Monday, May 5, 2014

The 'proud Bihari' from Britain

“Can I speak a proper sentence in English? Can I communicate with people? Can I own a car? Can I learn to drive? Will I be able to take my children to playschool and other places on my own...?”

Asha Khemka only had questions in mind when she came to Britain in 1978 with her husband, leaving her sleepy hometown in Sitamarhi, Bihar. All of twenty-five then, and a mother to three children, she taught herself English by watching children's television and talking to other young mothers. After spending 20 years as a housewife, she obtained a Business Degree from Cardiff University, before deciding on a career in Further Education.

Now, she is Dame Asha Khemka and also principal and chief executive at West Nottinghamshire College. The Damehood – one of Britain's highest civilian award – was recently awarded to her in recognition of her contribution to education.

Her never-say-die spirit, persistence and quest for education has won her several accolades and awards including an Order of the British Empire in 2009, ‘Asian Women of Achievement’, ‘National Jewel Award’, ‘Business Women of the Midlands’ and ‘Inspirational Women of the Year’.

At present, she is also the founding chair of the Association of Colleges in India – an organization aimed at progressing links between educational institutions in the UK and in India.

In an interview to Meenakshi Iyer, Dame Asha Khemka says that if India is to keep pace with the growth potential and its own ambitious plans then it needs to invest more heavily in infrastructure. She doesn’t mind being called a ‘Bihari’ and says there is something about Bihar that makes people a success...

Your journey from Bihar to Britain has been quite eventful. What role did Britain play in shaping what you are today?

My journey has certainly been very eventful – I have benefitted enormously from two great cultures – the entrepreneurial spirit, drive and determination of India and the opportunities and freedoms that were afforded to me when I came to Britain. I always say that India made me but Britain enabled me to follow my dreams and to make a real difference. 

Britain and British people recognized my strengths and recognized the contribution I could make – the communities that I currently serve of Mansfield and Ashfield very much embraced me and my vision for what the college and the community had to offer, without their support I would not have been able to achieve all I have achieved. 

However my personality, who I am and the reason I am so driven is a mixture of the two cultures. I am very driven. I don’t take no for an answer and am also very creative and entrepreneurial in finding solutions to issues.  These are very Indian as well as British traits! 

I am sure it wouldn't have been easy to reach where you are today. Tell me about the problems you faced and how you overcame them, especially in a foreign country.

I don’t see problems. Challenges are there to be overcome, and in overcoming them we learn something and are stronger and wiser as a result. There is no doubt that coming to Britain was challenging, I arrived with my three small children and very little English I had to get to know this strange country, its culture and traditions. I remember seeing snow for the very first time and slipping in my sandals, very soon I bought different shoes and was able to walk – I often use this analogy to describe life  - it is not the challenges that life throws at us that define us but how we respond to those challenges that make us who we are.

I have a very positive outlook; I always look for the opportunity in any challenge because the two go hand in hand. But of course there have been challenges, when people perhaps didn’t take me seriously to start off with, getting told that what I wanted to achieve was not possible. But I keep going and I have single minded focus on the goal, knowing that eventually we will get there in the end.

What is it that you miss most about your home state? Having said that, how do you think Bihar has fared over the years?

The development in Bihar over recent years has been impressive the current chief minister is doing a good job to improve infrastructure and improve life chances of the people that live there. There is still some way to go but progress is being made. 

I miss the people of Bihar the most. They are entrepreneurial, determined and many of them have gone on to great things overseas. Since receiving my Damehood, I have been contacted by people from Bihar who now live all over the world, without exception they are excelling in whatever they have chosen to do.

"Do we really need to prove we are Indians?"

Jean RĂ©gis Ramsamy, a historian and a journalist with Reunion Premiere television, strives to seek and restore his roots in India. And in the process, he has become a strong voice of the nearly 250,000 people of Indian origin in Reunion.

Located in the south-western Indian Ocean, Reunion – an Overseas Department of France – is a magnificent volcanic island with most Indians following Tamil traditions and nursing an inherent desire to connect to their ancestors’ land.

But most of them, including Ramsamy, have lost any tangible evidence of their Indian origins and ancestry centuries ago. It is estimated that between 1848 to 1860, nearly 38,000 Indians arrived in Reunion Island as indentured laborers. The colonial masters wanted to ensure they could not find their way back home and so, they destroyed their documents.

In successive diaspora events in India, Ramsamy has been making the right kind of noises, but his hopes for getting a PIO card for his people get stymied each year, because the government insists on documentation.

Speaking to Meenakshi Iyer, on the sidelines of 14th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Ramsamy says that the PIOs in this island mainly have cultural and educational aspirations from India, and that the Indian government’s stance over PIO cards to them has largely remained unchanged.

Which part of India are you from? Have you ever visited the place?

My forefathers were from Tiruchirappalli and Periakottai in Tamil Nadu and also Pondicherry. Yes, I keep visiting Tamil Nadu because my brother is learning mridangam from Kalakshetra, Chennai. Almost every year, we visit Tamil Nadu to imbibe its culture and traditions and visit temples. Unfortunately, language is a barrier because we do not understand Tamil.

Indians arrived in Reunion Island as indentured laborers. To ensure they could not find their way back home, the French colonizers destroyed all their documents to cut off all ties with their homeland. What is the stance of French government on this and what did the French ambassador (Francois Richier) say when you raised this issue with him?

I am not sure whether there was any hidden agenda behind destroying the documents and indentured labor politics. But it is true that our archives were burnt. Today when the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs asks us about our ancestors’ record, it doesn’t make sense, at least to me. Look at us... Do we really need to prove that we are Indians?

The French ambassador understands our situation and has been doing his best to sort out the issue. But the ultimate solution rests with the Indian government. We deserve their attention and a ‘specific’ card!

Were you convinced with what Vayalar Ravi (Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs) said at the Francophone reception on January 8 this year?

We have met him so many times in Durban, Mauritius and Guadeloupe. He lent us an ear and said that he will look into the matter. He said that he has given orders to his staff to be indulgent with us. He also said that we need to wait till the 2014 elections!