Kanika Mohan Saxena – “The LadyNemo” and the Second Woman Master Scuba Diver Trainer of India
Q. Scuba is “Self-Contained Under Water Breathing Apparatus” by its definition, but we are sure it is more than just diving with an apparatus for you? What is Scuba diving for the “Lady-Nemo”?
A. About 70% of earth is covered with water. But even after so much technological development, it’s a startlingly tiny proportion according to the National Ocean Service; only 5% of the Earth’s sea – particularly the sea below the surface – has been studied and explored by mankind. The rest is largely unknown and invisible to humanity. Of that 5%, there is even less portion of water that is safe and allowed to dive in. I find being able to explore the unknown, very much fascinating. The water never looks the same, it seems as though you’re exploring something new and different every time. I lived in Thailand for a year, where I would regularly go diving. I must have done about 50 or 60 dives in the same spot, but I never found the water to be the same, even once, it is constantly moving. So, to me, it is like exploring the unknown through the medium of Scuba diving.
Q. Scuba Diving is not a very conventional field to choose. What was the motivation behind this? How did you get used to the sport?
A. I’m from a media background, so while I was working on a shoot of a show about scuba and surfers on an island, I got really fascinated with scuba diving. So, one day I went and did my first open water diving and fell in love with the underwater world. Ever since then, it was like I got addicted to the feeling and the sport and I went back for some more. I think there was a storm brewing and the water was pretty unstable. There was a guy who was diving with me, and mentioned to me that if you can dive in this condition, you can dive anywhere in the world. Ever since then, Scuba diving took over my mind, body and soul. After that I kept diving. I went on to do open water, advanced open water.
Q. Can you tell us a little about your training?
A. Because I was not trained around and for water a lot, I had to work extra hard than everyone else, to get the hang of the gear and diving and instructing. When you’re an instructor, you are not only responsible for your own life, but also the lives of the people you are teaching. It is a very tenacious and difficult course, which tests your physical strength, your awareness and your ability to think quick on your feet. I have been diving for a while now, but I’m still learning new things. If anybody says that they know the ocean, they have no idea what they’re talking about. The ocean teaches you something new every single day. Each time you venture into the water, it will have changed and it will have a different mood. But, the more you practice and the more you dive, the better you can handle yourself and you become that much a better diver. After my training, I came back to India and now I work at the Orca Dive Club in Mumbai, as a master instructor and now I get to travel across the globe to teach people diving. I have dived in many different countries, specifically in South-East Asia, because it is absolutely beautiful there. I also got the chance to dive in places like Egypt and Jordan. Even India has beautiful diving spots in Andaman and Nicobar, and Goa. According to me, behind all fears, lie wonderful things.
Q. What are the myths surrounding Scuba diving?
A. There two biggest myths surrounding Scuba diving, that it is very expensive, and that you need to be a great swimmer to dive successfully. It is all about finding the perfect diving school and diving instructor. If you are comfortable in the water, Scuba diving is something that you can definitely give a shot to. I believe that with this pandemic, the one thing that nature has taught us, is to respect it and to coexist with it. This is one of the greatest learnings in my life and I think people should learn more to see the nature, to respect and to know what it brings to us.
Q. As a woman, doing something so different, and pioneering would have been really hard. What were some of the struggles you had to face?
A. Women are always taught from their childhood, that they need to learn to cook well, respect elders and to be educated to a certain point so that they get a good husband. I remember what my father used to always say, that what you do with your life will always remain with you. Husbands will come and go. Never depend on anyone in your life, but yourself. When it came to professional struggles, during the time that I started out, there were truly very few diving schools and there were hardly any women divers. I am still India’s second woman master diving trainer. The challenges I had to face were the same as I said before. The myths and the difficult training I had to go through, being an extremely inexperienced Indian diver. I did this about 10 years ago when I was 35. The divers around me were all in the early to late 20s, so for me, matching their energy level and their rigour was difficult. I had to be more competitive to prove my point. When I was quitting my job, I had to hear a lot from my colleagues and my friends, who had never heard of anyone who left her five-figure-salary job, to go learn Scuba diving for a year. I had to go against the “societal norms” to do what I loved. Besides, as and how I trained and started teaching, I started getting a passive income through my job as a diving instructor. I started assisting in underwater scenes in Bollywood movies and I started working underwater.
Q. While you scuba dive, it is as risky as it is amazing. Can you express that feeling?
A. It is pretty simple, according to me. It is just like crossing the street. If you don’t look and check both sides before crossing, you might get hit by a bus. Diving is just like that. But other than that, for me, it is the feeling of weightlessness and the feeling of exploring the unknown, that gets me to keep diving. Every time I go underwater, I get this feeling that I am a very small fragment in the multitude of this universe. We need to look at the world and our lives in a less egotistical way. You are one very small and very tiny part of this humongous universe. It keeps me grounded. Diving is an adrenaline rush and it is a little dangerous. But it won’t be if you choose a great diving school and an instructor who is good at their job. All you can do, other than that, is to follow all the rules, no matter what. I believe that if you respect the ocean, the ocean will respect you, and nothing will go wrong. In my tenure, I have taught about four thousand people and have never seen one diving tragedy, and I hope it remains that way. You need to also stay in your dive limit, which for me is 120 feet. As a professional diver of PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), you are not allowed to go beyond that limit.
Q. So, Scuba diving and being a VP are drastically different areas of work. How do you manage to do both?
A. I believe, that you need to have a personal passion for life and a job that you enjoy. I feel lucky and privileged to have both. I work during the week at my job and then teach diving over the weekends. Every once in a while, I take 4-5 days leave and I go and teach people diving. So, I’m balancing my professional life, with my passion. All the leaves I have from my job during the year, it is all about diving, for me. I am very transparent with my employers and they know that I am also a diving instructor and it is something I’m very passionate about and as long as it doesn’t affect my work, they don’t really have an issue with it. And I truly believe that you are not your job, I believe that we are many more things than our job. We are much more about our passion and dedication.
Q. How do you find time for your family out of this hectic schedule?
A. I have my parents and my elder sister who lives in a different city, but I have another sister, who lives in Mumbai with me. I spend time with her and my nephew. I take them on diving trips or try to find time for them in the morning or the evening. I love cooking, so I often cook for my family as well. I try to cook every possible dish that I can think of. I think I’m very Bohemian in my mindset. My family is very important to me, so I think I handle spending time with my family, along with diving and my job, rather effectively.
Q. You are an entrepreneur as well. How is being an entrepreneur different from other jobs?
A. I think, in one line, an entrepreneur is everything put together. Even when I ran my own outreach program, I used to call myself the chief speaker. That basically means, you open the door, you sweep the floor, you get the coffee, you run the business, you handle the clients. It is basically your baby. So, if something is your baby, your alignment to that is very different than when you are an employee. I became an entrepreneur, because it gave me a sense of purpose, to build something from scratch. My first venture was when I spoke to a company to start a food business. I knew nothing about food besides when to make it. But I built a business from nothing to the top. I did all of this, when everyone kept asking me why I was doing it, was because I felt like it humbled me and it taught me that if you want to do something, do it yourself. As I went on to work for another start up, it was difficult too. There were days when we couldn’t even afford a cup of tea, or when I didn’t have time to spend on my own life. Because on my other jobs, I could work for 6 to 7 months and then spend some time travelling across the globe. So, I could learn so much from this entire experience.
Q. You have two entrepreneurial ventures tell us about both of them. What was the idea behind both of these?
A. My first venture was a food restaurant called “Bong Bong” in the heart of Mumbai, that is Bandra. I partnered with somebody to create more outlets and to redo the place. The idea was to make Asian food and also Bengali food specifically. We wanted to make Bengali food exciting and for everyone’s food palates, since it comes under regional food. My second venture was a boutique branding company called “Why? Stay! Calm Entertainment”. I have worked in films all my life. I have worked with companies like Sony and Fox Studios. What our company did was basically to take films to different brands and you co-create with brands for more reach. We did about 50 or so films in the span of 2 years. It gave me a lot of creative freedom, along with the freedom of being able to choose who and which film I work with. So, I could build a business from there. I was also able to harbor building a digital company, which was also a part of “Why? Stay! Calm”. But after that, I got an offer from Vodafone and it excited me that it gave me an opportunity to be a part of a distribution arm and a telecom collider which goes all across the country. It also gave me an opportunity to learn tech and customer journey.
Q. What are some of your inspirations? And due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, what is it about travel that you miss the most?
A. Unlike everyone else, I don’t get inspired by other people. I find my inspiration in the nature. If I do something, I look towards nature and spirituality. There are people who I really really admire, but I won’t consider that as my source of inspiration. It is true that I’m an avid traveler; and I have traveled over 50 countries. But I don’t really indulge in tourist-y travels like most Indians do. Travel, to me, means something completely different. I normally go to different places and live there for a month. I visit the little communities there, I live in Air BnBs, I cook with the people there, I try to understand their language and their culture. What I like to know, when I travel to a new place, is what it is like to be a part of their community. In April, I got the opportunity to go to Maldives, but we followed all the Covid protocols and other than the time that we were diving, we had our masks on at all times. You need to also be a responsible traveler and you need to also be aware that there are other people around and that you are also putting their health at risk, along with your own. You have to be mindful about the things you are touching and maintain your own hygiene.
Q. Mental health is also a topic that people don’t come out and talk about. How do you keep your mental health in check? What are some of your personal practices?
A. According to me, gratitude is attitude. I’m not really a religious person, but I definitely am spiritual. Someone said something to me long ago, that really stuck with me; “When you have nothing, even then, be grateful.” I try my hardest to follow and live by that. I’ve led a tough life, like everyone else. But I think I have taken care of my mental health by practicing gratitude towards the guiding force of life. I have gratitude for everything and anything. Respect people and have gratitude. I do not take things and people for granted. I believe that Kanika, “The Ladynemo” would never be who she is, if she didn’t have mind-blowing and peaceful friends who support her. I am what I am because of all these people.
Q. You are truly an inspiration to so many young people out there. What would you like to tell people who have more than two passions and are confused about which path to choose? Also, how does one really know if they are making the right choice?
A. My one message would be to have faith, listen to your gut and follow your heart. And if you fail, don’t keep worrying about that. So what if you fail? That is how you learn. If you never made any mistakes and you never failed, you will never know the ups and downs of your life. In that case, your life is a flatline, and you know what a flatline is, it means you’re dead. I think most people spend their lives running just doing their job. Everyone needs to earn money, including me. I don’t have means beyond my salary. I know that your job is important. But I also believe that, you are a lot more than your job, or the money you earn or the car you own. If you have passion, please follow it. You never know that your passion might become your source of income and your job! One thing I really wish is that we had good infrastructure in this country, for diving. Our water is so beautiful. If we did, I would have become a full-time diving instructor and opened my own diving school.
So please follow your passion. We are a sum total of our passion. It takes us to a place we cannot even anticipate. And like I said, keep having faith. There is one last thing I would like to tell everyone in the new generation, who is behind a laptop or a phone, that it is important to go out in the nature and find a lot more in close proximity of the immensely beautiful nature around us. And please say no to shark finning. They are an endangered species and they look lovelier in the ocean than on your plate.