It was 7:45pm on April 20, 2002, but at the northernmost part of the world, the day shone bright like a burnished copper coin. From the Barneo Ice Airport, a group of skydivers had been flown to Point Zero at the North Pole. Rachel Thomas was one among them and she was on a mission: To create history by becoming the first woman skydiver to plant the tricolour on the North Pole. As she awaited her turn, she could see the world unfurl below her. To her, it seemed like it had all been building up to this moment. She could almost picture her life’s story scribbled on the surface of the frozen ocean. “The visual was cloudy and blurred, but my memories were as transparent as crystal, as indomitable as the nothingness I was about to jump into,” she writes in Limitless, her recently-released autobiography. As the jump-master cried ‘go’, she got up and did what she was born to do: Fly.
Thomas did her first jump in 1979 at the age of 22, when she was married to an Army officer and had two young children to take care of. At a party of the Parachute Regiment in Agra, the discussion was on the new training institute for skydiving that was being set up. When a French instructor asked if there were any female takers for skydiving classes, Thomas found herself volunteering, almost against her will. At 11:30am on April 20, she did her first jump… and it did not turn out well. She found herself hanging mid-air from the strut of the aircraft. Her instructor was terrified that the parachute bag would open and damage its wing, thus endangering all. Because her hands were so sweaty, Thomas slipped. Luckily, she had enough wits about her to pull the rip-cord handle of the parachute. She floated down to the ground, her confidence punctured, but not her determination.
In fact, if Thomas’s life story were to be summarised in one word, it would be exactly that―grit. As a Padma Shri awardee, a competitor at world championships, an international judge of skydiving and a TEDx speaker, Thomas has much to boast about. But her tale is more about trial than it is about triumph. When there have been so many setbacks in your journey, reaching your destination becomes even sweeter. “Life is all about choice, not chance,” she tells THE WEEK. “It was by chance I happened to be in that group that night at the party, but it was my choice to join the course.”
The challenges began soon after she got her ‘A’ licence in skydiving. There was the seemingly trivial―like the time she travelled for a skydiving demo in a Bajaj Tempo Matador from Agra to Gandhinagar. She was the only woman among 10 men, which presented sundry problems, like the need to find thick foliage by the roadside when she needed to relieve herself. “The men went in one direction, and I went in the other,” she writes. “Those were extremely embarrassing moments, and only added to the toughness of the journey.” But more significant was the chauvinism she found embedded in the system. Like the time she was not nominated as a delegate for the International Parachuting Competition in Norway, despite helping India win the bid for hosting it the previous year in 1994. She also spearheaded the preparations, which included countless trips from Agra to Delhi, overcoming bureaucratic red-tape and getting all the requisite clearances.
Limitless is written with disarming honesty. Thomas holds nothing back, including details of her broken marriage, how her daughter blamed her for the divorce and all the times she failed professionally. Although some passages are too technical for lay readers, there is heart in the narrative. What comes through is a woman who does not hide her vulnerabilities, neither does she hide behind them.
“I have gone through a lot,” she says. “It hurts to feel the carpet being pulled from under your feet. I don’t think anyone would have been able to pull off the IPC in India without clout. I did not have any clout. I never had a sugar daddy or anything like that. I would just go straight to the authorities and say, this is what I want to do. You tell me the rules and I will keep it. [To become a professional skydiver], people do at least a thousand jumps with a trainer. I had none of this. But whenever I faced an adverse situation, it only made me stronger.”
This never-say-die attitude was programmed into her from a young age, when she would only want to romp around with the boys. Playing with dolls or baking cakes never interested her. “Fifty-seven years ago, when I was a child, our kites did not have the capability to cut other kites,” she says. “So the boys would pound glass and tell me to mix it into wheat flour and help them paste it on the strings. They would not let me play with them unless I did that. From my childhood I would do everything I could to prove that I was one of them. I never gave up just because I was a girl.”
Perhaps her dreams came true when her perseverance met her passion. As a child, she would spend hours looking at eagles, and wonder how they could glide in the air without flapping their wings. Even then, she had her head and her heart in the clouds.
By Rachel Thomas
Published by Readomania
Pages 190 Price Rs450