Dr Seema Rao is India’s first woman commando trainer, having trained Indian forces and police including Special Forces of India for 20 years without compensation. She is a pioneer in Modern Close Quarter Battle Training (CQB), which is the art of fighting in tight proximity and is involved in training various Indian forces. Her work was partnered by honorary Major Deepak Rao, who received the Presidential Rank Honour from the Indian President for pioneering Modern Close Quarter Battle training for the Indian Army. Dr. Rao is also an alumnus of Westminster Business School as well as a doctor by qualification. In addition, she has authored books that went into FBI, Interpol, and SWAT libraries. She is also a filmmaker. She is also known as India’s Wonder Woman.

In this interview, Ramcharan Reddy interacts with Dr. Seema Rao, who was invited by the EML team, where he talks to her about her life, triumphs in the face of adversity, and experience with the army.

Can you brief us a little about your childhood and early life?

As a child, I was weak constitutionally and I was also bullied in school. I remember being quite an extrovert very early in my life. But later, when I started meeting people of different kinds, people better and smarter than me I became an introvert. However, I was very good academically. I pursued medicine in college. I fell in love with my husband who is also into martial arts. I pursued arts to fill up this weakness inside me. My college life comprised of mostly what a typical student’s would have. There was a lot of dating too and getting to know more about my then future husband. He was helping me reach my maximum potential. We were from similar backgrounds, coming from poor families and we had this longing desire to do something great. We worked towards it with our adventurous attitudes.

Whom do you credit as the biggest influences of your life?

My father was a freedom fighter and then later went on to Head the HSS department in IIT Powai (Bombay). He was very involved in the freedom movement of Goa before it got its independence. He used to talk about his experiences during the freedom struggle on a regular basis by incorporating them in regular day to day conversations and giving meaningful examples and it clearly made a major impact on me. My other influence is definitely my husband, now Hon. Major Deepak Rao. He was there for me and he helped me to move from my weaknesses to my strengths.

What was that one moment or incident that set you on the path that you are on right now?

Being a combat trainer was not my life’s goal at the beginning. I was to become a doctor after pursuing medicine. But as the old saying goes, “Destiny has different plans for you”. I and my husband were very adventurous and we had this craving for strength. We used to do a lot of things to improve our abilities and my mother-in-law didn’t want this happening under her roof and threw us out of the house. We then shifted to Pune, bought a house and planned to open a clinic and wanted to settle down. There was this one day, when we were just walking on the road and saw these soldiers in white clothes training and then this tiny crisp of interest towards pursuing martial arts as a career emerged. We got to know the officer over there, started working a little bit, ended up meeting the army chief, and rest is history.

What is combat training to you as a passion and as a profession?

The mode of combat training I specialised in is the close quarter battle. It deals with engagements that happen at a distance range of 30 yards between soldiers. To me it is a passion because it has a lot to do with protecting the country and has a great sense of serving the country, thus it is something that I excelled in, and it gives me immense satisfaction. As a trainer I train commandoes, for a few special operations I sometimes need to go to the mountains, deserts in scorching heat, jungles, all sorts of water bodies with sometimes leeches crawling over me, I do night exercises which last for hours ending at 3 o’clock, face biting cold, and do all these strenuous and tough tasks but at the end of the day you find an immense sense of satisfaction of doing something worthwhile. At the end of the training, the commandos come and give me a handshake and the genuine sense of respect in their eyes for me is the real trophy I take back.

What adversities did you have to face pursuing a combat and strength based career?

There was a grappling session for the trainees which was almost over and one of the trainees asked me to grapple with him. He threw me and I threw him and later I threw him and totally overpowered him; a typical grapple session. Then, a trainee not a part of the session informed me about my father’s death. At the same moment, a trainee asked for a combat to test his skills. I didn’t know what I thought but I agreed to grapple and he lifted me over his head and threw me down. I landed on my head and when I woke up my husband was there, carrying me and I thought, “What was I doing in this forces camp?”. I was wondering what happened to my memory and there was amnesia too. But I decided in my mind that I didn’t want to give up because running away was a loser’s job and I clung on what I wanted to do.

Next was when I was doing something called monkey roping where you travel across a rope by holding on to it with your hands. The rope broke off and I knew that I had to cling on to the rope because I was at a 5 storey height and leaving the rope would just make my descent easier. I held on to the rope and I was falling like a pendulum. Eventually, I hit the wall on the side of the broken rope I was on. I could hear something crackle, which probably meant that one of my bones or spine had been fractured. I was in excruciating pain. People came to my rescue and I was hospitalised. It was a lot of fractures this time and I was in the hospital for months. That was one of those dry moments in life when you are at crossroads and it can either soften you up and kill your desires or make you harder to face something even worse. And I then decided that this is not something because of which I would give up everything that I had worked on for years. I was stronger than this. But I learned to be cautious yet simultaneously pushed my boundaries to make myself better and reach greater heights.

I was reading about you and saw the collection of books that you have written. Of those, your book named “The King Sperm” really struck me as an interesting title. I read a few pages and it turns out, it’s a biography about your husband. Can you walk us through the conception of this?

The reason why I wrote this book is that my husband got an Honorary Rank (he is commissioned into the Para TA Regiment with the honorary rank of Major) which only 5 people managed to receive since independence. The previous awardees were predominantly sportsmen who played for this nation at several international platforms, whereas my husband was a normal man who dedicated the past twenty years of his life to the Indian Army. It is a remarkably great achievement and I thought I needed to pen his whole life story. The book also talks about the qualities that I believe one should possess for becoming successful at a greater level. What I actually mean when I say “The King Sperm” is that there are millions of sperms but only one makes it to the ultimate destiny. Similarly, everyone has their own set of qualities when we start out but at the end only a few make it to the gates of success.

Is it a metaphor for success?

Yes. Your philosophical beliefs, and your strategies, your resilience all make a lot of impact on the way your life goes and where you reach at the end. Only a few can channel all this in the way they want it and overcome the obstacles and not stop in the middle. Bankruptcy was one for us and we could have just moved back to our parent’s home or fallen back onto our parents for support but we decided not to It is the way it is and we fought against it. So this book as a biography also demonstrates how to strategize in life by prioritising wisely.

How did your husband feel about the book?

As anyone would, my husband asked me not write this but I decided to write it because it is a story that needs to be heard. He was embarrassed at first but he later came to peace with existence of this book and now I think he likes it too.

Do you like writing? How did you make the time to write these 8 amazing books you have authored?

I write the books myself. The feeling that life is short. You have to make time for something you really want to do because you know there is only one life. It’s hard, it’s not easy to manage a lot of things but you give your best shot and try to do something

What is your response to a common question “How do you manage time between career and family?” posed particularly to women with successful professional careers?

The question makes me think, how do I manage all that I do. Professionally me and my husband are together. We are not together because of work but back at home we relax and chill at the garden or watch TV or chill out or walk or just talk, talk a lot and I think that’s the best way to stay together. Even my daughter is into martial arts, so I teach and advise her. We are a small happy family with very little needs and lesser aspirations, yet very personal aspirations. Materialism in our family is minimal and I believe that is the reason why we could stay this close, connected and happy.

Stats show that women comprise less than 4 percent of our armed forces. What is your take on the status of women in the military and the oft cited attribution of lack of physical strength to women?

I think all those things are changing. A lot of women are going into these posts. I believe that a woman could physically as strong as a man if trained properly and she could do everything a man could do.

Any final thoughts?

I am very glad to be here. My father, if he were alive would been very happy to know that I was invited to IIT Madras and I am going to address all these young students, young minds who are just starting out in life.

Note: The interview is entirely in the first person narrative of Dr. Seema Rao and her responses to questions are mostly written verbatim, with a few alterations to fill subtexts that were clear in her speaking. T5E bears the sole responsibility for any comments or questions that may arise out of this feature. 

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