Tanuja Sodhi, 40, was part of a pioneering batch of women in the Indian Navy when she joined in 1992. She was a postgraduate in English literature and assumed she would end up as a lecturer in a college. But her father, an army officer, motivated and coached her to take a short service commission in the navy. The minute she joined, however, she realized she had done the right thing and stumbled upon an opportunity that would change all the notions she had about herself.
Body basics: After spending seven years in the navy, Sodhi became a fitness instructor. Pradeep Gaur / Mint
“I was always interested in literature and dramatics,” she says. “I never saw myself as a person being able to endure physical stress. The navy contributed a lot in making me realize that the mind and the body are capable of so much.”
After her training, she worked in the logistics branch, provisioning and procuring spares for ships. Since they belonged to the first batch, Sodhi and her batchmates were viewed with suspicion. The sailors were used to taking orders from men. “Sometimes they were doubtful and would wonder whether to follow what you said or not,” she recalls. “The important thing was convincing people internally that we are here to stay and we need to be taken seriously.”
She met her future husband, who was two years her senior in the navy. “Whenever they could, the navy would post us in the same location. At that time, women officers were not allowed to sail, so we didn’t face the prospect of spending days away from home,” she says.
When her seven-year tenure ended, Sodhi was unsure of what to do. “I could get extensions of two years for a total of 14 years in the navy. But I knew it was not going to be a permanent commission. So I decided to quit the navy and find another career outside,” she says.
She got a job in operations with a media company, but found it difficult to juggle the work with raising her two-year-old. “It was a time of real mental dilemma. I (had) gotten used to that life, I had started enjoying that power and dealing with men. The navy was a male bastion, but I learnt to work the system and was doing well. From that to reach a state of not being sure of what my next career would be was very difficult,” she says.
In the end, her navy training came to her rescue. Sodhi decided to use the physical training she had received as a naval officer and start her own fitness classes. She attended a certification course in 2004 and has been running a fitness programme in Gurgaon ever since.
Now that the prospect of women getting permanent commissions in the Armed Forces is high, Sodhi wishes she had the option of reconsidering her decision to leave. “I loved my job there. I would definitely consider going back if that option was available. But it’s not,” she says.
Despite the fact that she was forced to take a break in her career and subsequently branch out to another profession, Sodhi does not regret her naval stint. “It was the best time of my life. Life outside is just a routine,” she admits.