The world is their oyster

Top: Priti Patel, Indira Nooyi, Padma Lakshmi, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Soumya Swaminathan
Bottom: Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Kiran Desai, Gita Gopinath, Kamala Harris, Jhumpa Lahiri

As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world. Virginia Woolf.

I am raising one-and-a-half cheers for 41-year-old Priyanca Radhakrishnan. She is a New Zealander by citizenship, born in Chennai, Keralite by birth, Singaporean by early domicile and finally settled in the pleasant surrounds of Auckland. Why am I raising this tentative goblet in honour of Priyanca (that’s how she spells her name, by the by, with a ‘c’ as opposed to the more traditional ‘k’)? We can put that oddity down to one of those numerological-alphabetical superstitions. My daily newspaper tells me she is the first Indian-origin person to be inducted as a minister into the New Zealand cabinet by their Prime Minister, the estimable Jacinda Ardern, another brilliant card carrier for Women in Power. The report also states that Priyanca is a ‘minister outside the cabinet.’ I am not quite sure what that means precisely, but the Kiwis must have their own way of doing things. Presumably the young lady will perform her ministerial duties from an ante-chamber situated just outside the main cabinet room and work her way gradually into the main hall. She is young with time on her side. It is also possible that the main cabinet has too many ministers at the moment and fresh inductees will have to wait their turn prior to sitting at the high table. I don’t know really, just indulging in some fanciful guesswork. All I can say is, if that is the case, it’s a lot of ministers jostling for space in such a small country.

However, the purpose of this piece is not to comment on the size of the New Zealand cabinet. This latest appointment of a lady of Indian origin to a prestigious post in Kiwiland has put me in mind of the number of Indian-origin women who have and are continuing to make it big abroad. None bigger than Kamala Harris, the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate of the United States of America who may very well become Vice-President-elect by the time this missive is posted. Or not, if Trump has his way. I have already devoted an entire blog to Ms. Harris earlier and will refrain from expounding any further on her credentials. One must qualify that she is half Indian and half Jamaican, though for obvious reasons, her Indian Tamilian progeniture has received inordinate play here in India, including rituals and prayers at her ancestral village. We have so little to cheer about our own politicians. Still and all, it is something for a women-suppressed country like India to vicariously take heart from Kamala’s ongoing and, perhaps, impending success. If Kamala Harris does move into the West Wing after the results are in, frothy south Indian filter coffee will be in very short supply in Chennai and its environs – the beverage of choice for all manner of celebratory toasts.

Moving swiftly on, we come to Indira Nooyi, Chennai-born, who rose to the very pinnacle of corporate office in the US of A, as the head of Pepsico Worldwide. To be numero uno of a company like Pepsi (the soft drink brand and the conglomerate are the same to me) places you amongst the crème de la creme of corporate royalty where you rub shoulders with heads of state and every other description of bigwig movers and shakers you can possibly imagine. As an aside, since this piece is primarily about women of Indian origin, the fact that the likes of Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella also head up blue chip companies in the United States, adds a certain gravitas to the whole Indian diaspora conversation. I will need to write a separate piece if I were to start on ‘men of Indian origin’ making waves outside their homeland.

During the ongoing Covid19 pandemic, we have been highly impressed with the measured and analytical responses from Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the Geneva-based World Health Organization, who is also a qualified paediatrician. Science and a sense of inquiry runs in her veins. Her father, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan was deservedly known as the ‘Father of India’s Green Revolution.’ WHO was the target of a great deal of opprobrium recently from Donald Trump (that man, again) who decided he will not support the international body, alleging that it was under his bete noire, China’s thumb. That should hardly matter, now that he is almost certainly making way for the more moderate and accommodating Democrat Joe Biden. Indians, who have a nose for such things, will keep an eye peeled for, hopefully, increased bonhomie between the two bright ladies from Tamil Nadu, Kamala Harris and Soumya Swaminathan. Incidentally, Wikipedia informs us, in separate columns, that Swaminathan was born in Chennai and Kumbakonam. Somebody ought to tell them it can either be one or the other! Reminds me of my childhood days in Calcutta when anyone hailing from the south of the Vindhyas was collectively dubbed ‘Madrasi.’

More recently, Indian news channels have grown accustomed to seeing the native sapience and intelligence of Gita Gopinath, Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, shining through. Calcutta born, parents hailing from Kannur in Kerala, this brilliant young lady occupies a pivotal post at the influential IMF. Cogent and articulate, she never fails to impress the viewers every time she is posed a variety of probing questions by our television anchors. Of course, our anchors are mainly pre-occupied with India’s economic situation (if they are not being arrested for talking too much or too loudly) allied to political progress and Ms. Gopinath’s views on the same, whereas the IMF whiz is expected to take a more global view of matters, but that does not stop them from trying to get the young lady to say things which may or may not be politic, leave alone economic. It is to her credit that she refuses to be drawn in and carries herself with dignity and equanimity.

Priti Patel is the distinguished Secretary of State for Home Affairs in the Boris Johnson led British cabinet. Though she is London born and no more Indian in speech and manner than V.S. Naipaul is Trinidadian, her grandparents and parents came from Gujarat and finally settled in the United Kingdom via Uganda. There were a large number of Gujaratis holding British passports who fled Uganda under the tender ministrations of Idi Amin and flew to the UK, a mass migration that caused much consternation in Whitehall, giving birth to Enoch Powell’s brand of ‘the Rivers of Blood’ rhetoric. Priti Patel’s powerful presence in the British government and her strong personality that is so essential to handle the Home portfolio, can be put down to her ancestral Indian genetics. Whether she herself accepts that premise or not, we Indians are only too ready to take credit where it may or may not be due. Her equally powerful colleague, Chancellor of the Exchequer, the youthful Rishi Sunak adds more spice and dash to the Indian connection. Touted as a future British Prime Minister and like Priti Patel, born in the UK, his parents also migrated from East Africa. He is now even more firmly joined at the hip with India, thanks to his being married to the daughter of one of our pioneering IT czars, N.R. Narayana Murthy. Perhaps the much-married Boris Johnson, whose estranged second wife Marina Wheeler was half Punjabi, has a soft corner for anyone with an Indian orientation.

Other women with an Indian background who have made a name for themselves in spades and live abroad, include award-winning authors Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies), Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (The Mistress of Spices), as well as stunning model and latterly celebrity TV host and author of cookery books, again Chennai-born, Padma Lakshmi. (What is it about Chennai that it engenders such a fecundity of talent and brilliance?) All of them have garnered fame and fortune in their respective spheres. Incidentally, Kiran Desai is the daughter of the equally celebrated writer, Anita Desai. While Padma Lakshmi, not that she needs to, also basks in reflected glory in terms of public perception through her ex-husband, the highly decorated author, Sir Salman Rushdie, himself an Indophile and Mumbai born.

As I wind up this essay, I hasten to add that my choice of women (or men) of Indian origin who have carved a niche for themselves outside the shores of India, is by no means complete. Far from it. For every name I have selected, others could come up with half a dozen more candidates from other disciplines. My selection was random, as they suggested themselves to me off the top of my head, and the object was more to make a point about how the Indian mind and brain power is a much sought-after treasure across the world. I sometimes question if we in India, specifically the powers-that-be since Independence, have realized the value of this extraordinary asset and given our gentler citizens the unfettered freedom to express themselves without let or hindrance. Do I hear a stentorian, ‘What about Indira Gandhi?’ Dynastic succession, even if electorally mandated, will not count. Not in my books. I do concede that there have been a clutch of women in India who have left an indelible mark across many categories but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. A flight of swallows do not a summer make. With time, that will change.

 I suggest to you, dear reader, that our time-honoured policy of protectionism and restriction, has often come in the way of more radiant flowers blooming in our own country; as opposed to their moving to far-off lands to realize the full value of their potential. As the poet Thomas Gray had it, ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness in the desert air.’ Today, our Prime Minister exhorts Indians from every nook and cranny of the globe to return home and contribute their considerable gene pool of talent for the betterment of our nation. A bit late in the day. We should have thought about this in 1947. In the words of Sir V.S. Naipaul, ‘After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities.’

Bharat Mata Ki Jai!

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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  1. I try repeating my earlier comment which did not go through.
    The article, as usual is well articulated. My feeling is that India and (resident) Indians take a dispropotionate and undeserving level of credit for achievements of some foreigners who may have a thin and ancient connection with India. However, let us as per Indian traditions, bestow our “blessings” on all these successful or less successful People of Indian Origin, for whatever it is worth.


  2. Beautifully articulated essay on a sample of successful indian origin women abroad, with an implicit message that these ladies may not have made it up the success ladder, but for their landing abroad. Kudos to the witty writer.


  3. Don’t give up! That’s their motto. Thanks Suresh for acknowledging these ladies who achieved their dreams.


  4. Hi Suresh – very well written and a thoroughly enjoyable read. We have much to be proud about. Well done! Sachi


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