On Monday, the Indian Railways will bid farewell to one of its biggest heroes ever.
For the past 20 years, Rachel Thomas, like Clarke Kent, has been just a bespectacled, 9-to-5 executive at the Northern Railway office in Connaught Place. For most times.
At other times, she has been jumping off airplanes at 12,000 feet and bringing home all sorts of accolades, including the Padma Shree, for being India’s first woman skydiver.
“You let yourself fall from 12,000 feet at an incredible 180 miles an hour. Words can’t describe how it feels. Nothing else in the world can give you that high,” says the 52-year-old grandmother.
For this army officer’s wife, it began 25 years ago as a curious adventure after watching army-men skydive. “The first time I jumped was also my first time on an aircraft,” she giggles.
“But it could have also become my last as I goofed up completely.” A novice Rachel clung on to the rear of the aircraft for dear life even after taking the plunge. “I could have been sucked into the propeller, bringing down the entire plane.” She was a mother of two then.
With time Rachel kept going higher with each of her career total of 650 jumps all over the world.
“I remember all the jumps vividly because I had to literally earn each of them. In India, skydiving is almost out of bounds for civilians. So it could never be a career option for me,” she says.
But in the limited scope as a railway employee, Rachel has seen it all in skydiving.
Apart from the Padma Shree, she won the National Adventure Sports Award — equivalent to the Arjuna Award — several times; she was the first Indian to become an international judge in skydiving; she skydived with the likes of Prince Charles; and she was one of the very few to skydive on the North Pole at -51 degrees Celsius, in the middle of a blizzard.
“I had six layers of clothing and two sets of gloves on, but still it was bone-chilling to say the least,” she recalls.
Looking at her workplace, a sleepy, sarkari railway office, it is difficult to fathom why someone who looked death in the eye for fun could push files alongside for 20 years. But she says she was compelled by India’s ignorance in adventure sports.
“Railways recognised me as a sportsperson at a time when very few in India understood this sport and no one wanted to back it. Only Railways made sure that I could go on,” says this poster girl of Railways’ sports patronage.
That’s why she planted a flag of ‘150-years of Indian Railways’ at the North Pole in 2002.
With Rachel retiring, the payroll of the world’s biggest commercial utility employer will look a lot paler from Monday.