IN THIS ISSUE OF Sutra we have a chat with Sangeeta Doraiswami, the wife of the Indian Consul-General in Johannesburg.
This is what she has to say about her childhood, her marriage, her travels and her life today.
Tell us about your background.
I have mixed parentage; my mum and dad come from two different parts of the country. My mum is from Calcutta (Eastern India) and my dad is from Jammu (north of India). I was born in Delhi and grew up in Calcutta, Bangalore and Rajastan so I travelled a lot as a young child.
My dad worked for a multi-national company involved in the iron and steel trade and the job took him from place to place hence the various travels.I spent a lot of my growing years and schooling in Calcutta. I completed my Grade 7 in a school called Loreto House. It was my mum and grandmother’s alma mater and it was a tradition for all the girls from my mum’s family to school there.
We then moved to Bangalore (Southern India) and that’s where I completed my schooling, college and university. I actually grew up in a very cosmopolitan family; we were always exposed to more than 4 languages at home. We also travelled a lot thanks to my dad hence we were also exposed to Western culture but my parents are very traditional and whilst growing up, we incorporated both my mum and dad’s culture in terms of food, clothing, languages and all their religious beliefs.
India is a very diverse country and has different festivals at different times of the year which for us kids was great fun. Seeing that we could celebrate both the celebrations from my maternal and paternal sides, almost twice as much as everyone else, there were festivals happening throughout the year and we always got sweetmeats and new clothes for all those occasions. That was great fun.
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in Calcutta, Jammu and Kashmir in the summer holidays and they would visit us during the year. We got to see our grandparents a lot during the year and all our uncles and aunts as we have a large extended family. I come from a very strong family-orientated home.
Tell us about your family and siblings.
There’s Mum, Dad and a younger brother (5 years younger) who is married and lives in London. When we were growing up, we were always fighting like siblings usually do. As we grew up and I married and left, my brother and I became very close and we still are. So too is my relationship with his wife; she is like the younger sister that I didn’t have. My brother is the Senior Global Vice President of a company that manages strategic investments.
In light of the fact that you grew up in a home with parents from very distant and different parts of India, is there anything that stands out?
In India when you are growing up, there is a clear demarcation between the north of India and the rest of India.
Seeing that both my family lines are from the north, both the families were affected in the partition of India. My maternal grandfather was a very well known and active freedom fighter and worked alongside the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and others. From him, I learnt much about the freedom struggle and the challenges that they faced. He had also been imprisoned in that period.
Although there was this common factor, the rest of the lifestyle and culture were completely different. From the food to the clothing, to the religious practices, everything was different, yet very fulfilling.
Tell us about your youth.
I always loved artwork. I even went to art classes. However, my mother had at some stage tried to get me to sing. Sadly, she and everyone else failed!
I was very much of a tomboy whilst growing up, and joined everyone in everything from climbing trees to playing cricket in the streets, or what we called ‘gulley cricket.’
Whilst I was growing up, my mother had been sick for the last 30 years soon after my brother was born, so I didn’t have much of a childhood. I matured and grew up very quickly. I had a younger brother; Dad was travelling so I always had to make sure everything was fine. I also had to be close to my mum at all times.
As a child, the concern was, ‘What is going to happen to Mum?’, so I took on the responsibility of taking care of Mum and making sure that she was there until my dad returned. Apart from that, I had extremely loving aunts, uncles, and we had a very nice time with their support structure.
This phase made me emotionally very strong, and in a way, it seemed like God’s way to prepare me for the future. ?
What guided your career choices?
By the time I had reached my tenth and twelfth standard, I was pretty sure that I wanted to study psychology. I fared very well in those school years, and despite all my parent’s and family’s persuasion for me to take up a science-related career, I chose a humanities degree to major in psychology.
I specialized in clinical psychology, and I worked in various environments in my internship and later years as a clinical psychologist.
Again, I got married and things changed!
About the marriage, why, to whom and when did all this happen?
It is interesting to know that Vikram and I come from different parts of India. I’m from mixed parentage, and grew up in different regions, and Vikram is from South India, and he too grew up in North India. This is very unusual to have such a marriage in India, and ours was not a love marriage, but a purely arranged match.
It was done by our parents who knew each other and it began as a drawing room joke that the fathers eventually decided ‘Ok, let’s get the kids married’. Until then, I had not met Vikram as he was posted in Hong Kong.
He came down on a brief holiday, and it was even a surprise to him. We met on a Monday and within 3 weeks we were married. Then we moved to China. At that point I went as a mechanical toy or something (laughter). I only reacted a month later when I was in a foreign country, in Beijing, in a bitter cold environment, with no mum or dad…and I had to cook!
I then realized that I had married a guy I didn’t really know except for a few polite social conversations. Besides this, he really is a great guy…very understanding, very supportive, and this made the settling into married life much easier.
Besides this initial phase, there was a growth phase…tell us more.
It was a story of a marriage in which we met and knew what our parents wanted, and when Vikram popped the question…I said ‘yes’. I think it was one of those when you know Mr. RIGHT has walked in and it just felt right! After that, because we took the conscious decision to get married, we really worked at it.
I think it was never a major challenge as our efforts made it smooth sailing.
In terms of the change of lifestyles, was there a major transition?
It did take me time to get used to his world, I was not used to the Indian Foreign Service, and had no idea what I was getting into. My first stint as a ‘Foreign Service wife’ was in Beijing, and everyone from the Ambassador down to the clerks, made sure that I was very welcome. I was actually welcomed as the new bride, and they took it upon themselves to make me welcome and have me settled in, in all spheres of life. This, I think, added to me getting used to Vikram and his lifestyle, his office and his work.
I did not feel that I never had a family as this group of people had become my family and support there.
Vikram was extremely supportive with the simplest of chores…like going out to buy milk; I found that very traumatic! When I was growing up, I had Mum and her assistants doing that, and now I was in a foreign land not knowing where to start. Vikram was never very particular about the food that was cooked in the house that I kept, and he was very appreciative of the smallest of things that I did. Because he was so giving, and supportive, I was always willing to do more for him.
I think over the years it has worked and still works both ways in that we both appreciate each other and our strengths.
What are the key factors or qualities that one has to or should possess to be the spouse of a high ranking official or prominent person in society?
I believe that whatever Vikram is doing, is his calling and job. He has been assigned to the post, not me, I am a part of that and will do everything that will help in that. If I have to be with him, stand beside him, hold his hand and the like, I will never put my career or my needs before that.
As you are aware I am a trained clinical psychologist, but I gave up everything when I moved to China. Firstly, I could not practice as the language was a problem and then as a diplomat’s wife, there are lots of restrictions as to what can and cannot be done.
I never pushed my husband to achieve what I wanted. I took it easy, I got a job as a teacher, and when I came back to India, I retrained myself as a teacher so I went back to study. I have two teaching degrees and Vikram has been very supportive of that. ?
From babysitting Arjun when I had to study and write exams, to taking days off when needed, he did it.
I taught in Delhi and later in New York. Now I have taken a break and if the chance comes again to teach, I will take it. However, it is not a priority as we have a small family and only one son. He is the most important person in our lives now.
I don’t think I would ever do anything that would hinder his growth or career.
In the society that we live in, what happens to a career woman after developing a career when she gets married, and how does she come to terms with this?
It is a very philosophical question, but you have to make a choice. Being selfish and going ahead to do what you want is one way, and I have no problem with that. I really admire those people who can do that. I think that whilst growing up, I saw my mother and her life. She was a lawyer, and she gave up all that because of her health and her two young kids. She had to choose her career over my father or vice versa, and she chose the latter. So maybe it is something genetic.
I am sure that there are many different family models, that work for different people. I have been asked by some about what I have achieved after doing so much. I said that when I look at my family and my husband, I have achieved a lot, and at the end of the day I am at peace with myself.
Even if an opportunity comes tomorrow, I will take it only when it suits everyone.
Having traveled across the globe, what values and priorities remain in this cosmopolitan world?
I think family remains my sole priority. Having traveled from country to country, I think that if we can make family a constant, everything else will fall into place.
I am also very thankful for my upbringing, and the range of exposure that has helped shape this.
My son who was born in China, grew up in India, and then New York. We have made sure that he remains Indian at heart. Hindi, being the common language between Vikram and I, is what we communicate to our son with, apart from English.
We want to keep that constant. The food in the house is also a major constant. Our comfort food is Indian food.
Our main dishes are yellow dhal, rice, roti, some potoato sabzi, and perhaps a non-veg dish now and then.
Whenever we are out of home, we are always looking from some rice, dhal and light vegetables or chicken.
I think the simple comforts of home always need to be taken care of.
I know that every time Vikram moves office, he has to get used to new offices, new staff and a new environment, and I therefore try my best to keep the home as warm and constant as possible.
Another major factor is the impact that the move has on my son and children in general. For a child to lose his friends and circle of known people and to re-develop those, is a traumatic experience and it takes a lot of time to adjust again.
What are your thoughts on Women Empowerment and how do you see yourself assisting in this?
Due to the nature of Vikram’s office as the Indian Consul-General, I am called upon for various social engagements. I am also a part of a women’s organization called JIWA (Johannesburg Indian Women’s Association). This is a small organization of about 25 people which we intend to be a leading community development company.
Your thoughts on Sutra Magazine?
Absolutely stunning! I like the Indian feel of SUTRA. Keep up the good work.