Chatting with Chaitali
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Chaitali B Roy is the author of ‘Women of Kuwait : Turning Tides’ (Har- Anand Publications) . She is a Special Correspondent of Arab Times/ Editor and Producer – Radio Kuwait
Desert sands shift and another plane of foreigners touch down in Kuwait. They come. They go. They stay. And then they make a life here. But, why Kuwait?It’s the question that expats get asked again and again. What is it about the shifting dunes that draw people here? Some say money. Some say it’s just temporary. Some will point off into the horizon and whisper sweet nothings to tiny dots as their distant homelands. But, not Chaitali B Roy.Rather, Chaitali has made a home. Chaitali has invested herself into this country. And, in doing so, Kuwait has lifted her veil, revealing herself to this expat journalist. Now, both are all the richer for it.
Kuwait has been your home for the past fourteen years. What was it that drew you here so long ago?
I came to Kuwait because of my husband. I was working in India in one of the first private FM radio broadcasters. And, I was very happy doing what I was doing. It was a great time for radio in India. However, it was around then that my husband got a job in Kuwait. And I relocated with him.
And what’s compelled you to stay?
Well, Kuwait has become our home. The place grows on you. And, after years of learning and knowing the country, you become anchored.
Working as a special correspondent for Arab Times Kuwait, you must encounter some raw and powerful subject matter. What do you feel has been the most meaningful or inspirational article you’ve written?
I have stayed away from politics and concentrated more on art, culture, and society. I would say my work on Kuwait’s heritage and culture and Kuwaiti women is something that has been very meaningful. I have consciously tried to make a difference. I have worked closely with some organizations to focus attention on aspects of Kuwait’s material culture that was getting lost. I got involved with the revival of Sadu, the restoration of heritage buildings, Kuwait’s folkloric music and dance, and Kuwait’s old customs and traditions. With the disappearance of the old way of life, Kuwait was slowly losing out on valuable cultural information. And, that’s something very important.
You have experienced working for bothKuwait Radio as well as Arab Times Kuwait, creating special shows and feature articles. What is it about the feature in media that makes it so appealing?
When I started working with media in India, I was mentored by a special person who believed very strongly in the ‘info-tainment’ aspect of radio broadcasting. I don’t believe in entertainment for the sake of entertainment, especially in radio. We should try and conceive radio shows that go beyond entertainment and have some lasting value. The same goes for the newspaper. As media, we should touch lives in any small way we can. And that is a big powerful feature that has always attracted me.
You were awarded a senior journalist fellowship from East-West Centre in the United States. What does it mean to you, as an Indian expatriate, to be the representative for Kuwait?
The East-West Centre is an internationally recognized education and research organization that was set up by the US Congress to foster better relationships between the US, Asia, and the Pacific Islands through study, research, and dialogue. The Senior Journalist Seminar, which I was part of, is a travelling fellowship meant for senior journalists from around the world. The programme is designed to increase media coverage and raise public debate regarding religion and its role in the public sphere. In 2015, there were many journalists from various regions. Together, we participated in interactive sessions that dealt with issues of religiosity, religious diversity, religious freedom, and explored the role that religion plays in different societies. It was an enriching learning experience that showed me how important it is to allow and encourage different perspectives to cohabit especially while dealing with an issue as arguable as faith. Representing Kuwait, I felt an immense sense of self-satisfaction and gratitude. I have devoted quite a significant number of years exploring different aspects of Kuwait’s history and culture, but never quite expected this knowledge to be so special that it would give me the opportunity to represent a country to which I am tied not by birth, but by feelings of deep affection.
A great deal of your articles focus on Kuwait art, culture, and heritage. What is it about Kuwait’s scene that fascinates you?
Firstly, Kuwait is such a fascinating melting pot, and that partly is due to the large expatriate presence here. But, despite this, the culture remains rooted. Moreover, despite the do’s and dont’s, there is moderation in the way the society has evolved, in the way women have progressed, in the way expatriates from different parts of the world made this country their homes. And, also while learning about local culture and heritage, I have come across delicate strands of connection between Kuwait and different parts of the world that at first glance may seem improbable, but a closer look reveals the common cultural threads shared by humanity. For example, while listening to a sea band in Kuwait perform sea music, you may come across a melody that is reminiscent of music from India, or you may come across a musical instrument that bears similarity to an African instrument. Similarly, in Sadu, you may find motifs or techniques of weaving that is common to weavings found in the highlands of far-away Peru. This is something I find truly fascinating.
Your first book Women in Kuwait – Turning Tides is available both in India and Kuwait. Can you tell us about this book and your particular interest in the Kuwaiti woman?
Over the last 15 years, I have done extensive work on Kuwaiti women, the hurdles they faced, and their achievements. I learned that Kuwait is one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East, which granted its women basic rights of education and personal advancements long before other countries in the region, and this despite the fact that the right to vote for Kuwaiti women came much later. I realized that women in Kuwait, unlike stereotypical portraitures had their own standing, their own voice. I have written on glass ceiling that women face in the corporate world. I have written about the way women were prevented from participating in government, but despite the deterrents, most women in Kuwait have persisted—with their education, and their ambitions. I wrote about some of these women, and I captured their journey for a special series that I did for more than a year on Radio Kuwait. I also realized while doing this that a lot of young people in Kuwait were unaware of the role these women had played in nation building, education,and commerce. There was a possibility of their stories getting lost. It was then I thought of putting together these stories in a book form. That was the time I met my Indian publisher and mentor Narendra Kumar. This book, which features inspiring women such as Sara Akbar, Sheikha Altaf Salem Al Ali Al Sabah, and many others, presents stories of achievements in different fields such as industry, art, culture, politics, sports, diplomacy and education. Hopefully, it will help to break some stereotypes about Gulf women, and as far as Kuwait is concerned, hopefully, it will preserve these stories of courage. And going back once again to the idea of building bridges, I trust this book will build yet another bridge of understanding between India and Kuwait.
You had a very successful book launch in early September. Describe this experience for you. What has happened since then?
The book was released at the Kuwait Embassy in India under the auspices of HE Fahad Al Awadhi, Ambassador of Kuwait to India. It was a glitzy affair well attended by ambassadors, diplomats, civil servants and members of the media. I am very grateful to the Ambassador and the Kuwait Embassy for their active support. Dr Haifa Al Ajmi, one of the achievers featured in the book attended the launch with her family. This was her first visit to India, and she was very happy to be there. It was gratifying to see the interest of the audience in the book. I had people coming up to me and asking me questions about Kuwait , and its culture in general.
This was followed by the book launch in Kuwait at the Kuwait National Library on October 19. The Kuwait launch took place under the auspices of the Indian Embassy and the Kuwait National Library. I am grateful to the Indian Ambassador HE Sunil Jain, Mr Goldar, Mr Srivastav and others for their active support. HE Mr Sunil Jain played a crucial role in getting me in touch with his Kuwaiti counterpart. I am very thankful to him. Mr Kemal Abdul Jalil and Sheikha Rasha Al Sabah of the National Library were remarkably forthcoming. The book was released in Kuwait by Ali Yoha, Secretary General of the National Council of Culture, Arts and Letters who deputised for HE Sheikh Salman Al Sabah, Minister of Information and Minister of State for Youth Affairs. The release was well attended by an international crowd.
It has been a very exciting time for me. I have been invited as a guest speaker by different universities, and associations in India including the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). It is interesting to hear the kind of questions that the faculty and students come up with. There is a veil that surrounds people and culture in this part of the world, and it is gratifying to be able to lift at least a corner of that veil. I have also spoken to different expatriate organizations here in Kuwait. And although people here know more, yet there are misconceptions. You know I feel, women in this country are a subject not touched upon at all in the past. Atleast in the form of a book. I think this book has started a conversation and for that I am grateful.
What type of readers would your book appeal to?
It’s not a work of fiction. It’s about real people. I believe it will appeal to Kuwaitis both young and old who would like to know more about the contributions of their pioneering women to the development of their country. I am also hoping that it will reach out to natives of other Gulf countries, who have to some degree shared the same struggles. And yes, I think it may offer an alternate narrative to non – Arabs who tend to stereotype people living in this part of the world.
And what kind of message or feeling do you hope your readers walk away with?
I definitely want to convey a positive image. For years, I have admired these women for their courage, determination and pragmatism. It has not been an easy journey for them, and yet they persisted and to a certain extent they succeeded. Their stories echo the universal dilemmas of women elsewhere. And that is something I want to convey. One should pause and consider different aspects before standardising a society and civilisation.
Without spoiling too much for your readers, what was your greatest struggle with writing the book? And which part did you enjoy writing the most?
Frankly speaking, I tried to paint a true picture without stepping on too many toes, and I found the balancing act a bit tiring. And most of these women are very private individuals. Although they spoke of their professional lives openly, they were reserved about their personal lives. I could understand that, but I found it difficult to give those personal touches, a bit of warmth to some of the achievers featured. And about the part I enjoyed the most, I liked writing about their achievements.
Finally—and this is the most exciting part—How will we be able to get our hands on this book?
In Kuwait, it is being sold at Jareer, Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah (Yarmouqh) and Sadu House. It can also be bought online at www.caravankw.com, and from me. In India, it is available online on Amazon and Flipkart, and at bookstores such as Starmark. It can also be ordered online from the publisher at www.haranandbooks.com.
You can follow Chaitali on Instagram @chaitali_b_roy and email her at [email protected]
Tara is an international teacher with itchy feet and busy fingers. Having found inspiration in Japan, England and Kuwait, she is now living in Ukraine to see what new stories will reveal themselves to her. Because of this insatiable need for travel and exploration, her writing is often tempered with messages of love, acceptance, and the communal human soul. Find Tara on instagram @tarajeana or her website www.tarajeana.com
Express your comment on this article