Year 1981: Col Narendra ‘Bull’ Kumar, a mountaineering legend and Everest hero, led the first Indian military expedition into the heart of Siachin- the largest alpine glacier on earth. It paved the way for Indian forces to occupy these strategic heights and set up a permanent base in 1987.
It was left to Col Kumar’s son Akshey Kumar and daughter in law Dilshad Master to relive that momentous moment 35 years later. In fact, Dilshad became the first and only female to ever lead a civilian trek to this highly militarized glacier zone – all of this after undergoing three major surgeries for cancer.
She recounts her cancer journey as yet other adventure: “I had to deal with the unknown, collaborate with my doctors, and discover what I was truly capable of.” She realized that time is way too short for planning anything. I live by the taglines of my two favourite brands: ‘Just Do It’ and ‘Impossible Is Nothing’, she says only half seriously.
Dilshad draws inspiration from the rivers and mountains: “when the spirit begins to deflate a bit, I know it’s time for another trek, or another rafting expedition or just another adventure!”
Born to Parsi parents – Jal Master (who worked for Tata group) and Nargish -Dilshad has always been interested in adventure and taking up challenges.
A born fighter- not to be chained to comfort zone she was determined to pursue her passion. Used to living dangerously, the first time Dilshad landed in a hospital emergency ward was when she was just 24. Driving home after a theatre rehearsal in Bangalore, her car had a head on collision with a speeding bus.
“The entire right side of my body was bruised and bleeding and I was barely in my senses. I asked my father why this was happening to me? And he said, ‘Darling, why not you? What is so special about you?’ I have never forgotten his words,” says Master.’
Soon after her college, Dilshad’s two decade multi-channel broadcasting career stared with STAR Movies and Zee Cinema in early 1990s. As Head of Operations, she went on to launch STAR Plus Hindi and STAR News, and as Senior Vice President of STAR TV, she was responsible for the launch of the STAR brand in UK.
Dilshad has also worked as head of Indian operations of The History Channel where she guided its ‘Indianization’.
She also was Chief Operating Officer of UTV Entertainment where she launched two more television channels.
As Senior Vice President of National Geographic Channel heading Programming and Marketing, she was responsible for introducing Indian content on the international channel. Incidentally, National Geographic Channel was a competitor to Discovery Channel where the reviewer worked during that time.
As senior executive, her job at some of these networks involved devising shows and deputing production teams across the country. But she herself wanted to go out and be part of the shooting crews. It was then she decided to quit the corporate world and pursue her passion for travel, trekking and adventure sports.
She joined her husband’s Mercury Himalaya Explorations Ltd. as their head of marketing and business development – ‘the best career decision of my life!’, she says.
This new assignment took her to many places in India and the world. Over time Gulmarg become her second home. She conducts training programs in skiing and organizes adventure tours. “I think Kashmir should be on everyone’s bucket list – if you haven’t seen Kashmir, you really haven’t travelled much have you”? Rather humoursly she adds ‘ if Kashmir had been a man, I would have married him.’
However, the year 2012 threw up an unexpected and totally different challenge for Dilshad. She was diagnosed with stage one carcinoma (breast cancer).
“I handled the cancer in pretty much the same way, and this time, I had my husband, in-laws and my mother and brother playing similar roles. I was back in surgery within three weeks of the first one and from then on, the focus was just to get back on my feet, get my energies back, and move on. I’m a firm believer in the adage “this too shall pass”.
Her first surgery at a hospital in Delhi did not go well at all. She was referred to a brilliant doctor at Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai who successfully completed the surgery.
“I think it’s important to not stereotype the disease and make it all the more difficult for patients. For women in particular, the stigma of being bald needs to be dealt with. The most beautiful thing a woman can ever wear is self-reliance and confidence,” she adds.
If there was anything that cancer taught me it was to really embrace life and the time you have left,” she says.
The Everest Base Camp Trek had been on her Just Do It list for over 11 years; May 2014 finally saw Dilshad at 17,598 feet! In the same year, she achieved another dream trip along with her husband – the Zanskar Water Rafting Expedition!
As expected, the passion for adventure and travel runs in the family. Her school going daughter Saira (named after Sai Baba whose devotee Dilshad is) accompanies her on most of these trips.
Conferred with several awards – Dilshad loves writing about her travels and uses social media tools to urge friends to get off their behinds and see the world. She is also the co- founder of a crowd-sourced collaborative e-magazine called FarInto Traveller that connects travelers with like-minded people for the perfect travel experience
For the younger generation who are hooked to laptops and mobiles, and are now forced to WFH because of Covid 19, Dilshad has this to say: “I think it’s very important to be cold and wet and hungry. To live away from our smart phones and tablets. To be uncomfortable and exhausted. Because that’s when the real me emerges. Away from the trappings of civilized comfort, that’s when I truly find what I am capable of.”
Dilshad has travelled across more than 20 countries but she thinks she hasn’t even scratched the surface yet. “So many more left – I get depressed every time I see the marching line up getting longer and longer at an Olympics opening ceremony!” she laughs.
(The author is a noted management & media professional/ educator, and works for reputed Apeejay Education Society, New Delhi)