Originally published on 27 April 2015.
In the water, you can feel like a genie liberated from a lamp. You can be free, exhilarated, terrified, sheepish, exhausted, ready for more. What you don’t need is your instructor turning predator. My cousin was also assaulted by Dhirendra Rawat the first time she went scuba diving. Thankfully, that didn’t kill her love for the sea.
“Do you think that might be Pooja’s guy?”
My roommate looked at me for an answer. She’d just sent me the link to an article on Youth ki Awaaz, in which a woman said she was molested by her scuba diving instructor – a man named Dhirendra Rawat – at Shiroor near Udupi in Uttara Kannada district. Some years before, the same thing had happened to my cousin, who I will call Pooja, when she’d gone diving near Mangalore. I didn’t know the man’s name or too many details about what happened to Pooja, so I created a mental note-to-self to ask Pooja about it, shrugged in my roommate’s direction, picked up my bag, went off to work that morning, and forgot all about it for a few days.
But the newspapers brought it up again on Thursday, reminding me of tiny fragments from conversations with Pooja that seemed to echo the words printed on the page in front of me. It appeared the man had molested other women before, and two of them had filed police complaints – he’d been arrested and, according to a report, was out on bail and working again without a permit from the district administration in Uttara Kannada. When I finally did call Pooja to check if it was the same man – and get it out of the way once and for all – I asked if she’d read about the scuba diving instructor in the news. She hadn’t, but when I asked her the name of the man who had molested her, her reply was instant: “Something Rawat.”
In January 2012, Pooja had gone on holiday to Mangalore with her parents and brother. None of them had been diving before or received any training, but they were excited to try it out. (While you usually need to be trained and certified to scuba dive, there’s the option of doing “hand-held” dives, where no prior knowledge is needed and an instructor leads you all the way.) Through Turtle Bay, a resort they were staying at near Udupi, they contacted a dive operator named Dreamz Diving. All four of them went out to sea in a boat, along with another girl staying at the resort who was diving by herself, and a group of instructors including Rawat, the beefy middle-aged man leading their little expedition, who chatted with Pooja’s father along the way.
On reaching the dive site, Pooja’s mother chickened out of diving at the last minute and stayed on the boat, but the other three first-time divers were very excited and went ahead. They were helped into their scuba apparatus (over the regular clothes they were wearing – no one wore a wetsuit or swimwear) and, each accompanied by an instructor, jumped into the sea. Rawat assigned Pooja’s father and brother a diving instructor each – choosing Pooja for himself – and they split up to begin their slow descent into the gorgeous, pristine waters off the Konkan coast.
Before the dive, everyone had received some basic training from Rawat – how to signal if things were okay (instructors frequently check underwater to make sure everything is going smoothly); how to indicate if something was not okay; how to say you wanted to go up to the surface if you’d had enough. On their dive, Rawat took Pooja far away from the boat, pointing out things of interest along the way, as instructors generally do. The water was wonderfully clear and beautiful – the experience was breathtaking. But while on the dive, Rawat held on to Pooja’s body as if it were necessary in order to navigate; as she’d never dived before, she wasn’t certain about whether or not this was standard procedure. Gradually, he began to caress her, and she kept moving his hand away, but he kept at it tirelessly as if to see how long it would take before she gave up.
When he asked her if she was okay, she signaled that she wasn’t. (Later, she told me, when she did this, he shrugged in a “What’s the big deal, baby?” way.) When she persistently signaled that she wanted to go back up to the surface, he took her up, and treading on the water, asked what was wrong. She said she wanted to end the dive and go back to the boat, which seemed a considerable distance away. He indicated that they would, and said that they would have to get past a current (the easiest way to avoid being tired out by trying to fight a current at the surface is to dive below it – it makes swimming easier).
They descended again, but Pooja realised he seemed to be taking her further away than expected, and deeper than before. There seemed to be a hundred beautiful things to look at then, and she focused her attention on an eel that she thought looked cute – it seemed such a contrast to the slimy man with her, and for a moment she forced herself to zone out and focus on the eel. That’s when she felt Rawat’s hands on her again, and she grabbed his wrist firmly and pushed him away. She was also surprised by how exhausted she had become by that time, and Rawat was so much bigger than she was – she didn’t know what she could do. She signaled continuously that she was not okay and wanted to go back to the surface. But when she got back to the boat, the others seemed to have finished much earlier and were already aboard. Her father and brother were thrilled at what they’d just seen and done, but Pooja was in shock, and too tired to confront Rawat or argue with anyone on the boat ride back.
Later, on the bus back to their accommodation, she told her family about it, but didn’t describe what had happened in too much detail. Her family informed the resort, and a senior staff member there agreed it was a serious complaint, and said he’d tell Dreamz Diving about it. He also suggested that she write to Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the international organisation that certifies divers and instructors, and Pooja said she would.
“I didn’t think it was something that could be taken to the cops or anything,” she told me after the news reports about Rawat surfaced this week. At the time, while her family had been supportive, the few friends she’d told about what happened didn’t think it was a serious matter. One friend, who’d been diving before, annoyingly assumed that Pooja might be worried that she had ‘done something’ to ‘provoke’ the man, and another seemed to think Pooja was overreacting. “I told myself that maybe I really was making a big deal of nothing. I did think of getting back home and writing to PADI about it, the way the resort staff had suggested, but didn’t. And soon after the whole thing actually happened, I didn’t tell the others about it in front of Rawat, because I didn’t want to look at his face.”
* * *
In November 2012, Pooja, two common friends and I went to the Andamans to complete the final stage of our scuba diving course for beginners. Fortunately for Pooja, the thrill of diving hadn’t been overshadowed by her Mangalore experience.
We’d begun our course in a swimming pool in Bangalore, learning from scratch how to breathe underwater with the scuba apparatus, how to assemble and take apart our scuba gear, what to do in case of emergencies and – importantly – the sign language we needed to communicate with our “dive buddy” and instructor. The theek-hai symbol of a palm with the thumb and index finger forming a circle indicated that things were fine. It was both question and answer. All okay? our instructors would signal after every task. All okay, we’d flash back if we were fine. Not okay was signaled by keeping one’s palm parallel to the ground, facing downwards, and tilting it from side to side. Like telling the onion lady at the market to stop piling the darn things into your basket.
During our initial lessons taken in the safety of a swimming pool, I’d learned just how difficult it was to be graceful as a beginner. If you aren’t a natural water baby – or even if you are – the odd sensation of wearing heavy equipment but still seeming weightless in water takes getting used to. I’d roll over without provocation, or float upwards when I meant to descend, or remain firmly on the surface despite desperately trying to join everyone else at the bottom. I relied rather heavily on our instructors to yank me down, or pull me up, or show me what to do when I got things wrong. And that was just in the swimming pool.
Out in the sea, things were different. Except for Pooja, none of us had done this before, and as exhilarating as it was to be diving in the open sea amidst coral and cucumbers and varieties of fish, it was plain terrifying at times. If you sank too quickly, the pressure in your ears would be excruciating; if you rose too quickly, you risked tearing a lung as pressure eased and the air in your lungs expanded; if you panicked and held your breath instead of breathing steadily, you might pass out. We were trained by wonderful instructors who were respectful at all times, and in theory, we knew what to do. But in practice, we would still shoot towards the surface despite our best efforts to stay level with the others, and on several occasions, without the intervention of our instructors, we could easily have sustained dangerous injuries. As beginners and first-timers in the sea (not counting Pooja), our safety was entirely in their hands.
Of course, as we progressed through the course, we were in better control and the sea’s eerie silence and endless expanse grew considerably less terrifying. Swimming with my scuba gear 10 metres underwater felt, to me, like the closest thing to being able to fly. Hovering upright in the same spot, facing my instructor doing the same with his arms folded as if it were the most natural thing in the world, it felt like we were genies, free from a lamp lost somewhere on the sea floor.
But the transition wasn’t as smooth for all of us. Being several feet underwater as a newbie can make you feel deeply vulnerable, and one member of our group wasn’t as comfortable diving as she could have been. One scene in particular remains etched on my mind: at the end of a 40-minute dive with my dive buddy and instructor, as we were practicing a slow ascent (which is necessary at the end of a dive – a slow ascent gives your body time to adjust to the changes in pressure and prevents the painful build up of nitrogen bubbles in your joints) my buddy panicked and rose faster than she should have. I remember reaching out and grabbing her leg to stop her from shooting to the surface, while she flailed and clutched at anything she could find – which happened to be the instructor’s hair. The three of us rose this way, painfully and comically slow, each attached to the other in a ludicrous tableau.
Out of the water, we were a bunch of girls in holiday mode. Before we went on holiday, we’d agreed, giggling, that whatever happened in the Andamans would stay in the Andamans. We’d heard stories of how male diving instructors at resorts were veritable babe magnets, and got plenty of action out of the water. “They get laid practically every night!” went one account. “All those women far away from home, and only a few hunky instructors to go round!” At our accommodation the diving instructors were hunky alright – and they could save you with their pinky if you were drowning, no sweat. We joked amongst us about getting some action ourselves, but if Lady Luck was listening, she was definitely pretending not to have heard.
While chatting in the common area at our accommodation while on holiday, Pooja brought up what had happened to her in Mangalore. The contrast in her two diving experiences brought home again just how much a violation of trust between learner and instructor had occurred. And one of our friends on the trip who had appeared skeptical of Pooja’s account when she first confided in her about it soon after it happened, confessed that it wasn’t until she’d been diving herself that she realised just how powerless you could be as a beginner.
* * *
Rawat’s targeting of women seems to follow a pattern. He clearly felt that both assaulting women and having some of them file police complaints wouldn’t affect his life much. According to one report, Rawat is now working for a dive company suitably called Exploita Scuba Diving in Goa. Bizarrely, a spokesperson for the company reportedly said, when contacted, “Tell me which corporate entity doesn’t have cases against it?”, but also denied knowledge about the molestation charges.
“Maybe I should have given a complaint,” Pooja told me on the phone this week. “But I didn’t want to complain at the time. I didn’t want to see him again. I blanked out the details of what happened so that I could move on. And it really never occurred to me that it was a matter for the police then.” I told her I wanted to write about what had happened, and though I was apprehensive about how she would respond, she seemed cheerful about it. “Amma and Appa will be very happy that it’s come out,” she told me when we spoke again.
This morning, she told me she felt relieved speaking about it – she hadn’t been able to talk about it in much detail before. We chatted about the news report some more, and I asked if she’d be open to filing a police complaint about it now.
“Yeah,” she said, after a pause. “I wouldn’t mind.”
(Image credit: Pixabay)