Enlightenment under the people tree

Travel makes tourists of some, mystics of others. Sangeetha Shinde’s journey around the world has not been that of the typical traveller, for she hasn’t visited places, she has lived them. Here she talks of her travels one that tell stories of courage, love, open roads and our collective humanness. Written by Qiraat Attar

The years of travel have given this traveller a keen perception of people. As my conversation with her veers delightfully off-course, she explains the ideology that categorizes people as either ‘Somewheres’ or ‘Everywheres’. While the ‘Somewheres’ seek roots, people and places they’ve always known, craving the familiarity of family and friends around them, the ‘Nowheres’ are restless, rootless, moving constantly as a way of life, rolling stones that cannot be defined by a single place.

Born in Jabalpur, India, Sangeetha Shinde Tee travelled all over the country, courtesy her father’s job as a military doctor…from Assam to Pune to Delhi, to the town of Wellington that lies nestled in the sweeping blue green Nilgiri mountains, where her father retired and she spent her formative teenage years. She feels blessed with the experiences that came with that life, both good and bad.” I grew up on the knees of people like Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw who ended up proposing the toast at my wedding. Club life and tea gardens became second nature. But I was always different from others in that setting. I wanted more and so my first travels began via the pages of books. I read voraciously, and I was lucky that I come from an inordinately intelligent family; my mother told me of her travels in Europe and instilled a love of western classical music and dance, my father taught me the joys of faith and service, my brother opened up the world of science fiction and thanks to him, to this day, I get to travel the far reaches of the galaxy.”

But armchair travel was not enough and unhappy with a small-town existence and all the constraints it carried, she ran away to Bangalore and lived homeless for eleven months, shuttling between friend’s homes and bus and railway stations. Married at 21, she fell into a cycle of terrible violence and abuse before gathering the courage to leave at 27 and seek a divorce and a new life for herself. The next few years were tumultuous, as Sangeetha’s wide-eyed foray out of India was quickly dulled by the harshness of racism in Dubai and Bahrain, where prejudice and colorism seemed to have followed her from India.  She decided to quit Asia and try again for a new life elsewhere. She applied for an MBA in London, and hightailed it out of the Middle East, taking on an expensive personal loan to get her through this degree and life in the UK. She laughingly refers to her MBA as her ‘Masters in Bugger All’ and says all it taught her was that she was horrifically bad at accountancy and finance.

IT’S LONDON, BABY

Over the years she has visited many, many cities, mostly for work. Every place has a characteristic energy, be it the fun vibe of Bangalore, the lightness that is Amsterdam, the night allure of Paris, the beauty of Vienna, or the notoriously underrated Beirut, famous for its food and Amal Clooney, the stunning skyline of Vancouver or the mystery of the Alexandrian shoreline… but a part of her heart will stay in London forever. London was her first proper taste of freedom, with no scrutiny of color, gender or ethnicity, viewed as a human with rights and privilege. For the first time, she was recognized as an individual and not for the labels attached to her.

‘London is home, freedom, liberation, joy, laughter, intelligence – London is everything I would want a place to be. Only hideously unaffordable!” she says, laughing aloud. She identifies London as one of the nerve centres of the world. “The energy as one steps out of King’s Cross station hits you in the face like a million volts of electricity” she says in awe, “With theatres, museums, lectures and music, the craziest mix of people, this is a vibrant cosmopolitan culture that makes you glad to be alive.”

The Science Museum and the Natural History Museum are her favourite go-to places and she always finds herself lost in wonder, losing all track of time while in there, as the magnificence of this planet and its human endeavour unfold before her eyes. “You can’t go often enough. “There’s always something new to learn in those places and you realise your unimportant place in the scheme of things… It is a humbling, enriching experience unlike any other.”

A STORYTELLER BY VOCATION

But the wanderer in her is attached to something after all – people and their stories, and that also forms the crux of her professional life, making her an accomplished and renowned creative in her own right.

For instance, she set up and ran the National Cultural and Tourism magazine for the Kingdom of Jordan, which was nominated for an international British Council Award for ‘Best Emergent Magazine’. They reported stories that received international traction; for example, her magazine was the first in the world to carry the story of the discovery of the missing bit of the Via Nova Trajana, the 2000-year-old road that ran from Rome to the Middle East. She also set up and ran a bilingual magazine for the Mayor of Amman, after which she established a European magazine on innovation and entrepreneurship called The Business Innovator that she ran from Brussels. She acknowledges her good fortune of landing challenging jobs, being responsible for creating transformational content and working with gifted people.

Human experience is the same everywhere, whether you are an atheist, a believer, a blue or red passport holder, a pauper or a prince, male or female

She has also published four books: Amman: Story, A Moral Murder and Other Tales From The Blue Hills, The Book of Anglo Indian Tales, and most recently, The Naked Indian Woman. This last one is special to Sangeetha, for over the years, and with the systemic abuse she faced, the cause of women’s empowerment has become her North Star.  She truly believes nothing is impossible for women once they awaken to the power of their unity. “We need to stop looking at each other with suspicious rivalry and become collaborators, before challenging the pedestal patriarchy is sat on,” she says with steely resolve. “Funnily, despite my belief in this, and despite coming from a violent and abusive marriage, I find my greatest heartaches have come from women, not men,” she says wryly.

THE ORDINARY LIFE

Sangeetha is attuned to the lives and feelings of people like few others I have known. She has sat with the Palestinian refugees in Jordan, broken bread with Kahlil Gibran’s great-grandson, been randomly serenaded by street musicians. In Antwerp, she ran into a Hungarian pianist who gave her an impromptu private concert; an audience of one. When he finished, he handed her a four-leaf clover he had been holding on to and said, “I’m passing my luck on to you.” Yes, she still has it. She had a Roma gypsy violinist play her favourite Hindi song on a cold winter’s night in exchange for a hot drink.

Sangeetha is fascinated with the stories of ordinary people. She hoards these stories and has a singular way of narrating them, rich with nostalgia and tinged with the sepia tone of memory. Despite the miles and years passed, she has stayed in touch with many she crossed paths with, be it the Dutch policewoman with an abiding love for rock concerts she met on the Eurostar from London to Belgium, or the elderly Canadian gentleman who shared his umbrella with her on the sombre tour of the Holocaust sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland. Years later, when she visited Canada, she happened to land in the same city he lived in, Victoria, and they met again, years after the pouring rain and his kindness created a beautiful bond. She has picked up friends in unexpected places and again she laughs as she says, “I have picked up enemies in even more unexpected ones and they’ve often been from my closest circle.”

The people that she met that have influenced her thinking embody courage and have chosen love, despite all odds. She remembers dining under starlight in Petra with the Bedouin chief and his family, while the male tribe members performed the ‘Dahiya’ just for her’, she met a European opera singer who had fallen in love with her Bedouin tour guide and stayed back with him, a testament to the power of love, who sang arias under the desert moon as Sangeetha listened in awestruck wonder. She has argued politics, philosophy, and veganism with the team of scientists responsible for discovering the Higgs-Boson particle with whom she had a standing dinner date every week for almost a year. “My version of The Big Bang Theory,” she says with a smile. The world-famous violinist, Roby Lakatos always played a solo just for her in his tiny, garage bar in Brussels, whenever she visited. She has learned the art of diplomacy from John Holmes, one of Canada’s best-loved diplomats and one of the five lawyers responsible for setting up the ICC, in the Hague. From her fellow author, Carol Bujeau she has learned the power of humour and being present for others. She has had the privilege of being mentored by Shreekumar Varma, noted, award-winning author and Raja Ravi Varma’s great grandson, and to this day he remains a guiding light and dear friend… and so it keeps going.

Of the places she has visited, two stand out in vivid memory. The Jeita caves in Beirut, Lebanon, a series of interconnected caves in an underground river and the Pyramids of Giza. “There is no comparison to these two spots, no photograph does these places even an ounce of justice. Their awe-inspiring existence can only be absorbed when you stand before them,” she says, her breath catching in her voice as her mind goes travelling again even as she is speaking with me.

According to Sangeetha human nature is often comfortingly predictable even when separated by borders, languages and customs. And the commonality of it is that everybody hurts. “It is the one human phenomenon that unites us all. We all fall sick, we all worry, we all experience betrayal and get depressed and, mostly, we all eventually find a way out. Human experience is the same everywhere, whether you are an atheist, a believer, a blue or red passport holder, a pauper or a prince, male or female.” To her, architecture, history  and culture are beautiful, incredible and significant, but ultimately pale in comparison to the edifices of people’s everyday lives. “For me travel is not about the place. It’s always been about the people I meet in that place. This moves me.”

LIFE ON HOLD

Sangeetha’s stories have an element of mysticism. She looks, but she also peers behind the veil. She longs to understand reality. As a traveler, Sangeetha has seen past the veneer of human pretence. “You meet the best and the worst, cheats and saints, experience the rich tapestry of them all. Travel isn’t just getting some souvenirs and some fridge magnets and photographs in front of the Eiffel tower. Those mean nothing.” Her patience is tested by people who drag her around to tourist spots for endless pictures, rather than enjoy the majesty of the place, because they want the world to see and perhaps envy their travels, an entirely shallow exercise in vanity. In fact, she had much trouble producing photography for this piece because clicking pictures of herself at places never really occurs to her when she is in the moment.

Life has adopted a more leisurely pace for her now. Two and a half years ago, she moved to Corfu, Greece, in what she calls an ‘early retirement of sorts; amid the azure and purple water and skies, surrounded by Albanian mountains and ancient silvery-green olive trees. But on a visit back to India she found herself back where she started out, her hometown in the Nilgiris, as lockdown hit the world. But even here she used the time to write a book and The Naked Indian Woman was born of wanting to experience and tell the tales of the ordinary lives of the everyday Indian woman.

Travel isn’t just getting some souvenirs and some fridge magnets and photographs in front of the Eiffel tower. Those mean nothing

As the world started to crawl out of lockdown she found herself back on the Med, but this time in Izmir in Turkey, a place she describes as being the closest she will ever come to heaven on Earth. “This is the kindest place in the world,” she says, the happiness evident in her voice. You see it in the way the Izmirians treat their stray animals. They are well-fed, neutered and spayed and happy, friendly souls, and it fills your heart with joy to see animals and people co-exist in such sympathy with each other. In a short time I have made amazing friends and seen incredible places and, frankly, I cannot believe my luck that I got to add this to all my other experiences.”

HOMEWARD BOUND

So is there a destination for Sangeetha? “Well, there’s always the inevitable, “she says laughing again. “The moth-to-flame syndrome is strong in me and, I guess, my hometown is where I always seem to return to.  I have a home there, my spoiled dogs are there, the most loving staff, incredible neighbours and friends… And of course my beloved bestie, the accomplished Dr Sheela Nambiar who remains one of my greatest inspirations. But who really knows. I try not to make God laugh by planning my life.”

As Sangeetha heeded to the call coming from deep within her, she unleashed her ‘everyhereness’’ free, and wrote her story with the ink of a thousand others. It wasn’t easy. Navigating the globe with an Indian passport is an arduous task, and Sangeetha has refused to give up her Indian passport on principle. “I am Indian, and I cannot turn my back on that aspect of me, no matter what ease of travel is afforded to me through other passports I have had access to.” She has taken risks, made her own opportunities, found her path via a series of mistakes and she has embraced her personal journey and her travels with the same spirit of adventure and laughter that she approached her conversation with me.

I hope, as you take her story in, there is a call within you too, that reveals whether you are a ‘Somewhere’ looking to put down your roots, or a ‘Everywhere’ desperate to wander and collect experiences. As Sangeetha says, “Whether you travel to unexpected places in your mind, or in person, the important thing is to make the journey with as much joy, openness and humility as is humanly possible.” Sangeetha seems to have done both with some distinction, and her unfinished story… Well, let’s see where it takes her next.

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