India has an ocean ambassador, we just don’t know it yet. Miss Scuba International Varsha Rajkhowa, an environmentalist, choreographer and national-level swimmer, won her title last in November, beating 16 countries including the US, UK and Netherlands at the final rounds in Malaysia. It’s the first time India participated at the eight-year-old pageant and won, creating history. While the news was splashed in the foreign media, in India, it’s like it never happened, says the beauty with a purpose.
She’s in Delhi trying to get an appointment with Maneka Gandhi, minister for women and child development, before leaving for Mumbai for a diving meet, followed by a trip to Shanghai or the Philippines as part of her duties as ocean ambassador. I meet the 25-year-old, who has a master’s in environmental sciences, with a specialisation in wastewater engineering, for coffee in Janpath, where she has braved the rush-hour morning metro from Gurgaon to meet me, hoping to get featured in the mainstream media. “I want the government to give me a platform, so that I can talk about issues related to marine life and water; by 2025, water will be as valuable as gold, if we aren’t careful,” she tells me.
The contest, hosted last year at Sutera Harbour Resort in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia is unique, since all participants have to be licensed scuba divers. Already a swimmer, Varsha learnt scuba diving from an academy in Pune, where she is based, to be able to compete. It was easy, she says, since she’s perfectly at home in the water and is able to control her breathing, critical underwater. The marine world was a revelation as she dived down 70ft at Havelock island in the Andamans, pausing to be mesmerised by schools of fish swimming above her, spotting ‘Nemos’ and ‘Dorys’, besides parrot fish, which have “mouths like parrot beaks”. At Sipadan in Malaysia, where the finals took place, the group of eight girls she went underwater with, encountered giant sea turtles and even had a shark swim towards them. But, as Varsha discovered, “Sharks are harmless. I saw around eight sharks in the water; in fact, once they smell there’s an alien body in the water, they usually move away. I even saw a shark suspended in the water, asleep. The presence of sharks also proves the existence of a healthy ecosystem.” The colourful coral at Sipadan was a contrast from the bleached ones at the Andamans, which showed the dipping quality of the water, thanks to pollution due to rampant tourism and plastics and other waste being thrown into the ocean. “All this affects ocean currents, which leads to climate change,” she warns.
As part of her preparation, Varsha and the other competitors, were called on to prepare PowerPoint presentations on the environment at the national-level rounds held in Goa, where a representative from the international franchise was present to grade them. Once she got to Malaysia to compete at Miss Scuba International, they were asked to compete in unique games, such as hunting for artificial sea turtle eggs on the seaside and building hatcheries. They were also tested on their scuba diving skills, to ensure nobody was faking it. What helped Varsha win? “When I saw the girls there, I thought I didn’t have a chance. I’m quite aware of my strengths and weaknesses. I’m not a beauty like Aishwarya Rai, but I focused on my background as an environmentalist.”
Varsha is also hoping to get a sponsor, who can help her cause and who she would need when she travels to Malaysia to pass on the crown later in the year. So far, her efforts have been supported by her family, financially and otherwise. She states, “My mother has stitched over 25 costumes for my national and international pageant, staying up late into the night, with the help of a master ji. My sister Divyani has helped with my styling and a friend, Rohit Verma, edited my video introduction.” Her father, a retired Air Force officer, has funded her dreams. Remarks Varsha, “I just want to make them proud.”
Born in Assam, Varsha spent her growing years across India because of her defence background. And, now, she wants to give back to her country as an ambassador of ocean and marine life. We hope she gets that chance!
(The writer is an editorial consultant and co-founder of The Goodwill Project. She tweets @anuvee) Views expressed are personal.