There are two full-fledged firefighting training institutes in the world. One is in Nagpur called the National Fire Service College—the only one in south Asia—and I am its first woman student. As a child, I was always fascinated with the idea of wearing a uniform. It made me feel 'royal', and growing up, I was sure I wanted to be in a profession where I would always wear one. I took admission at NFSC in 2002. When I went to the college campus to submit my form, the first thing officials noted was that I was a girl and that too with long hair. Since there is a general post office on the premises, they thought I had meant to go there and had mistakenly entered the campus. When I told them why I was there, most were incredulous about my qualifications, given my gender. From day one to now, it has always been about whether I am capable for the job. The more they doubted me, the more positive and strong my resolve became to excel as a firefighter.
It disturbed me through the course of my journey that people make snap judgments just on the basis of how you look. A woman with short hair is called a tomboy, one with long hair is considered more 'homely'. When I entered the college that day, they told me that this was a 'gents college', and gave me the most weird looks. Someone even remarked that I should try for the armed forces instead. Someone else remarked, 'You are trying to get 33 per cent reservation for women', and I retorted, 'I believe in 50-50'. These incidents pinched me inwardly but when I sat for the entrance exam, I took it as a challenge. I never wanted to hear that women are weak. [Ever since Kanhekar graduated from NFSC, the college turned co-ed. She has studied fire engineering as well as fire safety.]
I was fortunate that my family was supportive of my ambition to serve the nation. Even the teachers who taught me at NFSC were encouraging. No concessions were made, and I had full attendance in the three and a half years of college. I was posted in Gujarat earlier and was in charge of a fire station. I really enjoyed being on the field. I have worked hard to earn respect. After me, six other girls joined the college and became firefighters. This is a dynamic field and I don't believe education is only for men or women; it is equal for both. I hope more girls come into our field.
I am also an avid biker. Often, people see me in uniform and gumboots riding the bike and ask if it is actually mine. They think I might have got my brother's bike for a joyride. Some even remark that I might be headed for a fancy dress event. They are astonished that a woman is a keen biker and maintains a bike, too. I went to Cherrapunji last year and the owner of the lodge looked at me, dressed in midis and sandals, and was surprised when I told him I knew about bikes. He didn't believe me, so I showed him photos of me on the laptop after which he offered me his bike to ride!
Kanhekar is India's first woman firefighter.
As told to Shalini Singh