I am on a train to Amsterdam, on my way to a conference, when an Indian voice asks me: “May I sit here?”. “Sure.” I reply, and pull my laptop aside, creating space on the table in front. She is a middle-aged woman – in her mid forties, perhaps – with South Indian features, dressed elegantly in a jeans and poncho. She settles down in the seat across, opens her laptop, and begins to write. The train pulls away from the station; I see the sign Köln Hbf sail past my window.
I get back to the presentation in my laptop, looking up occasionally when the train crosses a bridge revealing a nice view of the Rhine with the cathedral spires in the distance. I am almost never the one to begin a conversation; I wait.
The ticket collector comes by. When he returns her ticket she says in a soft but clear voice: Danke Shön. Surely not a tourist; perhaps lives in Köln.
A little later, when our eyes cross, she asks: “Are you also going to Amsterdam?”
“That’s right. Do you live in Köln?”
“No, no. I live in SanFrancisco.” She gives a wide smile. “I was here to meet a friend in Köln, on my way back from Bosnia.”
“Bosnia ? That’s interesting. How is the country now? Recovering?”
“Very slowly. I was surprised at how poor the situation was. It was difficult to believe I was in Europe – the conditions are so primitive.” She looks out of the window, and I see her eyes water. She takes a napkin and dabs softly below her eyes.
“Do you live in Germany?” she asks. I reply briefly about the work I do, and the purpose of this journey.
“What do you do?” I ask.
“I work for an organization that raises funds for women’s human rights organizations in different countries.”
This was the beginning of a conversation that lasted almost three hours, until we parted ways at the Amsterdam central station. Although I soon found out – when she gave me her business card – that she was “President and CEO” of Global Fund for Women, it was only after I got back and googled her name that I learned she was a celebrity in the eyes of many.
I asked her about her work, and she filled the hours with fascinating details and insights…
“Bosnia is still in a sorry state. Most aid goes into the wrong places, like supporting a redundant political structure (with too many ministries) – so the real issues (like infrastructure, public health etc) do not get enough aid. The condition of women is poor – they do very basic work like knitting, weaving – and it was difficult to believe this was Europe, just a few hundred miles away from Germany. I visited a school where I found children segregated along the lines of 3 different religions – shocking.”
Later, on Afghanistan:
“I was in Afghanistan in 2003. Travel a little outside Kabul, and you’ll find complete wilderness – it is unbelievable how under-developed that country is. Most of the Western aid goes into the military or to beef up security for Westerners there. I learned from the locals that India had sent 50 Tata buses (which had been permitted by the Pakistani government to drive through), and these buses were the backbone of the basic transportation system in Kabul! I met some Indian doctors and nurses from Kerala who were doing a great job – and the locals would often ask why the West does not provide that kind of support…”
She spoke about her organization, which had funded projects in 160 countries. Since they covered such a large area, they mostly used the help of local NGOs and advisors to assess and fund the right projects. The amounts they funded varied, and they considered any form of application, in any language. She spoke of some projects, and of amazing people out there doing so much for others:
“We once received a funding application from a union of domestic servants in Chennai. Can you believe that? This organization was involved in educating domestic servants about sexual harrassment during work, about their right to a holiday each week, about their right to a minimum wage, etc. I couldn’t have imagined that such an organization existed in Chennai. ”
“In Nepal, we funded an organization that helps poor women in villages all over the country. It was started by an Indian lady who, when confronted with doubts from her women friends on how they could ask money from their husbands for a cause in Nepal, put down her gold bangle and said that each woman could start with what she owned!! The organization now receives most of its funds from within the country. Such a model is clearly what developing nations should aim for, where the aid for their institutions come from within the country rather than developed nations in the West.”
“In Cambodia, I visited a factory that employed girls aged 15, and the girls were happy they had a job. Interestingly, the factory was owned by an Indian who found it more profitable to invest there than in India.”
I asked her about fund-raising, and how had things changed over the years. Were there more people willing to give now than before ?
“Earlier there was a widely prevalent notion that one can donate only after acquiring a good amount of wealth. Now there has been a shift in this perception, and people realize that they can contribute in their own small way and make a difference. And our organization recognizes this – we accept any amount from any one, and we do not publicize our donor list sorted according to the amount contributed.”
What about people’s interest in NGOs as a place to work – had that changed ?
“I think there is a perception that people working in NGOs aren’t – or do not have to be – as smart as those in the private sector. That really isn’t true, you know. This perception has to change, for more people to venture into this area of work.”
On the role of religion in a democracy:
“Democracy and secularism go hand in hand. What is the point of democracy in a country that is woven around a single religion? In such a country, if you are from a different religion, you become a second class citizen.”
We spoke of Indian books and movies. She liked the works of Vikram Seth, especially his latest one: Two Lives. Rohinton Mistry was another favourite, and she had found Family matters – a novel where, unlike A Fine Balance, Mistry had to operate within the boundaries of that social circle – very enjoyable. “Isn’t it wonderful that so many Indians are writing so brilliantly these days ?” She found it amazing that movies like Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munna Bhai were being made, that Bollywood was adopting such themes. It was a positive indicator of the shift in our society’s taste and its awareness towards social issues, she said. She was thrilled with Omkara, and felt the director’s earlier movie, Makbool, was even better.
She talked about her family, her Pakistani husband who was a writer and worked from home, which had interesting consequences on their daughter: on a visit to Pakistan some years ago, their daughter went upto an uncle and told him that “he had cooked all dishes really well”. She spoke briefly about growing up in Germany when her father was part of the Indian commision in Bonn (which explained her excellent German). Later on, I found on the web that her father had been the head of Indian Navy and had fought two wars against Pakistan. That also explained the opposition she faced from him about her proposal to marry a Pakistani.
She reflected on the changing times, on how social interactions amongst children revolved around the computer and the internet. Her husband had once suggested that their daughter spend a two week vacation doing nothing. “He stresses the importance of boredom: only when one is bored one starts to think, to be creative.”
Later, when I thought back on this conversation, it occured to me that the reason we were able to discuss a variety of topics with openness and ease had a lot to do with our common cultural background. I am able to appreciate this better now, having lived outside India for almost six years: the ease with which we connect to others from the same culture is something we take for granted, until we find ourselves surrounded by people with whom we sometimes do not even share a language. And in such a foreign surrounding, sitting near four Europeans conversing in formal tones, when you encounter someone whose roots are not far from your own, the result is a memory that promises to stay with you for a long time.