September 25, 2019
MEET NEELA BHASKAR, INDIA’S FIRST FEMALE FULL CAVE & TECHNICAL DIVER- PART I
Neela Manasa Bhaskar is genuinely one in 1.339 billion. She is India’s first female Full Cave and Technical Diver and a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer, a Bharatnatyam teacher and all round Superwoman.
Vishwanath Rajan, our Waterbender in Chief interviews Neela on her journey from the shores of Chennai to the beautiful, dangerous, water-filled decorated passages, in the underground caves at Yucatan, Mexico.
1. Vishwanath – Hi Neela, It’s been almost two years since we met at the Indian Dive Expo, how have you been?
Neela – Hey Vish the Fish! It has been a while since we’ve met! I’ve been great, thanks for asking.
2. Vish – As a friend, I know your background. Would you please tell our readers about yourself?
Neela – I was born and brought up in Chennai. My parents are adventurous people, and we always lived near the beach. As a kid, my dad would take me swimming in the ocean, and our family would frequently travel the country. I was lucky to have a lot of exposure to interesting people and places, even at such a young age. When I wasn’t outdoors, I was at dance (Bharatanatyam) class.
It was my good fortune to have an upbringing that included the arts as much as nature and a potent combination of both exist in my life even now. Currently, I live in Germany, where I am pursuing my Masters degree in Classical Indology. Apart from diving, I am a chronic experimenter, and continue to try out pretty much everything new that stares me in the face, whether it be exotic food, new sports or unique places.
3. Vish – You are India’s only certified female Full Cave and Technical Diver and a PADIMaster Scuba Diver Trainer too. How did your journey into the underwater world start?
Neela – I am indeed! It sounds rather fancy when putting like that :). In 2013, a family friend Lakshman recommended that we join him on a trip to Pondicherry, where there was a dive shop. He was already a certified diver, but the rest of us signed up for a try-dive. To put it just, I fell in love. My admission into the university in Chennai, where I found myself behind a desk for several hours a day, for the first time in my life, further drove the desire to get my certification. Craving some adventure, my brother and I finally made it back to Pondy, where we became Open Water Divers. Since then, there has been no looking back!
4. Vish – Once you got certified, what made you want to continue your journey as a diver?
Neela – It was merely a love for the ocean and the love for the diving community. Although I did have a lot of exposure as a child and young adult, the world of diving opened up not only the ocean to me but also a variety of interesting people. Suddenly, I was looking at a wonderfully different social life, for which the only glue that held us all together was the shared love of diving. It was the encouragement of many such people that at first drove me to dive more. It was also primarily the sheer joy of the sport itself, spurred by an addictive love for the wild ocean. At no point did I think that diving was ‘easy,’ but I loved the challenge of it at every stage. It was a sport, a lens into a world that was otherwise inaccessible, the ticket to several new friends and, of course, a possible career that surely beat a 9 to 5 office job. Suddenly, life became fascinating!
5. Vish – Tell us about a typical dive course that you took. What you had to do to
a) afford the class
b) Make the time to take the class
c) Family support or the lack of it
d) juggle schedules
e) discrimination at any place
f) physical hurdles
Neela – Well, I think a good example here would be the Tec50 course. Shortly after I became an instructor, I craved to continue learning and challenging myself.
a) I was working at a dive shop at the time, and careful financial planning allowed me to save enough to sign up for the Tec courses and pay for it back in instalments. It was quite tricky, but I am glad that I was able to do it.
b) Time to take the class was, in fact, the hardest part of it. At the time, I was working two jobs (one as a dance teacher and the other as a scuba instructor), and it took sacrificing several holidays (I couldn’t go home for Diwali or Pongal that year, and that was a big deal!) to be able to make time for this. I remember starting my Tec45 course on my birthday for which I was promised a day off and successfully convincing my co-student to arrange to come on days when the dive shop had fewer customers so that I didn’t have to work.
c) For the most part, everyone in my life was incredibly supportive. I was doing something brave, new and fresh as far as they were concerned. But there were several disappointments too. I had barely seen my family and friends in months, even though I was only 2.5 hours away from them. The keenness to dive sadly ensured that both my dancing and my studies had taken a back seat, which caused some concern. It didn’t take long to realize that technical diving was expensive, and on an instructor’s salary, practically unaffordable. However, the bigger picture is that I am one of, the luckier ones. Concern is a by-product of a fear of the unknown, and as one of the first women in the country pursuing scuba, my family was the one to bring me back to reality when I was busy floating in the clouds (or should I say, in the ocean!), dreaming of seeing sharks and mantas.
d) Well, as was made evident earlier, there was not much of a schedule to juggle. I was enthusiastic and happy to be. Everything else took a backseat for the duration of my courses. It was important to me to focus on and value the learning I was receiving, or there would be no point to it. What was harder was to get back into juggling my responsibilities once the courses were over, when reality had to be re-met. It was back to the many jobs and the several evenings of accounting and planning over solo dinners, while the rest of my friends were meeting up and celebrating birthdays and enjoying fun evenings. #fomo ?
e) Of discrimination, there has been plenty. Men have told me that they do not want to dive with a ‘small brown girl.’ And women have openly judged me and said that I would never be physically beautiful because of the deep tan I had procured from so many months in the outdoors. I have lost count of the number of times (and types) of discriminatory behaviour that has come my way. However, I think that it is essential to mention here that it did not affect me for long, as I always stood up for myself. I never saw myself as a victim, but rather the offenders as minute obstacles that will never have the honour of diving with the best that the ocean has to offer ?
f) As someone who is built quite small, I did (and still) find the physical aspects of scuba diving quite challenging. As a slight, 4 foot 11 inch tall girl, I must confess that I struggled quite a bit to manage 4 AL80s on my person. It took a lot of practice to get comfortable with these demands of technical diving finally, and it is still an ongoing process. The end of the PADI Tec 50 Diver course left me bruised from head to toe and completely exhausted. But giving up because of my size is not something that is on my radar at all. It has its advantages, which I am slowly starting to use.
g) I always say that the best thing you can give a person is your time. Therefore, this is the most significant sacrifice I had to make to progress in my diving career. Everything else, especially my family and friends, took a backseat. However, I have grown up to be better at time management, and will never allow for that to happen again.
6. Vish – Tell us more about your life as a student, dive educator and artiste.
Neela – It is undoubtedly a unique life that I lead. I pride myself in thinking that as a 24-year old, my life is far more diverse than the average 50-year-old. Dance has been my true love since the age of 6, and I continue to practice every single day, rain or shine. I am a Masters student at Hamburg University and graduated in July 2019 with a degree in Classical Indology. Hopefully, this leads to a career or research, as I love my subject of study and the intellectual stimulation that it provides. Every other spare moment is reserved especially for scuba diving, which brings contrast, excitement and an addictive sense of adventure. I live in Germany but frequent India often. My plan for the summer of 2019 is to attempt some challenging diving in Europe. Trimix would be a good one to try, I think!
The above article is a part of a three series interview with Neela, India’s first female Full Cave and Technical Diver and a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer. Stay tuned for the next one in the series.