India’s first female surfer takes on more than waves

The World
Ishita Malaviya catches a wave along the west coast of India.

In a small fishing village on the west coast of the Indian state of Karnataka, waves from the Indian Ocean waves pound the shoreline. That's fine with Ishita Malaviya. She's a surfer, and not just any surfer — she's the first and only professional female surfer in India.

But hopefully not for long. When Malaviya's not competing, she's busy teaching Indian kids how to surf at the Shaka Surf Club.

Malaviya says her love affair with surfing started seven years ago when she and her friend, Tushar Pathiyan, came to the nearby city of Manipa to attend the university there. During a break from school, they met a couple of surfing swamis — translation: surfer dudes from California.

"They pushed us in our very first waves, and ever since then it was like a life change," Malaviya says. "We fell in love with surfing so much and we had to try to make it work because surfing is so unheard of in India."

Eventually, that love morphed into the surf school, which she manages along with Pathiyan. "It was, like, pretty out there to decide to start a surf school," she admits. "But we just love it so much and basically just wanted to spread the joy of surfing in India and spread the stoke."

Malaviya says being an Indian woman meant there were obstacles and cultural barriers that stood between her and surfing. At the start, her parents didn't understand her passion for surfing. "My family was definitely apprehensive at first. I mean, from day one, they just didn't get the whole idea behind it," Malaviya remembers. "They asked questions like 'what is surfing?' and 'You just went to college, so why do you want to surf?'"

It took Malaviya's parents a while to understand that surfing was more than a sport or a one-time thing — instead, it was a lifestyle. But, she says, "After I took my parents surfing, I think they started getting it." 

Nowadays, when she teaches young women to surf, she has to overcome what she says is a natural fear of the ocean. "In India, generally, there's a major fear of the ocean. People just don't feel safe in the water," Malaviya says. "So just encouraging women to get in the water has been quite a challenge, but I feel like its slowly changing."  She says she gently persuades girls to just get in the water, and "the ocean does the rest. I don't have to do much."

As India's first professional female surfer, Malaviya. gets to travel to represent India and also competes in surfing events around the country — all while running the surfing workshops and managing the Shaka Surf Club. Which does she prefer?  

"Oh definitely, spreading the joy of surfing, hands down," Malaviya says. "Really I'm a pretty new surfer. I've only been surfing seven years. I spend most of my time at my surf school teaching all the local kids and girls, and people who come from the big cities, how to surf." 

Spreading the joy of surfing. That, she says, is what it's all about: "I've seen people go from being terrified of the ocean to just loving it and feeling so confident and empowered. To be able to give that, to share our feeling with someone, that's very special. Definitely, spreading the stoke."

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