Exuberance and spirit shine abundantly in 32-year-old Ekta Kapoor’s voice alone. The Nainital-born fitness trainer is as vibrant as one can be, so it’s hard to remember that there was a time when her life wasn’t as blissful as it is today. Just like the filmy connotations of her name, you could say her life has been like a movie, but combined with harsher realities.
Ekta was raised by a single father, who was a teacher at Birla Vidya Mandir in Nainital. Her mother left when she was still very young. Her father was warned about raising a child alone, but old stereotypes were no match for the immense love he held for his daughter. Ekta spent her childhood with her father’s family, and says she built a strong bond with her tai ji (aunt), who she says was like a mother to her.
“My father worked hard to raise me,” Ekta tells The Better India. “But he was doing this alone, and had a lot more responsibilities to juggle. He even used to walk to and from school every day — our house was in town, and the school was uphill. I struggled with studies in my younger days, which I understand, because he sometimes didn’t get time to dedicate to me while earning a livelihood for our family. I also didn’t focus much on my nutrition, which subsequently affected my immunity. Regardless, I learned how to be independent at a very young age.” She was always inclined towards sports, and played outdoors with the boys in her school. This, she says, helped build her confidence and extrovertness.
‘I faced non-criminalised marital rape’
When she turned 18 years old, Ekta was married off. This, she says, was her first life-changing moment. “There’s an increased sense of pressure when it comes to the future of an only child, especially in terms of marriage. My case was no different. That time, around 15-18 years ago, was a little different from today, especially in a small town like Nainital. So I was married off, with the assumption that my life would be smooth sailing thereon,” she recalls.
But her marriage was only the beginning of what was to come. After she moved to her in-laws’ home, she realised that her husband and his family had not disclosed many truths regarding his professional life, including his age. When these details became abundantly clear, Ekta and her father knew she could no longer remain in the marriage.
“I was very young, and not ready for a physical relationship,” she recalls, and adds, “I didn’t even know much about sex. Moreover, he was just my husband for namesake, and I did not share a real bond with him. Despite that, I faced marital rape, something which isn’t even categorised as rape in our society. At the time, I wasn’t even aware of what had happened, but I left the house, and went back to Nainital. I was devastated.” But words like ‘divorce’ and ‘separation’ came with heavy societal repercussions.
“I suddenly lost grasp over where my life was going. My education and career were suffering because I was mentally disturbed. Things also change when you’re just branded as a divorcee. People at family gatherings would come up to me with pity in their eyes and ask me all sorts of questions. I also had to hear some comments like ‘Iske saath toh bachpan se hi aisa ho raha hai (this has been happening to her since her childhood)’. I became depressed, and tried to take my own life a few times,” she says.
Trying to end her life once landed her in hospital but here’s where she found out she was pregnant. “My haemoglobin was really low, and my body and immunity were severely weak. I had to undergo several procedures to stabilise my health and pregnancy,” she says, adding that her father was an unending pillar of support throughout her pregnancy. “He did everything in his capacity to stand by me. He has always been a mother and father to me.”
Ekta was told that she should give her daughter up for adoption so the child could have the support of both parents. “But I was not going to let my daughter go through what I went through. Even if she were to find a loving family, she might’ve always held resentment against me. I didn’t want that for her. I decided that no matter how life was going to turn out from here, I would raise her myself,” she says.
And her daughter’s birth was a turning point for her. Around the time her daughter turned three, Ekta briefly left her in the care of her grandfather and moved to Delhi to start working on her career. She had spent the last few years pursuing her college degree from a private institution in Nainital, while raising her daughter. “I stayed with my relatives in Delhi for a while, and explored what my options could be. I began my career with aviation but tried everything,” she adds.
Searching for her ‘sense of purpose’
And when Ekta says everything, she means it literally. “True to my name, I even attended Ekta Kapoor’s [film director] acting classes. I tried my hands at fashion designing, finance, hospitality, and even teachers’ training. But I never found happiness or stability in the work I was doing,” she says.
Ekta’s brother offered her and her daughter to come live with his family in Canada. Her father decided it would be better for her to remarry. But she requested him for more time so she could find her sense of purpose. At the same time, a friend reminded her of her proclivity for sports in her younger days, and suggested she join a fitness certification programme.
“When I started studying for a fitness course, and opened the book for the first time, everything clicked. I’d never been able to fully grasp academics in my younger days, but this, I could absorb with ease. It felt absolutely natural,” she says. Ekta followed this feeling all the way to Mumbai, where she relocated in 2014.
She says a life-changing moment came when she joined the YMCA and began yoga training classes there, while looking for a job to sustain herself. She found one in Fitness First, for which she had to give a preliminary exam. There were many extraordinary details of the new journey Ekta was embarking upon — particularly that of Shashank, her now husband.
“Destiny works in mysterious ways,” Ekta smiles, “I arrived in Mumbai on 1 April, and so did he. I joined Fitness First on 1 June, and so did he. He was from Uttarakhand too. We didn’t know each other at all, and yet, there were so many connections. I was a fresher in this industry, and was much senior in terms of his experience. I learned a lot from him. In fact, he has been the biggest source of guidance for me through my journey in this industry, and there has been no stopping us since.”
Shashank and Ekta would work out together, and he would instruct and guide her through the process, slowly helping her regain her confidence. He told her about various competitions and courses in the industry.
Finding liberation in fitness
“The only thing that had always been lacking in my life was a sense of direction. I found it in Shashank, and the industry. Today, I have competed in national and international competitions. I am an MBA graduate, an internationally certified fitness trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), certified kettleball champion by the International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation (IKFF), a gold-winning national champion in powerlifting, a state (Uttarakhand) record holder in powerlifting, and co-founder of Mountstrong Personal Fitness Studio in Dehradun with my husband. It is Uttarakhand’s first premium personal training studio,” Ekta says.
At Mounstrong, clients are offered Personal Training (PT) and Group Personal Training (GPT), with an aim to help them achieve sustainable results in their health and fitness goals. The studio designs and delivers training programmes keeping in mind, say, a client’s busy schedule and other factors that ensure the regime is suitable for everyone. Ekta says the studio primarily focuses on women.
Together, Shashank and Ekta dream of a life where they can help many others realise the importance of putting your health first. “We want people to know how mentally liberating fitness can be. Health facilitates your very mental wellbeing, and can be very cathartic to getting out of a hard situation,” she says.
“Exercise brought me love, recognition and adoration. When I first got a gold medal in powerlifting, people finally knew me as a hard worker in the fitness industry, and not as someone with a rough past. I never wanted anyone’s pity. Fitness helped me achieve that,” she says.
Today, Shashank, Ekta and their daughter, now 12 years old, live in Dehradun. Ekta says Shashank has only immense love and support to give to their daughter. “He loves her from the bottom of his heart. I’m very lucky and fortunate to have this family,” she says.
Ekta says, “I can’t speak for anyone else, but my journey in this field has only given me love and care. I lift the same weights as a man, and I have worked hard to get here. This is not just an industry for men — if a woman wants to imbibe this lifestyle, no one can stop her.”
Ekta adds, “I wanted to bring my story forward because I know how many women suffer through similar experiences. My hope is that they are inspired enough to never let go of their own dreams, to carry on through all adversity while knowing that they have the right to lead their own lives. I say, ‘If I can do it, so can you’. Give your life, and your loved ones, a chance to love you back.”