Monday, October 2, 2017

Bold Strokes

Shayonti Chatterjee is the founder of Our Front Cover, which brings together stories of inspirational  people world over. Here is her story. 

I was a fairly good student in school. I was the eldest – and both my parents – I come from a regular Bengali family where academics was very important. We were never encouraged to go into business – which was seen as not-so-good. I had pressure f in  my family  everyone was into law or medicine and engineering, which was very common in middle class educated families coming out of Bengal. One thing that let me dream big and gave me confidence as a woman is that I came from a family where women were always treated equally. It was never believed that a woman should do things differently. I had short hair,  wore short frocks and had male friends – and there were never norms to do otherwise.

I was the only grandchild in the family for a good ten years. My grandfather treated me as he would have treated a grandson – there was no holding back. I didn’t find anything unusual about it. But much later in life, more so today, when I see the issues facing women, I wonder how come I was so lucky. That was what made me dream big. My ambition was to become a doctor – it was a very noble profession to me. From Calcutta, we moved to Delhi when I was  ten. I wanted to join AIIMS, the crème-de-la-crème of medical colleges in Delhi. Unfortunately, I couldn’t pass the entrance exam. It was my first setback in my life. I made a decision saying that I would not do the exam again – as most others did. There was a shift in our financial condition in that time, as a result of which I couldn’t afford tuitions or private colleges that came up in Southern India. I couldn’t afford to go there, so I slashed that dream out of me, and totally shifted gears to study Economics and International Relations.

My passion was not that – it was very different. Today, it is much easier to formulate ideas with the exposure. But if I extrapolate myself from there to this generation, I may have done better in journalism or social entrepreneurship. At that time, I couldn’t formulate my dreams. In 1986, I studied in the Soviet Union – a decision of revolt, as I would say – because I couldn’t afford to go to the US. I took it upon myself. I was eighteen, then, and decided that I wouldn’t allow my parents to spend too much money on me. And so I went to a relatively less known part of the world. It was at the time when Gorbachev brought on the Glassnost principle. I studied and went on to work, and stayed in the Soviet Union for 13 years. It was a different world – it was closed, yet open. All that I saw at the time contrasted with all that I saw on my travels. All my friends would go to London or Paris – because train trips were affordable, but I would travel within the Soviet Union. I didn’t foresee the Berlin Wall falling then, and so I used to say that I wouldn’t be able to come back if I went out of the country. I think I travelled the length and breadth of the Soviet Union – from Siberia to Tashkent, to Armenia and to Georgia – it was all one country then. The experience of travelling like this was immense.

I started working with international trade,  and sales operations. It was  maybe the not most  lucrative of jobs – but it was a very important experience, nevertheless, and I sometimes jokingly say that having stayed in Russia for so long at that time, I’d know how to get out of a jungle if I were thrown into it. Once, I attended a Christmas mass with a Polish roommate on Saturday evening. On Monday, at University, my mentor told me not to go wherever I went on Saturday. It took me two minutes to realize that as a foreign student, I was being followed. Once, someone asked me if I believed in God. Religious beliefs were a big taboo. I told my teacher that I didn’t know – but if I fell down and got wounded, I wanted to be able to hold my wound and say “Oh God, help me!” I wanted to have that faith that would be tantamount to support. If that was believing, then I was a believer.

Having lived across different parts, I think Western Europe is a breather. I’ve lived in and worked in Europe where the emancipation of women is really high. In Russia, women were always treated on par with men. Women were extremely qualified and talented. However, once they came home, it was very patriarchal. Men would sit and watch television, drinking – just like Maxim Gorky’s mother. It goes for most East European countries. Women are very liberated when it comes to having male partners in life – whether it’s going through divorce or having children out of marriage. But when you are with a man, certain duties are ascribed to the gender, and the women seem to be tacitly accepting it. In Europe, another thing that has stood out for me is the objectification of women and their beauty. To women in Eastern Europe, beauty is seen as very important. In Western Europe, how you look and what you wear comes so low on the hierarchy of everyday choices. In India, when I go home, I dress with the thought of who is looking at me. You are not judged by your clothes in Western Europe. In India, and in Eastern Europe, you are looked at and evaluated on how you dress. It is all about your clothes and appearance, and how you stand out. In countries like Germany and Holland, society is egalitarian – there is no need to offer a seat to the elderly unless they are infirm. There is tremendous pride in one’s own identity, and they don’t like to take advantage of a crutch. 

Women don’t automatically turn around to a man for help, and men don’t automatically think that a woman needs help because she’s a woman. This taught me that being treated equal warrants giving up a few liberties as well. If you can’t, get help – but nothing is a function of your gender. Another beautiful thing is that children out here are seeing same-sex parents, and there’s nothing about it that’s seen as abnormal – which is how it should be. We don’t even use the terms “husband” or “wife” anymore to assume that one is heterosexual. We only refer to “partners.”

That is the concept of free thinking – free thinking gives you power and a feeling of being liberated. There are women’s issues here, of course, but women know that she has the equal right to reach out to the authorities and fight her case. There is domestic violence, there are instances of sexual assault, there is flesh trade – I’m not saying there are no problems in Europe. BUT, there are equally robust systems that offer up a solution.

From Russia, I moved to Hungary, and then to Holland. I started my own venture, , simply because it was not easy to get a work permit. This was in 2003. I was approached by two Dutch women who I had met. They were setting up a company to distribute an American skincare product. I worked till 2015, and the company was sold. This was a transition time. It was difficult to get back to a nine-to-six job. At that point, I decided to start something that I  always wanted. I didn’t come from a journalist background. At that point, the internet came into play.

I set up a website, took the help of a journalist friend who helped me understand the world to source stories and to speak to people. My biggest takeaway in life is rooted in the fact that gender roles were so pressurizing. There is a need to think out of the box – and there should be a disconnect of the whole angle of how certain jobs can give you a certain status. Anybody is a hero. My hero till date was my grandfather. He was a barrister by profession and in all honesty. He firmly believed in the equality of all religions. He had tremendous respect for all religions – and it was mutual. Differences were respected, and that is missing now, today.

Our Front Cover is really to bring stories to the front, stories that are inspirational, in that they can reach out to people, touch a chord in people’s hearts. Society ignores stories of simple people, people who are not “heroes.” I did not want it to be focused on one particular theme. I wasn’t very clear as to what one area I would focus on – I decided to keep it as a platform that would allow a lot of thoughts to mingle. I wanted to keep it simple and light, and to encourage people to engage with the platform and the stories we tell them. It was basically to bring together stories. Honestly, I thought it would be easier than it is – but it isn’t easy to reach out to people to get their stories. One needs to be pushed and get a helping hand from people who are more established in this space, and we are trying to  move ahead. All in all, personally, Our Front Cover was a good way for me to vent out.. It gave me the space to do the things I wanted to. It was created with the aim of being a space for alternate reading. While you have so many platforms that offer up stories, not too many are as global.


A couple of months ago, I told the story of a foster mother in Texas – she’s known as “The Foster Mother” in Texas because she’s housed so many children. I featured the story of Vicky Roy – which was literally a story of going from rags to riches. He’s doing amazing things with his photography. I just called him up, and told him that I had heard of him and wanted to do an interview. He couldn’t write, so I had to look for someone to speak to him in Delhi. He does magic with his camera! In the last two years, I’ve connected to a lot more people than I did in all of my corporate life. I don’t know about the life of Our Front Cover, but the relationships I have built and will build will live with me. 
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