Symphony of Sisters
The recent Balakot strikes is a fine example when the entire world witnessed how the Indian Air Force (IAF) executed the political will of our country with swiftness, precision and skillfully. For the IAF officers and Wing Commander Bhavan Datta, even the sky is not the limit and there are no barriers whatsoever in the sky. She has spent over 18 years as the Logistics officer of the IAF, which is just a small aspect, the core essence of her being in IAF is so much apart from what the logistician in her is expected to do. Bhavana is first and foremost an air warrior, committed to defend the skies of the nation, committed to defend the country and safeguard it gloriously. Talking at the recently held CII-Indian Women Network 4th WomeNation Summit, in Mumbai, Bhavana shares stories from her side of the world and her journey of life. Corporate Citizen brings you the excerpts of the session
It is an opportunity for me to share stories from my side of the world and the officers of Indian Air Force (IAF). When I got a call from the Confederation of the Indian Industry (CII) last week, I came to know that I had to talk on ‘breaking barriers’, and the obstacles that I faced throughout my life. At that time, I was along with my parents in Dehradun with my dad sitting next to me. I turned to him and told that I cannot really think of any barriers. My mother, the more practical one who was listening to this conversation, did draw my attention to a few obstacles and difficulties that I have faced during my journey. These are practically every woman’s difficulties and struggles, who has decided to step out of the four blocks of her house to categorise, they are societal, mental and physical.
I come from a very conservative Punjabi family where girls are expected to get married at an early age, not having a career profession. If at all the girls want to work, they should choose something safe and sane. There was a lot of societal pressure on my parents and me to get married and settled. To my good fortune, my parents were supportive and did not get me married, but they did get me engaged to one of my childhood friends. The second criteria for choosing a sane profession is something they expected me to comply with. I cleared my exams and told my parents that I have got into merit for the Indian Air Force where I was one of the 15 girls in the entire country making a ratio of one girl from two states. My mother who is otherwise supportive tried to oppose my decision of joining the Indian Air Force with all her might and dissuaded me by telling me how I would not be able to sustain the tough training and the mentally challenging sessions they have in the academy. But my great father who is a man of few words gave me just one instruction. He said, “Go if you have to, but make sure that you are standing first in the row.” That is how I reached the academy at an early age of 21.
“Indian Air Force is not just a profession, but a way of life. We live by the values and ethos that has been ingrained in us right from the beginning. There are various values that they teach us but for me the most important is the sense of camaraderie”
Entering the Indian Air Force meant entering a different world altogether. The first thing I had to forget there was that I am a woman. The training standards are not lowered to accommodate your gender. If your fellow male cadet is expected to run 12 km or hit the bull’s eye with a rifle, the same is expected from you. The enemy does not give any different treatment according to your gender. Here is where I want to bring in the mental barrier.
Back when I reached the academy, they showed a hillock at the far end of the horizon and told us that the horizon is only the halfway mark for the cross country fire, or maybe the first checkpoint for the 40 km route which we have to do at a later stage of the training. At such point of time, one needs to understand that it is only the mind that will take you there and it is only your mind that you need to control. There are obstacles during the training, which seem extreme to a person who is not active during school or college days or even otherwise. But then, you are left with two choices either you break the obstacles or you let the obstacles break you. I chose to break the obstacles, and in the end of the training, stood first in the merit.
In every woman’s life, there are times when we face difficulty with our physical limitations. Talking about pregnancy as an example, I feel that being a mother, is a privileged biological duty that only a woman can fulfil. If we can go through the pain of creating human life out of our flesh and blood, there is no barrier that we can’t smash in the faces. Even I have created human life, delivering a son who is born on 18th February 2006, when I was posted at a place far in the north-east with very primitive medical facilities. I literally worked till the last hour, until I went into labour and had to leave my office. I had a choice of delivering my baby either at my parents or in-laws place, but my work requirement asked me to stay back and that is what I did, with having no complaints about it. I found a very inspiring quote on the internet yesterday which said, “Obstacles do not have to stop you. If you come against a wall, find a way to climb over that wall, or around that wall it is as simple as that.”
“I feel that being a mother, is a privileged biological duty that only a woman can fulfil. If we can go through the pain of creating human life out of our flesh and blood, there is no barrier that we can’t
True story of grit and determination
Indian Air Force is not just a profession, but a way of life. We live by the values and ethos that has been ingrained in us right from the beginning. There are various values that they teach us but for me, the most important is the sense of camaraderie. Within the circle of that camaraderie, like the band of brothers, we woman officers have our symphony of sisters. We very interestingly mentor, support and coach each other and no matter what help each other.
Here is a story of a woman who has been my friend, philosopher, guide and inspiration. One woman who I really look up to. She belongs to a comfortable background and a beautiful hill station. Payal never wanted to make a career out of her life and had a clear plan of how she wanted to settle and get married to her handsome fighter pilot boyfriend Pankaj Joshi. She got married at the age of 20. Eight months into the marriage and fighter pilot Pankaj Joshi died in a plane crash. There she was with 21 years of age and life as unsettled as it could be. Yet, she did not give up. She did not listen to the society which criticised her for appearing the SSV exam just a month after her husband’s death. Her mind and her physically weak body was struggling with the trauma associated with the loss of her dear one, but that did not hold her back. Wing commander Payal Joshi has a true story of grit and determination of truly breaking the barriers.
In the academy, one is not used to demanding physical training. They tell you to do push-ups on coal tar road, sometimes barefoot. When you do that, you get blisters both on your palm and feet. As the blisters burst, the small particles of coal tar gets inside the blisters, and then it becomes a bit painful. When I would feel bad about the pain, Payal would energetically tell me to sit across each other and remove each other’s blister particles. That is one note from the Symphony of Sisters of how we support each other.
The force multipliers
To sum up my life experiences, I could list out the force enablers and multipliers which I can confidently say are three. The family, the Organisation, and I will come to the third one later.
It will sound cliché to you when I say that family is the most important force enabler. I did marry my childhood sweetheart who is a helicopter pilot and a gallantry award winner from the President of India. He timely has flying commitments as he is the commanding officer of the helicopter unit. In spite of his schedule, when I juggle my roles he pitches in every possible way, be it teaching or taking care of my son who is now 13, or the household. He supports my growth and aspiration. At the same time, one needs to take care that the family does not suffer at the cost of your career and profession. I cannot be a good boss and a bad mother or a good colleague and a bad sister. Every role must have constant lined behaviour.
Here is an incident which relates to my friend Shaliza Dhami, who I am sure some of you are aware of from the recent news, as she turned the first woman flight commander of the Indian Air Force and happens to be the first woman flight instructor too. When she was ongoing a flying instructor’s course in military aviation, a course which is very prestigious, equally demanding and challenging, I happened to call her up. The final exam of the course that she had the next day, was to decide her merit and her career. The same day, her son Om ji was running on high fever and was admitted to the hospital. He has this habit of holding on to Dhami when he sleeps and would just not let go off her. A very gutsy Punjaban, frail and witty, she very casually said that, “Koi na yaar ho jayega. Dekh lenge.” (We will see what happens). Dhami broke the high glass ceiling in the military of aviation and made us all very proud, by handling her roles with a perfect balance and passing the exam with flying colours. There are ‘Om ji’ moments practically in everyone’s life. That is where the role of the second force multiplier comes into action, the Organisation.
“I am the first woman senior logistics officer of the largest Indian Air Force base of Jamnagar, and this is nothing to do with me being a woman. Our organisation entices us, air warriors, to excel in our work”
Good Human Resource policies are the force enablers for women employees in any organisation. Something as basic or crucial as six month maternity leave or a stable support network goes a long way. IAF bases are like one big family who looks after each other. If one of our girls takes off on a helicopter for a flood relief mission and is not able to come back that night to the parent base, she very well knows that her kids and family will be looked after by the unit.
Coming to the last lesson that I have learnt, I believe that Indian parenting teaches values, ethics, and life skills to our children. There is one particular value which I do not agree to, and is ingrained in Indians right from the beginning “zid mat karo” (Do not be insistent). As conditioning, we are taught every day that good kids are never insistent. I feel that as a woman standing here in front of you in the uniform, we should teach our daughters and kids to be ziddi(insistent). Be insistent about your condition, your passion and your dreams.
Gender neutrality and women success in IAF
A friend of mine who is a successful investment banker in the US now told me that as a woman, you will have to work double, to be proven half as good. I do not have much knowledge over the work culture of the corporate world, but I can humbly admit that in IAF we are judged purely based on our merit and hard work. Even the promotional perks, appointments, posting criteria are kept completely gender neutral so much so that we are known by the service founders and not by our higher names. If wing commander Bhavana has to be considered by a certain appointment, I am the first woman senior logistics officer of the largest Indian Air Force base of Jamnagar, and this is nothing to do with me being a woman. Our organisation entices us, air warriors, to excel in our work. We have eight women who are fighter pilots and women who will become flight commanders, which is a senior position of management. We have women who are part of the aerobatic team which is a very demanding job and women climbing bomb terrorists. There is a movie coming up on the first woman who was in the combat zone called ‘Gunjan’, where Janhavi Kapoor is playing her role. We also have a glacier girl, Khushboo and so on and so forth.
IAF does not just work hard, but we party harder. We do not wear makeup or jewellery when we are at work but otherwise we take our fashion and style very seriously. Many of the girls are a part of national beauty pageants.
I was the senior logistics officer for a very important guest in Jammu Kashmir with an all-woman officer team with me. In the event, an all women aircrew took to the skies in a combat for the first time in the Ministry of Aviation in India. This team flew from the airbase where I am presently posted. The day this happened, the adjutant (an appointment who coordinates various administrations), the commanding officer and the senior officers of the station were there. The commanding officer rejoiced, “It is only when the girls started walking to the helicopter that I realised, we were creating history with an all women fight.” That is how gender neutral we are.