On the sidelines of History

I write this post with acute self-awareness. To be more precise, acute awareness of the many privileges I enjoy, because of/despite the many labels I carry, and the unique privileged perspective it gives me on the sidelines of history.

I write as an educated woman of Indian origin, and now a British citizen. A self-employed, tax-paying, citizen of a well-established welfare state. And I write as I travel across the English channel in comfort… indeed, some style and romance even, on the  Eurostar.

I travel for work… and every word of this is important: it is fulfilling, cerebral, paid work. Work I enjoy, no less. And work that renews my connection to my roots.

I do so in a week where I witnessed, on a symphony of screens, events that are quite simply, History in the making.

In India, I watched a polarised debate take place, kicked off – as the best debates are! – in a university campus where the drama continues day by day. The debate has sparked intense discussion, as passionate citizens spanning generations search their souls for what their idea of nationalism is. Define what their patriotism looks like. And articulate loud and clear: my nation is bigger than my opinions. But equally, it is bigger than yours!

A demonstrator shouts slogans and waves Indian national flag as she takes part in a protest demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar in New DelhiProud to be a ‘military daughter’ I nonetheless found myself on the fringe as some of my friends, service kids themselves, railed against the JNU students with surprising ferocity and (without taking the time to explore the many facets of the Truth behind all the media clamour) were, perhaps reasonably, outraged at the forgotten sacrifices our soldiers make on the frontiers, guarding a nation that these young ideologues were so ready to challenge, seemingly keen to discard. I was unsettled by the juxtaposition of these two ideas, so I found it deeply reassuring to read this piece by Admiral L. Ramdas, no less than ex-Chief of the Naval Staff, ‘Looking Back, and ahead‘ and concluding: In the ultimate analysis , human security is the best guarantee for National Security. (If it’s a choice between reading on and clicking through to a link – click through to this one now. The Admirable Admiral makes a far more important point, and says it far better than anything I have to say.)

Meanwhile, in my other home country, an equally polarised debate is occupying news space: are we better in the EU or out? What will it mean for us as citizens? And travelling unchecked, unnoticed almost, on my new British passport, I’m reminded again what this debate would have meant as recently as last year – when I would have worried about the implications of this decision on my personal life.

I’m reminded, also, of the many times a Schengen visa (or lack thereof) stopped me, kept me from important life events. The meetings I had to leave to my colleagues. The business opportunities I had to pass up on. The weddings I missed, and the much-loved-from-a-distance children of dear friends that I simply wasn’t able to cuddle when I wanted. I am so glad, today, that I was able to plan this work trip at relatively short notice. But unless we vote to stay in, my red passport may be no guarantee that I shall be able to do so at will in the future.

And then there’s the harsh, but inevitable reminder of yet another privilege I can’t forget: As I chugged across the Channel, cocooned in the comfort of the train, I’m reminded again of the critical difference between a refugee and a migrant. And as I roll up my trusty rain-proof jacket and stow it comfortably above my well-upholstered chair, I’m reminded of the flimsy lifejackets that some refugees (the ‘lucky’ ones) trust the lives of their children to.

In a few hours’ time, I’ll be settling in to a comfortable, conscience-soothing bed at the Conscious Hotel – with sustainability standards, and a commitment to most of the big ethical standards, it works to earn that name. But as I turn in to that comfortable bed, I won’t forget to be grateful for my continuing safety, even as families in Calais face further disruption to their already-troubled lives. Closing their camp, their one refuge, can only mean further displacement, condemn them to continued fleeing for their lives. Can the displaced afford to dream of comfort, security and dignity? How long can the human spirit endure in basic ‘survival’ mode?

no-jungle-1401Displacement and survival bring my thoughts full circle, back to India. Where tribal rights activist Soni Sori was viciously attacked yesterday, as a signal perhaps, to all those who have the audacity to speak up against police brutality, forced displacement of tribals, and the flagrant violation of community forest rights to make way for mining operations.

I like polarised debates, if only because they force people off the fence. Sometimes you can’t afford to be neutral, can’t afford to sit out the fight. So I will continue to play my small part in this history… speaking up where I can, writing some pieces when I can’t, and urging my friends – many with the same privileges I enjoy – to remember those less fortunate than them, invest the time to explore your truth, and pick which side of these Histories you’re going to side with.

Silence is no longer an option.

Following my Ikigai

Ikigai

Recently, I came across this Facebook post about Ikigai (生き甲斐]) a Japanese concept, meaning “a reason for being”. According to the Japanese, everyone has an Ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self.

How fortunate I am to have found my own Ikigai years ago. I didn’t know the term at the time, but I felt myself ‘being rooted’ when I first started working with Greenpeace, in India. No, even before that – I still remember the mounting sense of excitement I felt, reading that recruitment ad and ticking off their checklist. I knew I had learned – and was good at – my job, it involved all that I (then) knew and cared about, I saw how the world needed Greenpeace, and of course, I jumped at the opportunity to ‘get paid for’ the combination! That was it – no deep questions asked, no search of self required. I had my Ikigai.

In the years since, I’ve worked with a bunch of other organisations, of different types and sizes – indeed, some very effective campaigning groups that are too small to even be organised – and have found my centre strengthened for it. (Ok, so I always don’t get paid for it but I figure, if I have to sacrifice one quadrant, it better be that one! And it’s always been a conscious choice: I set up Cause Impact precisely so I could offer my support and professional advice to groups that needed help, but couldn’t always afford it.)

2015 brought me full circle, back to where I first found my Ikigai: Greenpeace India. I went back to ‘my home team’ – as I always thought of them – at a time they were under attack… but as we put it in the very first piece of content I helped to write while there, they were are Undaunted, undefeated, unstoppable.

A few months in, and as 2016 began with the usual annual planning process, I found myself making a much larger commitment than I first intended to, and agreed to support the organisation’s team for this whole year, though one of my top priorities will be to help recruit a Comms Director to replace me. It wasn’t the easiest decision to make – but perhaps that search of self was long overdue?

“You love this work!” I told myself.

“You’re good at this,” they told me.

“It’ll be stable income,” my husband and business partners reminded me.

“They need me,” I told myself, “and the world needs this work; India matters more than ever before.”

But in the end, none of that really matters.

The truth is, I was only following my Ikigai.

Not quite the same story…

Nine years ago, I left my family, my friends and my work in India. There were teary goodbyes, farewell gifts, and large suitcases full of poignant, if useless, reminders of ‘home’. There was nervous excitement, a touch of melancholy, and the overwhelming promise of a new life ahead. A different life, one where I’d need to adapt, where I’d absorb new cultures, evolve a new identity and reinvent the ‘me’ I’d been living for years.

A few weeks ago, Aylan’s family left their home, their friends and their lives in Syria. There may have been teary goodbyes, but I doubt anyone was thinking of gifts. If they did have the room to bring things along, they would most likely have been utilitarian, practical things; things likely to improve their chances of survival away from the destroyed homes they were only too eager to leave. I can only imagine their nervousness, a touch of desperation, and the overpowering hope that life lay ahead. Life. Not ‘a better life’, or ‘a new life’. Just life, as opposed to the constant threat of death they’d been living with for years.

About ten days ago, probably around the same time as Aylan’s family was waiting for the boat that was meant to carry them to their new chance at life, I was waiting too. While they waited, with countless others, on a beach, I waited in the reception room of a beautifully appointed stately old home. While they probably handed over large sums of money to be squeezed up against hundreds of their compatriots in a rickety boat, I simply handed over a piece of paper that I had received in the post, was greeted with effusive smiles and invited to partake of refreshments while I waited, along with people of six other nationalities, to be greeted by officials from my local council.

IMG_3449I remember swallowing a lump in my throat as, with a few simple words, I renounced my citizenship to one country and received the rights to another, to the sound of applause. And now I am haunted by the thought of them, gasping with fear each time their boat was hit by a swelling wave. Each time they saw an official looking boat patrolling the waters.

My journey ended, in one sense, as a little red booklet arrived by messenger. Of course, this is the start of a lifetime of journeys, as the proud bearer of ‘one of the world’s most powerful passports’.

And Aylan’s journey? Well, we don’t need to see that photo again to remind us that he didn’t make it. Not him. Not his brother. Not their mother. Not the hundreds of others who brave the same perilous route to escape their realities in search of life, in a bid to stay alive.

Me, I’m a migrant. A well-integrated, settled one, fortunate to have a home and friends and rights in more than one country, including the right to espouse what one MP has called a ‘pathetic, trendy left-wing view‘ of compassion towards my fellow human beings. Armed with my new passport I can travel at will, including back to a welcoming home country.

Families like those of Aylan? They are refugees. People whose situation in one country was so perilous that their lives literally depended on making it across a border. Their reality is that it is too dangerous for them to return home. Denying them asylum can mean the difference between life and death.

There’s a difference. And it matters.

For now, all I can do is show my support, show that I’m one of those who believe refugees should feel welcome in the UK, and use my newly strengthened voice as a citizen to call on my MP to ‘End the Calais Crisis’.

If you live in the UK too, please will you sign? Several lives do depend on it.

#RefugeesWelcome

From Deja Vu to Determination

I sat in a room at SOAS this week, experiencing deja vu.

A man I hadn’t seen for well over ten years pressed play on this 16 minute film.

Faces I recognised from a long-ago past, told their stories. Deeply personal stories: Of tragedy. Of loss. Of continuing complications.

Familiar as these stories were, when he stood up to speak about the film, there was something even more familiar in the campaigner’s voice: a note of determination, not despair. Considering the community’s long history, despair wouldn’t have felt out of place. It has, after all, been 14 years since their campaign began.

The story is an old one, and has followed an almost predictable routine so far: A big company (with all the accompanying clout, needless to point out) brings toxic technology rejected by the first world into the developing world. People and the environment are exposed to hazardous substances. Symptoms of exposure begin to appear, but doctors are leant on, journalists distracted, and bureaucrats paid off. When determined campaigners expose the reality, and do so enough times to prove impossible to ignore, the company hurriedly shuts up shop, disposes of its toxic inventory (in the most expedient way, of course… often just a few trips to a local dumpsite) and washes its hands of the entire affair.

And that’s when the real tragedy starts to unfold: as the abandoned factory site/toxic dumpsite continues to leach poison in to the local environment, generation after generation of the local citizens continue to suffer. Campaigns are launched, awareness is raised, legal succour is sought… hopes are raised. Dashed. Raised again. Dashed again. The cycle continues, even as the company evades liability and goes on to make mega-profits elsewhere in the world.

It is, of course, shocking that this story is still alive. For it to be told with urgency today can only mean that the ex-workers’ demands have not been met, nor has the environment been cleaned up of the toxic wastes left behind.

But it is heartening too. Heartening because the poison has failed to outlast the community’s determination for justice. Heartening because a new generation of campaigners is being inspired to take up the cause, and preparing to tell the same story: in a hundred new ways, to a hundred different audiences, over and over and over again… until we reach a happy ending.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’ve been enjoying the recently-introduced Facebook memories function, not least because it makes me more aware of what (and who!) I have in my life today, and the eventful journey it took to get here. Yes, not every memory is pleasant, as some users have pointed out, but dare I say, personally it is proving to be an exercise in gratitude for my habit of sharing small pleasures and ignoring (most!) minor irritants.

While most of my Facebook memories seem to celebrate time spent with family and friends – and all those who blur the lines between the two! – every now and then, a more momentous one pops up. Here’s what it showed me on 11th May 2015. (Remember how the old timeline layout forced us to refer to ourselves in the third person?!)

7 years ago:

Namrata Chowdhary updated her status.
has finally moved to London. What a wait!!

Seven years.

That kind of memory forces you to pause, to take stock, to consider… seven years ago, so much was different! Yet so much is the same.

There were friends we hadn’t met yet, and children who weren’t born yet, who would go on to occupy such large chunks of my heart. But there were so many others too, who were there then, had been there before, and are still here for me now.

There were parts of London I hadn’t even explored yet, but would start to call home soon. From that first flat my husband and I moved to in London, we moved not once, but twice; and each time, with each new home, whether large or small, we managed to fill it with the love and laughter of people who mattered. And I always managed to find my piece of the London sky.

There were charities I hadn’t worked with, causes and campaigns I had no clue about, that I would become a passionate advocate for. But considering the inter-connectedness – of values, of causes and of the ‘global campaigner community’ – some things have come full circle with an air of inevitability. Social justice intersected with climate politics,  gender neutrality with child rights, livelihood struggles with ecological principles, animal welfare with disaster preparedness… and almost everything with economic justice and that beautiful, all-encompassing phrase: sustainable development. (I use it with only mild irony.)

The one thing that hasn’t changed at all, though, is the worst fear that expats everywhere must share: the sheer helplessness of being away from your family and friends when tragedy strikes close to home. It takes one news headline, one text or tweet, to send your heart rate soaring and your hands reaching for the phone.

That unchanged reality was brought home today: as I texted back and forth with my parents-in-law about their upcoming visit to our home (and whether or not they should bring banana chips – yes! and home-made ghee – no!), there was a sudden, long gap in the conversation… Followed by a slew of terse messages:

“Just felt tremors and rushed out.”

“Massive earthquake but all well here, do not worry.”

Immediately turning to the news, I realised that the earthquake was centred in Kathmandu again, so my family in Delhi were reasonably safe. But of course, it made me think immediately of the three people I know personally, one of them a good friend, two – actually, all three! – of them ex-colleagues currently in Nepal as part of the international aid effort, and a fourth who has taken up residence there. So I spent the next few hours closely following news reports, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts and the television, hoping to hear good news from these four individuals even as I felt awful for the impact on the people of Nepal.

So yes, in that one regard, nothing has changed in these seven years. And probably won’t for the next seven either. Because at the end of the day, tragedies on this scale only become really real to us when they’re personal. And when you’re an expat (or when you otherwise belong to a group as diverse as international charity workers) somehow, it is always personal. Or becomes that way.

Climbing for a cause

My friend Mitun Gupta is in training, or has been for the last several months, because she is about to go climb the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Can I just repeat that, as it feels even more impressive, every time I say it: the highest free-standing mountain. In the world.

So while I amble along shopping malls, reflecting on pedestrian pace and social etiquette, Mitu trains. HARD. This is how she spent the school half-term holidays, instead of holidaying with her husband and two kids:

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Why is Mitu doing this? To raise funds for another impressive organisation, founded and run by an amazing woman I know personally too. The Khushboo Welfare Society provides care facilities and rehabilitation education for children with mental, often multiple, disabilities  and sensitisation for the support network around these children. They’ve been working – and growing their influence on the lives of more and more children – for the past several years, and I have seen for myself the true passion that drives Sonali Savakoor, their chairperson.

The Khushboo Welfare Society genuinely brings joy to the lives of so many children.

Considering the number of causes and the variety of charities I work with, I make it a point not to fundraise off my friends (I’m at risk of losing most friends anyway, with my often too-passionately declared opinions!) but this time is truly unique: it is a mammoth challenge my friend is undertaking, and for a really small organisation that doesn’t have a marketing-comms-PR machinery running to support its truly meaningful work. (I had to remind myself of that fact as I tried to make my own donation earlier – without an international donation page, you need to first sign up with your actual address indicating which country you’re in. Then log out and log back in, and you’ll be able to make a local currency donation. Sorry it’s complicated but I’m sure they did the best they could!)

So if you can spare a couple of pounds, dollars, or rupees please consider doing so. I know it will be well appreciated – and even more importantly – well spent. Please,  won’t you click here to donate?

And Mitu – YOU GO, GIRL!! I am so proud of you.

Hope is alive in Delhi today!

Today, for me, is about Hope.

Hope is Democracy, that seems to have rediscovered its soul: honest, people-powered, class-less, caste-less and secular at its core.

Hope is an electorate that chooses to engage, that turns out – not just to campaign, but also to vote. And then stays engaged, ready to hold politicians to the promises they made.

Hope is a new page in the politics of India: powered not by the deep pockets and arrogant clout of corporate lobbyists, but by the passion, indeed the desperation, of the common people wanting change. Now.

Hope is also a new class of politicians: willing to admit their mistakes, re-group, review, re-strategise and re-emerge with clear plans and meaningful promises. And yes, they’re willing to laugh at themselves too.

Hope is a city ready for renewal. Hope is the citizen ready to clean up campaigning litter, roll up their sleeves and become partners in governance.

Hope is participation. Real, meaningful, constructive participation.1964928_648494525250311_2231204453461590538_n