“After I caught my first wave, there was no going back. I knew I would be surfing for the rest of my life,” says 25-year-old Ishita Malaviya, a gangly girl with an ever-ready smile. “I’m the first Indian woman to start surfing and to pursue surfing professionally in the country” she tells us. She knows this because that’s what people have told her at surf spots all along India’s coast. “But obviously, in a country with 1.2 million people you never know,” she shrugs. “We havn’t started training yet. But I’m the first woman on the (unofficial) Indian surf team”, says Ishita, who is also part of Beyond the Surface—a documentary highlighting youth and women’s empowerment through surfing—that premiered in California a few months ago.
Ishita Malaviya and Tushar Pathiyan
Ishita’s surf journey began seven years ago, when she and her partner Tushar Pathiyan ran in to a surf-board toting German exchange student in India, who told them about a surf ashram just an hour from their college in Manipal. Devotees from California studying the Bhagavad Gita were as excited to teach the duo how to surf as the duo were to learn. They bought their first board (which they shared for two years) by selling everything they had. They started by surfing on weekends, but by the time Ishita was done with college, her life revolved around surfing and she couldn’t imagine going back to Bombay and getting a 9 to 5 job. “For me, surfing is like meditation. I go out there all by myself; me and my thoughts in the ocean—it’s a very spiritual influence”, says the girl, who applies the lessons she learns in the water to life. “Keep paddling there’s always another wave coming”, she suggests. “When you wipe out; stay calm and roll with it. Eventually you’ll be okay”.
In 2011, Ishita finished her journalism degree and stayed back in Manipal to set up a surf school, while Tushar completed his fifth-year architecture course. Surfing in India is still in its infancy, so you can imagine how apprehensive her parents were when Ishita decided to adopt a surfer’s lifestyle. “It was scary for them,” shares Ishita, whose family has always encouraged her to do what she wants, and still does.
“Are the waves in India good enough for surfing?” we wonder. “Oh definitely! We have a 7,000-kilometre coastline; most of which is relatively unexplored—in terms of surf spots. But there are really good waves in India like in Kodi Bengre, a small fishing village inKarnataka, where we’ve based our Shaka Surf School,”exclaims Ishita. “There are a lot of secret spots as well,” which she won’t share because of the surfers’ code.
As neither Ishita, nor Tushar come from business backgrounds, they have been learning on the go. “There have been and still are challenges,” points out Ishita. “But I believe the universe gives you signs. People generously gave us business, knowledge and know-how. We wouldn’t have been here without the help of the people we’ve met”. And of course, the universe conspired to help. By the time Tushar graduated, Quick Silver, a leading surf brand came to India and motivated them to give structure to what they wanted to achieve in the next few years.
From just driving down to the beach and back with their students, they have progressed to renting a place on the beach with a half-acre campsite, which now hosts three-man tents. They registered their company in 2012 and it appears to be shaping up into an excellent model of eco-tourism. Their neighbours are involved in everything they do and take turns to prepare food for their surf camp. “The only reason we are able to do this there is that the local community has accepted us”, they tell us. Once bummed out because they were “just fishermen” in a region where the caste system still dominates, the local kids who surf speak fluent English (As Ishita and Tushar didn’t want to learn the local languages—Tulu and Kanada—and kept talking to the kids in English), know how to rescue people from a rip tide and so much more. The village is non-touristy and that’s the way they intend to keep it, only admitting people who want to surf to their camps. They don’t encourage fuel-driven activities such as jet skis and banana boats. Out here it’s all eco-friendly—surfing, kayaking, stand-up paddling, kite surfing…
A surf camp they have been planning for a while became a reality in December 2013. They are currently working on a ‘surfing voluntourism’ programme to get surfers from abroad to teach at their surf school as well as to teach English in the local village school, giving them accomodation and a taste of Indian hospitality in return.
The gen-next surfers
“Surfing is challenging for a beginner, not only physically, but mentally. Guys naturally have upper body strength. I had to build up my strength because otherwise it becomes a barrier to what you can and can’t do while surfing,” she remarks. Oddly the ‘dark is beautiful’ perspective still hasn’t caught on on India with a fear of tanning stopping women from pursuing surfing. Ishita tells us,”A lot of people would say, ‘Oh Ishita, you’re become so dark… as if that would be a deterrent’.
“Surfing gives you freedom of expression. It’s not like football where there are certain rules. Competitive surfing requires a surfing style, but there’s room to exist without being in a competition. I’m kind of finding my own little place,” says Ishita, who rates her self as intermediate when it comes to fancy manouvres. For the girl who likes long-boarding and fun-sized boards, “surfing is not about the biggest wave. Though it’s portrayed like an agressive, power-driven, adrenaline-filled sport; the majority of people who surf do it for fun. It’s all about community and spreading positivity.”
“Surfing is a great equalizer. You can be the CEO of a big company or a fisherman and you can bond over something as simple as the ocean,” remarks Ishita. “The ocean is such an overpowering and humbling force. Everyone wipes out. The best surfer is the one having the most fun”.
“Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced surfer, you’re always overcoming your fears,” says Ishita, who loves empowering people to overcome their fears. The lack of water safety education in India is apparent with the 60,000 odd drowning deaths in India. “People are terrified of the water. But as long as you stay calm, everything will be all right,” says Ishita, who has been certified in CPR and water safety by the Red Cross Society, and is attempting to create mini-lifeguards out of the people she teaches to surf. “As a surfer, you develop a great relationship with the ocean and a deep respect for it. So other than leading a healthy lifestyle, you learn to keep the beaches clean”.
When Ishita started surfing, “there was no one to look up to; all the videos online were of foreign surfers”. She didn’t even own board shorts, so being sponsored by Roxy and being able to live the surfing lifestyle “is quite amazing”. But she won’t put down her accomplishments to coincidence. “If you give out positive energy, you’re going to get it right back” she says. “You can will something into existence, when you want it bad enough”.
A surfer’s life is not all fun and games; Ishita and Tushar “don’t lead a very fancy life”. Their savings go back into their school or are spent on travel. On a recent trip to America, the ever-supportive surfing community took them in for almost two whole months; leaving them to spend just one night in a hotel. They had a magical swim with dolphins in Hawaii and even met Jack Johnson. How’s that for signs from the universe? They are planning to travel to Australia next year. You can bet it ‘will’ happen.
For more on India’s pioneering surfers, watch the documentary A Rising Tide: The India Surf Story on Vimeo. http://vimeo.com/81026516