and I am a Desi Woman.
Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of a Desi Woman podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And today in honor of International Women’s Day, we are so excited to welcome retired Indian Air Force officer, mountaineer, motivational speaker, research scholar, and travel writer, Toolika Rani. Toolika is the first woman from Uttar Pradesh, India, to climb Mount Everest, and the first Indian woman to climb the highest volcano of Asia known as Mount Damavand, in Iran. Toolika served in the Indian air force for a decade, and was a squadron leader and outdoor training instructor in the prestigious Indian Air Force Academy, in Hyderabad India. And she was even involved in the physical training of hundreds of feature officers, including India’s first three women fighter pilots.
Soniya Gokhale (01:40):
With 23 mountaineering expeditions and tracks in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Iran, Africa, and Russia under her belt. Toolika is now working on her PhD, continuing to train for future tracks. And she serves as a motivational speaker, which includes a hugely popular TED Talk. And she has been featured widely in mainstream media across India and South Asia. She’s a staunch advocate of women’s rights and human rights globally. Toolika, welcome to the show.
Toolika Rani (02:16):
Hi, Soniya. Thank you for having me here.
Soniya Gokhale (02:19):
Toolika, we are so excited to have you. And before we dive into discussing your phenomenal mountaineering accomplishments, I really want our audience to learn more about you as a person. Because I would argue that in researching for this podcast, I have found you to be an incredibly dynamic and fearless woman, who certainly defies stereotypes that might be associated with women in general, but especially South Asian or Indian or Desi women. First of all, I have to start out with the fact that you served in the Indian Air Force for 10 years as a squadron leader and an outdoor training instructor in the prestigious Air Force Academy in Hyderabad, India. And you were instrumental in training hundreds of future officers, including India’s first three women fighter pilots. So can you tell me more about what drew you to the military? Did your family serve, or what attracted you to that field? It could be considered highly unconventional for most women, even here in the U.S, and I think that would hold true globally.
Toolika Rani (03:36):
Yes, I suppose so. But I would say that I have always seen myself not only as a woman, but as a human being. And that is the mantra of my success or achievements, as you might say. But just a small [inaudible 00:03:52] as I considered them not very great, because there’s so many things that other people have done in this world and achieved, and I have just begun. Because I do believe that human beings have a lot of potential latent in them. And if we dive into it, we can do wonders in this world. So for me, yes, you have given an introduction which seems illustrious, but I accept it really humbly. Because I just feel that it is nothing yet very great. All that I have tried to do is to utilize my potential a little bit. And there is much more to do in this world. For other people also, I would say that human beings, they’re capable of so much that they themselves are not aware of. We do not use even a tiniest part of our capabilities.
Toolika Rani (04:44):
So as a human being, I try to do whatever my body, my soul and my mind is capable of doing. And this is what others strive to do. My family has always been supportive. As you talked about being unconventional. Yes, definitely. I accept it. Especially in the Asian community, the women, though they are coming out now, but yes, we can say that they’re still much more bound to their homestead than the women in the Western sphere, perhaps. But now things are changing. And women here also are striving to make their mark as a human being. I’m very much proud. I feel grateful to God that he has made me a woman, because a woman is a very powerful word. I always say in my talks also that since it is only a woman who can bring a new life into this world, we are not the weaker ones, we are rather the strongest ones. Because it is scientifically proven that bearing a child is one of the most painful experiences of this world. So if we can bear that much of pain, are we the weaker ones? No.
Toolika Rani (05:56):
So with this kind of mindset I try to live my life. And only with this kind of mindset, I see what are my capabilities and what is it that I can do with them. So anything that has not been done earlier does not deter me, because conventions, traditions, they’re all right. But the precedents somebody has to set one day. So if that be me, why not be it so? So I suppose this is how we shall go ahead in our lives. Precedents are all right, but at least we have to do something. If our heart is in it, I don’t think that lack of precedents should be a deterrence.
Soniya Gokhale (06:39):
I love that response. Absolutely. And you view yourself as a human being and will not be defied by gender stereotypes. I really love that you embrace that. And you have 23 mountaineering expeditions and tracks under your belt, which includes countries, such as India, Nepal, Bhutan, Iran, Africa, and Russia. And you are the first woman from UP, Uttar Pradesh, to climb Mount Everest in 2012. The first Indian woman to climb the highest volcano of Asia, Mount Damavand in Iran. And you were a summiteer member of the first team in the world to reach the top of a Virgin Peak, in Himachal. So clearly you’re not only fearless, but also as you indicated, not one to be constructed by gender roles or expectations that most people might have of Indian women. So I want to ask you did this fearlessness come from your family, from your mother, other female role models, or maybe folks that you met along the way through the military?
Toolika Rani (07:53):
Yes, family has a role to play in it. Because my mother always says that one is born to achieve and utilize one’s potential on this earth. Death is essential. Death is a part of life rather. In our Indian philosophy,. Also, we perceive that as just a part of the circle of life and death. It is not something separate from life. It is just a continuation. Because we perceive ourselves as not just bodies, but also souls. We are souls basically, and enveloped in a human body. So soul is eternal. This is what is the crux of Indian philosophy. The soul is the eternal being, it never dies. So rather it is better that you do whatever you are meant to do on this art without any fear of death or injury, because death is just a continuation of your life. You will enter as a soul, you will enter another life later on.
Toolika Rani (08:51):
So in this life, whatever I am capable of, I should achieve without the fear of death. What is the use of living unsatisfied, and not doing what I actually want to do, because that kind of life is actually not worth living. So that is why I do not fear death. Yes, fear is a natural phenomena in all of the living beings. All the creatures on this earth, be it insects, be it human beings, or any of the animals, they are afraid of death and injury. It’s very natural. But the crux of our metal is the strength of our being, is that despite that fear, when we take that step forward, which takes us towards our goals, this is called the courage. And that courage, I suppose, I imbibe from thinkers like Vivekananda, because he says, “[foreign language 00:09:47].” I will translate it. He says that strength is the only religion.
Toolika Rani (09:52):
I consider myself as a spiritual person. And I take these words, not only symbolically, but in their deeper meaning. Strength is the only religion of a human being. That means anything that makes you physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually weak, you have to reject it. And anything that strengthens you on these parts, you must embrace it without any fear. So this is what I have been doing. My mother always told me that, “If you stay here safe with me, but a frustrated soul for not doing what your heart wants to do, it is no use. I would rather have you go out in the mountains, do what you are meant to do, do what makes you happy. And then if you come back, I would be happier to have you because you would be contented.” So this is from where I derived the philosophy of my life.
Soniya Gokhale (10:49):
Wow. That is so beautiful. And as a Hindu woman, wow, you just put so much in perspective, even in my own life. You’re right. We only have one shot at this lifetime and we know we’re coming back in another body. But wow, that is just so special. And I was going to ask you that the first time you attempted to reach the peak of Mount Everest, you were part of an Indian Air Force all women expedition. And you had to turn back at 22,500 feet, less than 5,000 feet short of the top because your feet had turned numb in sub zero temperatures. And I think this is a really interesting fact because for anyone that is trying to accomplish a goal, sometimes there are setbacks and you did not let that stop you. But I want to know what you learned from that track and why you decided to try again?
Toolika Rani (11:46):
Failures, I suppose, are part of the process of success. So anything, if in pursuit of our goal, we do not ultimately reach the summit that might be in any field, that does not mean that we have given up on that dream. So I take my failures in my life as just a continuing ladder towards that final ladder where I have to reach. So yes, it was really disappointing for me when I turned back from more than halfway up on Mount Everest in 2011. Because preceding that expedition, I had worked very hard for continuously two years with my team. And it was like we were just eating Everest, sleeping Everest, thinking Everest, drinking Everest. It was just Everest all the time in our minds. So after that much of effort, when we fail in life, that failure has to teach us something. First thing, it hits us very hard and it teaches that we are not yet perfect.
Toolika Rani (12:52):
We might be thinking that we have achieved that level of perfection or excellence, which is required to attain that particular goal, but there might be something lacking in our effort or preparation. So I take my failures as means to introspect on my own preparedness. Yes, we are human beings and we can sit down and cry for a while, we can be dejected and disappointed. But ultimately, any failure shall lead us to introspection as to what we could have done better on this front. So this is what I also did. And I realized that there was some kind of a fear lacking in me that if I continue ahead, my fingers were getting cold, and I thought that if I continue ahead, there might be amputation. So being a mountaineer, I’m certain that I’m not advocating any foolhardiness. Because all over the world mountaineers know that at certain points we have to return, we have to take that very hard decision to just turn back from a mountain. But that has to be left to individual consideration.
Toolika Rani (14:02):
Here, what I’m talking about is stretching our limits and overcoming our fears. So this one particular thing, when I just sat down, I realized that yes, there was a grain of fear in me. And in the preparation for my next expedition, I removed that fear from my mind. This time I would imagine myself climbing Mount Everest in all the harshest conditions and still continuing. So if it was not a point that I would become an obstacle in somebody else’s path, I told myself that I’m going to continue till the time I have a breath left in me. So the learning from the first failed attempt was that one has to give one’s 100% to something if one needs to succeed. One has to put everything at stake for the dream if one have to attain that dream.
Soniya Gokhale (14:59):
Absolutely. One of the other obstacles that many mountaineers or other professional or even amateur athletes face, is the financial obstacles that often come with pursuing a variety of different sports. We don’t often talk about this, but even in the United States and really globally, this is an issue. So many who may not come from a secure financial background are often prevented from going into sports. So I just wanted to hear more about that obstacle and any suggestions you have on that front?
Toolika Rani (15:40):
Yes. My first expedition was sponsored by Indian Air Force. But the next expedition in 2012, which was my individual expedition, I did face financial obstacles. And you rightly said that all over the world, mountaineers face the same. So I did try to get sponsors, but mine was a very peculiar case. Because I was already serving in Indian Air Force. And we had a restriction to talk for the press. So any outside commercial organization was not ready to sponsor me, because in return they will not get the publicity, which is very well understood. Indian Air Force did not have any precedents of sponsoring individual expeditions. So I was stuck where to get these finances. And I took again, a very unconventional step, which was supported by my family fully, wholeheartedly, that we mobilized our own savings. Now, this was something which people perhaps would not understand.
Toolika Rani (16:42):
Why would somebody take out all their savings to just climb a mountain, which she has recently failed to climb the previous year itself. There is no certainty that after you put so much of money into it, you will still succeed. So this money might go waste. But again, my mother told me one thing, that’s money is just a means for self satisfaction. Money is not something that you store. Yes, you have to have certain kind of backing for tough times. But apart from that, if you’re not internally happy, if you’re struggling with your confidence, with your self-esteem, and if you have that money, you must utilize it. So we have to have a larger perspective of life. What is more important? For a human being, more important is the self-esteem and the confidence. So if you are losing it because of anything, you have to put everything, be it, your financial resources, your physical resources, or anything in this world, at stake to attain that goal first. If you are a contented person, you will earn that money back. So this is how I did it.
Toolika Rani (17:49):
Suggestions for other mountaineers. I would say there are forums, there are corporate houses. And in India, we have the CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility, which is under the Companies Act 2013. It is mandatory for the corporate houses to give a portion of their earning in this social responsibility causes. So some of the mountaineers may get into touch with these big corporate houses and get sponsored. It is happening in India. Another channel might be the government route. Though, there might be some red-tapeism in it. But if you can navigate that, yes, government can be a source of financing the expeditions.
Toolika Rani (18:32):
Another one that people I have seen doing is crowdfunding. And the last resort, I suppose, if one is actually passionate about it and have the business sense, people do start their tracking agencies. So they take other people on tracks and expeditions, earn money from that, and utilize that money to do their own expeditions. So I suppose if you want to find a way, we are able to find a way. My situation at that time was very peculiar because I was already serving and I had to shell out my savings, but not necessarily everybody has to put their savings on stake for this.