Standing up for yourself: Breaking barriers and climbing in India
By Rachel Briggs and Nutan Shinde-Pawar
For United We Climb
“Myself and Nutan, a climber, mountaineer and published writer from South India, first connected via social media. I had seen one of her Instagram posts that captured a special moment, where a mother and daughter became Climber and Coach.
The video clip was not about hard moves or amazing cinematography, yet it still reflected one of the most treasured elements of climbing, that we can all relate to. That incredible sense of pride, when we, or someone we care about, pushes outside of their comfort zone and discovers they can achieve something they did not believe was possible.
After chatting with Nutan, she kindly agreed to share her fascinating journey into climbing.” Rachel Briggs
Would you mind telling us a little about yourself and how you got into climbing?
I was born and brought up in Pune, the IT hub of India. I always wanted to be a Software Engineer and work for Google someday. I was the most studious, obedient kid of my family. I graduated in 2014 and started working immediately after that.
A year into my job, I discovered trekking and rock climbing. My husband, Deepak, was the head coach at the climbing gym I used to practice. That is how we met. Once I got to know more about Deepak, I grew fond of climbing. I have attempted multi-pitch routes with my husband. After our marriage in July 2018, we go for climbing trips frequently.
What is the climbing scene like where you live?
Climbing in India is not as big as in other Asian countries like China, Japan, Korea or Singapore. There are hardly any big climbing gyms here. Gyms are either Bouldering or Lead, but not both. The culture here is based on competition and outdoor climbing.
Unlike Mountaineering we don’t have climbing courses as such. This is also a reason why mountaineering continues to be more popular than rock climbing. Climbing Competitions are all organised by a subdivision of the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF). There are fewer funds for organising competitions or setting up good training facilities. This deprives Route Setters of setting excellent quality routes that would train the climbers. There has definitely been some progress in Competition Climbing over the last 20 years, but we are lagging.
One thing I feel is that the young competition climbers are climbing primarily to get medals and the benefit of the Sports Quota for their Education. They have no ambitions to pursue a climbing career or get to a level where they could compete internationally.
There are really strong climbers projecting hard routes. Of course, there are men climbing harder grades than women. Men in India have climbed 8b+ lead and 8a boulder grades. There is more motivation for outdoor climbing than for competitions. In 2018, we got the first female send of an 8a route.
There are many new climbers getting into climbing. There are Bouldering Festivals being organised and new areas are being discovered.
New Age of climbing
Climbing is still considered as an adventure or leisure activity. But participation is definitely increasing in India as people are becoming aware and they have disposable income. These days parents want their kids to excel beyond the boundaries of academia. I am sure, with the Olympics, there will be even more interest.
Being a climber or outdoor traveller in India, you mentioned some barriers you have experienced getting into the sport. Could you tell us about this?
I have never really spoken about it. My heart breaks when I think of it. Also, I feel my achievements must speak for me and my journey has just started. I have a long way to go. But I am glad to share my experience if it could help others.
My struggle is the same as the struggle of every girl in India who graduates. Suddenly their parents want her to get married. So, immediately after graduation, my parents started setting me up with potential boys (without asking me). Boys wouldn’t consider me because I was earning more than them working in IT. There is an ego clash I guess, if a wife is earning more than her husband.
Once I started trekking I knew that I wanted to marry someone who would “allow me” to continue outdoor activities. The boys would just say ‘no’. There was this one guy whose statement was, “What kind of wife travels without a husband?”
I have many such interesting stories that will reveal more about what Indian girls have to go through.
Once my relatives invited a rich family boy (whose salary was more than mine). This new guy was a cyclist and hiker. Both his parents were senior government officials. After the initial meetings, our wavelengths matched. I thought I found my husband.
Until the last minute when his parents asked for dowry. “Lots of gold and extravagant wedding, it is all for your daughter,” they said. The guy was acting oblivious. My family and I were heartbroken. Shall I be selfish, marry the guy and let my father go through the financial burden? What if their demands don’t stop? Do I really want to spend my life with a man who cannot speak up? I thought. The answer was never ever! Not only for my parents who would do anything for me. But also for other girls who are victims of dowry. I took a strong stand.
This is a secret. I had updated my online marriage profile after this incident. In the field of expectations, I added: “Strictly no dowry demands!” Of course, my parents wouldn’t allow this, so I hid it from them. Shockingly, we didn’t get any interest after that. I was disturbed to find out there are no “literate” men. My hope of marriage was dying away.
My parents were worried that no sane guy would marry a girl who travels and climbs. Whenever my parents would deny me from climbing, I would purposefully go for a long trip. I grew rebellious. There was a new level of confidence (or anger) rising in me.
It sounds like you have found a great match. Can you tell us how life has changed now you are married?
Deepak entered my life in such chaos. After four years of constant disgrace, I found it extremely difficult to trust him. I couldn’t believe that the MAN I wanted really existed. He was ideal for me who was not a fit as per the society. He was not well educated, nor financially stable. He was a Karate Champion in school so never studied. Later, he started working as a climbing coach which doesn’t pay much.
I have to narrate this for girls looking for a life partner. I was planning to interview a veteran female mountaineer, Chandraprabha Aitwal and Deepak offered to join me. When we were at her house, we were reading her trophies and awards. Pointing at one, Deepak said, “Someday your name will be written on these awards and somebody else will come to interview you!” It was the most amazing thing anyone had ever said to me. I knew at that moment I was marrying this person!
My parents were initially not happy with his education and less salary. Within a month he won their heart. My life after the marriage took a 360-degree turn. I switched to travelling full-time by taking a job with a hiking company. I am constantly travelling to the Himalayas. My in-laws are super supportive. My mother-in-law is a wonderful person like my husband.
In the lockdown, I rediscovered my love for writing. I am now doing freelance writing also. I have written for UKClimbing, ExplorersWeb, MojaGear etc which has built my confidence. I am talking and meeting adventurers like you from around the world. I am happy I am able to create my place in this new world – with my husband by my side.
That is the thing, people don’t realize women don’t need men to rescue them. We are capable of creating our own paths and have the guts of facing problems coming our way. We just want their love and belief. This is exactly what Deepak understands and that makes him a good husband.
What would you suggest to other women in a similar position?
I am not being arrogant, but I believe my life is not a result of luck. I created it. I earned it by grappling for 4-5 years with my family and society. Of course, there is destiny but I made my choices. And I am ready to face the consequences of those choices. Most of the girls cave in sooner and then complain they don’t get what they want. Had I given up and married some mindless guy I would never have been happy. So yes we must stand up!
Whatever is the reason people give for not supporting women; women must take a stand for themselves. There is a constant struggle, accept that and don’t give up.