One of the best surprises, I have received in my life to date was the mail that I got on the early morning of May 14, 2020! It was by a woman who has scores of achievements in her name, she is none other than Squadron Leader Toolika Rani (Retd). I was so thrilled and honored to have got a mail by a role model like Ms. Toolika. Squadron Leader Toolika Rani is a retired Air Force Officer, a mountaineer, motivational speaker, research scholar, and adventure and travel writer. She is the first woman from the U.P. to climb Mt. Everest and the first Indian woman to climb the highest volcano of Asia-Mt. Damavand in Iran. She can be reached at [email protected] Read her story of grit and determination in her own words and get inspired, ladies!
Blurring the Boundaries: Giving Wings to Dreams
In absolute awe of nature, as a child, I loved gazing at the sunsets and sunrise. They seemed to have a connection- of going down in the darkness and rising again spectacularly. This cycle left a deep impact on me. I dreamt of touching the wonderful white swathes of clouds and traced enthralling images in the cluster of stars. The limitless spread of the sky mesmerized me. I enjoyed composing poems, reading literature, writing essays, winning debate competitions, and thought of serving society. The horizon was full of opportunities. But as I grew, read more and observed deeply, the prevailing inequalities amongst human beings became clearer. Among many dividing lines, one was gender. I realized that several others were not as privileged as I to get equal opportunities as a right. Henceforth began the mission of my life- to blur these boundaries, to excel, and help others realize their goals.
Thus happened NCC (National Cadet Corps), where I received a gold medal in Medical at the state level. As I hurried to make a patient’s bed during a competition, I still remember the comment the examiner made, “She flies like the wind!”. The next destination was automatically the Armed Forces- the ultimate battleground. Selected in the Air Force, I was forced to stretch my limits. The tough military training demanded much more physical engagement than I had ever had. A topper in school and university merit list holder, I was used to studying 14 hours a day, and here it was reversed to being on toes the same or more amount of time. However, the stubbornness in me to prove myself sailed me through. I topped in my branch (Administration) in junior term and went on to become an appointment cadet (like a monitor). Due to my ability to do all kinds of rolls well (front, back, side, double roll), my seniors christened me as “Demo Rani” and I ended up doing more rolls than my course-mates, as every-time, someone failed to roll properly, my seniors called me to give a demonstration.
In our senior term we studied Air Traffic Controlling, and thanks to my excellent rote ability to remember even a comma in a sentence, I earned the nickname “Xerox Machine”. ATC officers are judged by their category, Cat A being highest. Till then there was no woman Cat A controller. During our certificate distribution ceremony, I was floored to hear my instructor say, “I expect you to become the first women Cat A controller”, though life had other plans for me. I feel proud that my fellow women officers made that mark. Most memorable was the day at the end of our training, when one of my male course-mates came to me, and said, “I want to salute you”. “why?” I asked. “The first day we came to the academy and I saw girls, I thought what are they doing here! But now after training with you all for a year, my perception has changed” he said. We are still in touch and call each other “commando”.
In the second year of my service, another challenging vista opened for me in the form of adventure sports. The credit for providing me the opportunity to do river-rafting, mountaineering, and parasailing goes to Air Force. However, it was mountaineering which forced me to reinvent myself. By this time I used to perceive myself as physically very fit. But during my first expedition to Mt. Stok Kangri, Leh, I was last to reach the summit. And in the next four expeditions, I couldn’t reach the summit at all. It also included my failed attempt on Mt. Everest in 2011. The ensuing reactions made me realize that no matter how hard you prepare, it’s the result that matters. I was crestfallen and broken. It was the pain of shattering of my life-long image of being a performer. Suddenly I found myself on the other side, shedding quiet tears. My mother, however, advised me to make another attempt. We went through the rigors of raising finance and maintaining extreme fitness while doing alternate day-night shift at work. After a year of sustained training, and being totally consumed by Everest, I embarked on my second Everest expedition. This too was highly eventful as I came close to death, and returned with a souvenir of two frostbitten toes. One of them became my “designer toe” a little shorter than others after amputation. However, climb I did my enemy of three years- the Mt. Everest. Seeing my rotten, shapeless toes, doctors and friends advised me to quit mountaineering, but blame it again on my stubbornness, I started trekking just after four months, bandaging my toes every day for two years. An enjoyable memory is of running a mountain trail run on Triund in Himachal. Though puss oozed out of my toes as I opened my bandages, the air it left in my hair was amazing.
Then came the highlight of my career- the appointment as an Outdoor Training Instructor in Air Force Academy, Hyderabad. Till now I had been running alone, wishing for a partner, suddenly I got a hundred cadets to run with, including India’s would be first women fighter pilots! I loved being a part of their training in military craft and overseeing their transformation into officers. Personally, it completed my transformation from a book worm to none other than a Military Outdoor Instructor! As I taught my cadets- male and female, how to do proper push-ups and how to climb a rope, I smiled inwardly. Now when these officers come to meet me post my retirement, and I listen to how well they are doing, I feel proud and full of blessings for them.
My motivational lecture tours have taken me to women of all ages, backgrounds, and professions, striving to make a niche for themselves and I feel privileged to consolidate their will and add an ounce of strength. As an Ambassador of some civil society organizations, I aim to give them hope and belief- tenets that move mountains. For a wider engagement with society, I have settled for civil services. In my preparatory stage yet, the stubbornness remains, the passion for life is intact. I believe in magic and miracles- the magic of dreams, the miracle of will! Take the plunge, charge ahead, be ready to take a fall, and rise again. It’s a never-ending circle, the rebellion with life! But don’t forget to laugh all the way and enjoy the ride!