A candid chat with international skydiver Padma Shri Shital Mahajan
Ten years ago, in April 2004, a 21-year-old girl from Pune, named Shital Mahajan took her maiden parachute jump from a height 2,400 feet on Geographic North Pole (Arctic Circle). She was the first Indian civilian woman to accomplish such a feat without any prior training.
Over the next ten years, Mahajan, now 31, made skydiving her career. She completed 650 jumps, broke 8 world and 7 national records and was awarded the Padma Shri for her valiant acts in 2011. Her achievements have inspired many Indian civilians to take up the adventure sport across ages.
In 2012, Shital Mahajan (below) became the first Indian civilian woman to participate in big way formation of skydiving at 12000ft
But Mahajan’s journey as a skydiver has been a tough one, made worse by corruption at several levels, and sometimes the apathy in some government bodies towards civilian skydivers.
Now, despite being a US-certified A,B,C and D skydiver and trainer, Mahajan is unable to practice skydiving in India. “New regulations have made it impossible for me to continue this profession as a skydiver and instructor within India,” she says.
Shital Mahajan after completing her first jump on the South Pole
Skydiving, as a sport, is still in its infancy and several claim it to be unsafe in India. In January earlier this year, a civilian female lost her life while skydiving in Chennai. Since there were no clear guidelines on the sport for civilians, the authorities decided ban it completely, she says. “After the January accident, only the defence personnel are allowed to take part in skydiving activities. Any civilian who wants to do that will have to go through tons of paperwork,” adds the 31-year-old.
Shital Mahajan jump on North Pole
Mahajan says that she wants to popularise the sport in India, but the new rules have made it impossible for her to train new skydivers via her institute, Phoenix Skydiving Academy.
Maximum tandem jumps in an hour
On August 25, Shital Mahajan led a team of 85 first time Indian skydivers to create the maximum number of tandem jumps (35) in an hour at the Skydive Empuriabrava in Spain. The previous record was of 25, which they broke in just 40 minutes. The youngest member in the group was a 13-year-old kid.
“I am tired of fighting the Indian bureaucracy. First, they won’t do anything to popularise adventure sports, and when you want to do something, they will stop you,” she says, adding, “I have been a skydiver for the last ten years, and am a certified trainer from the US. I have several world records in my name, and was even awarded a Padma Shri for my efforts. I have spent most of my savings in my training, and now they are saying, I can’t follow my profession in my own country,” she says, adding, “If this won’t make you angry, then what will?”
Mahajan says that there’s a need for the government to recognise skydiving as a sport in India, and corporate companies to sponsor such events. “Already, due to the risky nature of the sport, there are very few companies who are willing to sponsor skydivers. Now, if the government also won’t take a stand, where would people like us go? There are 97 countries that have recognised skydiving as a sport. There are world championships and competitions taking place every year. And every year, it’s always the defence teams that get to represent the country. Why can’t civilian skydivers represent India as well? Why do we have to sign up for competitions as guests, and then be looked down at by people from our own country?”
A competitive spirit
The bias towards civilian skydivers, however, doesn’t end with this, reminds Mahajan.
“I have been called several names, and insulted often by skydivers from the Indian Air Force. Basically, some of them don’t want civilians to take up the sport. But I want to tell them that they can’t stop me. I will continue popularising this sport, and if they won’t let civilians jump inside India, I will take them outside the country. But I will jump,” she says. In fact, on August 25, Mahajan successfully led a team of 85 first time civilian Indian skydivers to Skydive Empuriabrava in Spain (the same location where the skydiving scenes in the film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara were shot). The group created a new World Record of maximum tandem jumps (35) in an hour. They broke the previous record of 25 jumps in just 40 minutes. The youngest member of the group was a 13-year-old.
A life meant for diving
Mother of twin boys, Mahajan, who had a fairytale wedding on a hot air balloon (she’s also the first Indian woman to do that) says that she wants to create new group world records to motivate more people to take up skydiving.
Just returned from her trip from Spain, the skydiver is now busy planning for two new group attempts, one featuring first time women skydrivers for Women’s Day and another in the US to create a new World Record in group formations. “I have had made enough individual World records for me, but now I want to focus on making World Records with people from my country. I have jumped many times, but till today, the first jump is the most memorable one. It’s an experience you can’t have again. And, I want every Indian to have it,” says Mahajan.
And perhaps it was this feeling that helped Mahajan continue her passion of skydiving despite all odds. But she says that her journey won’t have been possible without the support of her family. “My family has played a very important role in my career. My dad even mortgaged his house to pay for skydiving training, and has been spending all his savings. I have also spent most of my savings, including selling my own wedding jewellery. But I am not going to stop,” she adds.
In her 10-year-career as a skydiver, Mahajan has created eight world records and seven national records.
Some of her most famous jumps were:
>> A World Record of being the first woman in the world to execute parachute jumps over both the pole’s of the Earth, North Pole (Arctic) and White Continent of Antarctica (South Pole), without any practice.
>> Was part of the team that created the World Record of first team ever to perform accelerated free fall parachute Jump over the White Continent of Antarctica (South Pole).
>> A National Record holder for being the first Indian woman to perform wing suit jump.
>> First Indian civilian to marry in a hot air balloon.
“I thought the scenario will change, after I received Padma Shri. But nothing has changed. And each time you approach the government, they say, ‘We gave you an award. What more do you want?’ We sportspersons don’t want awards. We want the government to take a stand and stop this bureaucratic barrier they have created.