It was a memorable week in the November of 2018. I was attending the Seventh Summit of The Parliament of World's Religions in Toronto. At the historic gathering which was of gigantic proportions, bringing in thousands of people from many different traditions, I didn't quite expect to make the kind of connections and relationships that I did. Life for me has indeed been about surprises! One such surprise was the references given to me by Sari, the then North American Regional coordinator of the United Religions Initiative of two people from India: Miss Subhi Dhupar and Mr. Biswadeb Chakraborty. I had casually strolled into the URI stall and had bumped into Sari there. She was pleasantly surprised to see me. We knew each other from previous Euphrates Institute calls. She mentioned that I should connect with Subhi and Biswadeb when I get back home and look for opportunities to join one of their cooperation circles. I made a mental note and saved both of their numbers.
Back home after a wonderful month in Canada and the US, I texted Subhi and Biswadeb from URI. I set up a number of appointments to speak with Subhi but somehow it never materialized. In the meantime, I bagged the KAICIID Fellowship and was consequently invited for the first time to the Dialogue workshop in Rishikesh in December, organized by KAICIID and Parmarth Niketan Ashram. As I de-boarded from the plane and waited with a few others at the Dehradun airport to be picked up by KAICIID, the pick up person started calling out names to tick off the ones who were already there. He called Subhi's name and my head shot up. "Is it the same Subhi? " I wondered. I saw a young woman who would be about my age, respond. Curious as I am, I took a step towards her and asked, "Hey. You are Subhi? From URI?" She turned towards me and smiled. "Yes I am. And you are?" I extended my hand and replied, "Sohini. I texted you and we had a few calls planned that never happened, remember?" Her face lit up. "Oh yes! Hi! I didn't know you were coming to this workshop!" she piped in. "Neither did I know that you were coming to this workshop. Small world indeed!" I replied. Connecting with Subhi will always be a unique memory. For all the years that I have worked in India in the field of interfaith service, I didn't meet her or know her. Her reference found its way to me when I was half way across the world, away from my homeland only to connect me to a wider network in my own country because the heroine of our story today is none other than the Master Networker "wo-manning" operations in the patriarchal Northern region of the country. If you ask me, watching Subhi chair operations in the northern belt for URI gives me an odd sense of reassurance that the quiet wisdom of a young woman is shaping the grassroots relationship building process in the region. I can relate to her in that sense because I trust the instincts which we share as young women and bridge builders, not to mention that I have had the privilege of knowing her personally as a friend.
To tell you a little more about Miss Dhupar, I have known her mostly by observation of her personality and work besides a few phone call dialogues and an email interview which I intend to use to script out her story. Petite and poised, Subhi embodies reserved professionalism and I remember asking her about it on call. " Well, it is difficult being a young woman working in the field of interfaith service. No one used to take me seriously. More so, because I am petite and used to look younger in the first few years of my work with URI. I wasn't exactly prepared to enter this field you know. I just went for the interview and the opportunity presented itself to me. I took it. And I haven't regretted since. However, the journey wasn't easy. Especially when I was promoted to the post of Regional Coordinator/Director of URI for North India and Afghanistan." Should I mention that I could relate to her? Of course I could! I could imagine a young Subhi in her early and mid-twenties trying to facilitate processes in the hostile and patriarchal northern region of the country. I found it difficult to operate and be taken seriously for my expertise in a state like West Bengal. I can only imagine how she must have struggled. A post-graduate student from the South Asian University in Delhi, Subhi stepped into the URI network only to discover herself as a facilitator. Grassroots experiences brought in lessons and wisdom which she beautifully integrated into her narrative as she responded to my questions.
"My life journey of experiments and unexplored spaces has been a product of women's strength, support and encouragement. My teachers and seniors in school, professors in college, scholars and supervisors in higher learning institutions and mentors in work spaces have been the source of light and power in my life. I would also attribute my Father every success I have had in life because it is he who truly taught and practised the real meaning of gender and equality since childhood. I was always nurtured as the son of the house to become human first.
My real life shero is also a really old grassroots community member who dedicated her life to improve and empower younger women in a small village near delhi. Her struggles across barriers of religion, caste, class and socio-economic background to improve the lives of others has changed and impacted the course of my life very strongly. “Aabhav mein bhaav ki anubhuti karo” ‘ in the absence of everything try experiencing what it is to have everything’ has been one of the corner stone teachings in my life which will always remain deeply buried in my soul." She recalls as I ask her about her journey to emergence.
"Tell me more about faith Subhi. Having worked in the field myself, I know it takes more than simply training to be authentic in our work. How would you say you have grown in faith?"
"Born in a Hindu conservative family my parents hoped to inculcate religious values in me and follow the family traditions hence teaching me mantras in my childhood and keeping fast on special occasions. However I went to a catholic school where going to the church once a week was almost an unsaid rule , all our teachers were nuns of the highest order, our house was so close to the school and within a christian colony that christmas and new year celebrations felt as much important as diwali and holi to me. My college years passed more amongst friends from muslim communities and their culture made me feel home. Home to the same value sets, tradition, food etc, it was different for sure but not exclusive to my culture and traditions. Today I am a follower of Nicherin Buddhism where I do not attend cultic practices or going to meetings but a definitely lay a strong trust in the higher forces of divinity because of them.
Therefore I would like to prelude my open mindedness and will to see humanity first before anything else to my parents for giving me that space to explore my own religious beliefs. It is because of them that I could explore my spirituality while being in the midst of differences in faith traditions.
In the spectrum of religion today I find myself spiritually inclined towards meditating for the common good and welfare of all. This is routed in the strong belief that the universe conspires things only when it has to and what is meant to be."
As we proceeded with the dialogue, I probed more about her experience of playing multiple roles in her life as daughter, sister, professional, peace-builder and networker. She composed a very well thought-out reply to my queries. Mastering reflective practice, she additionally outlined how she sees roles playing out in the wake of shifting identities, specially the ones that have specific personal relational elements factored into them. She shared what she feels is possible in terms of playing multiple roles with a single underlying value system. For a mindfulness practitioner and peace-builder like me, the conversation was steadily getting more interesting.
"I have always seen all my roles as one single whole that are in tandem with each other and not as conflicting identities. As grassroots peace builders the distinction between professional and personal roles often get blurred with the same person being the didi, bhabhi, beti, poti and ‘madam’ at one go. And this reality as much as can get overwhelming for some it also underlines the beauty of relationship building which is a key to effective peace -building on ground.
I have negotiated and drawn lines between my personal and professional spaces on several occasions despite the two intersecting , complimenting and contrasting each other. But the lines have often been blurring because one cannot function without the support of the other. It's been a co-existential space for my family to support my ambitions, actions and plans and likewise our community to respect time and space constraints on my end.
I also would like to draw attention to socio-emotional baggage and packages that come with community peace building initiatives specially before women workers. These could be anything from around gender, age, body mapping to marital status but i feel not drawing strong lines and viewing questions from a standpoint of care and concern has particularly been helpful to adapt to ground situations and then co-create a congenial system in the workplace."
We proceeded to round up the interview with a reflective query on how Miss Dhupar identifies as a leader. Her response was in perfect alignment to her role as a facilitator of networks and her experience of empowering the innumerable cooperation circles under her to realize their potential and value to establish a system of shared possibilities, emerging from the remotest corners of the northern region in India.
She says: "I feel leadership is not a position it is a channel for enabling people to realise and get connected to something that is deep within them . And this channel then becomes a tool rather than an end goal for people to touch and unearth their deep and highest level of potentials.Only if a leader has created space for more people to take charge of situations, can the road less travelled, be undertaken as successfully."