“Helene Feuillat tells us a little about her life in Kolkata, India"
Interview by Beverley Sinton
Helene Feuillat, President, Kolkata International Women’s Club
Managing Partner, Samskara TransMission
Owner, Back 2 Business Coaching
PWI – How long have you lived in India now? What are the lessons you have learned so far? What is the biggest difference you and your family have found between living in Belgium and living in India?
We moved to India just a little over a year now. The country is absolutely fascinating. I had travelled extensively in India as a tourist many years ago, but living here is completely different. We have learned many things, one of them is patience! The notion of time is completely different here… I needed to “deprogramme” myself from my way of functioning…no way I can go “quickly” and get this or that done. Everything takes a certain time (and always longer than you expect!) . Administration is also quite heavy and again, going through procedures requires a lot of patience; but on the other hand, people are relaxed and don’t understand why we should get upset! Also, living in Kolkata in particular, gives me a better understanding of happiness, joy, of basic needs and how privileged we are. Although many here hardly have a roof above their heads, smiles are on most faces. The people are very welcoming and joyful.
PWI - Do foreign residents experience the reality of India, or do they live a ‘protected life’ remote from the Indian community around them?
Expats definitely live a different life, but it is one of the many realities of India. India is a country of contrasts where you face the poorest and the wealthiest at the same time. In Kolkata, there are no condominiums with only foreigners, so that facilitates the contact with the local population. At the KIWC, we also have a great mix of foreigners and local women. Bengalis are very open and I encountered no problem with meeting Indians. Many of my friends are from Kolkata. This is important to get a real feel of the city. They have so many stories to tell, it is absolutely fascinating. As everyone speaks English, there is no language barrier. Bengalis are also known to be fond of culture; the famous writer Tagore is from Kolkata, and there are plenty of cultural and social events in town.
PWI – What sort of work and educational opportunities are there for women in India? Are there religious or cultural barriers blocking women’s progress in the workplace? Do you see a big difference between the way you are treated as a European woman working in India, and the way Indian women are treated?
Although there are exceptions (the previous Indian President was a women, as well as the President of the Congress, and some business women as well), there is a huge gender gap. First regarding education, mainly in the rural areas. Poor girls often do not get access to education. They either have to work or take care of their home and smaller children while the parents go to work. There are so many people in this country that everyone has to fight for a seat at university, competition is just so tough and it is starting from the first year of school (5 years). Once graduated, getting a job is also very hard. Gender discrimination is a reality and with equal competences, girls will not get the same positions that are offered to boys . The lack of childcare also means that it is very difficult for mothers to continue to work, unless they can count on their family. Shared family homes are still the way most people live, but it is not always accepted that a woman continues to work after marriage. Many of my friends had arranged marriages and live with their in-laws (arranged marriage does not mean “forced” though! ). Most of them work and have children, but they are all highly educated and have been travelling abroad, so they tend to be more open. Personally, I haven’t felt a difference of treatment here because I was a woman, but an Irish friend of mine told me the other day that at the hospital (where she had to stay a couple of days), the doctors would refuse to speak to her and would only address her husband! You mention religion; Kolkata is quite tolerant compared to other regions in India, but I do think that there is religious discrimination as well. Furthermore, although the cast system has been abolished many years ago, it is still present and segregation is a reality.
PWI – Helene, I know you have recently become the President of the Kolkata International Women’s Club. Can you tell us more about the club and its membership? I believe one of the aims is to foster friendship and understanding between yourselves and the local community, could you please tell us more.
The KIWC has two main missions: one is indeed to foster friendship and understanding between the foreigners and the local community, and also to help each-other when needed, knowing that Kolkata is not always an easy experience. We also support a number of local charities that help women and children. For some charities, we would provide milk, tea, sugar, for others, it would be the sponsorship of girls education. We also help a home for elderly women, many of them have been abandoned by their family and have nowhere to go. The projects are chosen yearly and we visit each project at least 2 times a year. It is necessary to check what has been achieved with the money we donated. Unfortunately there is a lot of corruption, even in the NGO business. So we do our best to support small organizations where we feel we really make a difference and where we can check what is done with our funding. If any PWI member is interested in contributing to our charities, please let me know! Providing lunch for school girls costs about 0,15 cents/person and sponsoring the complete education of a girl is about 400 euro/year. Any donation is welcome and will be spent wisely.
PWI – Is there a large group of foreign women in Kolkata? From a personal, cultural and/or professional view point would you recommend a similar life experience to other women?
Kolkata is not a very trendy expat location so the foreign community is definitely smaller than Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Bangalore. But the advantage of this is that everyone knows each other, there is a lot of solidarity. I met the most wonderful people here, and in such a short time, I can say I made true friends from many different countries. Moving abroad is a fantastic experience that I would strongly recommend to anyone! From a professional perspective, I am lucky to have a job that I can do anywhere. Besides, I kept my business in Belgium and I commute every 3 months. In this respect, I feel privileged. I did meet women who had to put their career on hold and that can lead to frustrations. I also met women who found a job here quite easily…Everything is possible, it really depends on what you want!
I understand you are continuing to coach people in Brussels, via Skype and occasional visits to Brussels. Have you found this ‘long distance coaching’ easy to adapt to?
Coaching via skype is actually very easy, but it takes a good internet connection from both sides. That’s the most tricky thing. As I am coming to Belgium regularly, I see my clients so we do have face to face sessions as well. In countries like the US and Australia, skype or phone coaching is really considered as normal. I have followed an 18 months training course where the sessions were held either via skype or with a conference call system and it worked very well. I also come to Belgium for training sessions, it is a perfect way to remain in the business and also to get to see my friends and family, and enjoy everything Brussels has to offer!
How is coaching different in India from here? Do you need different approaches? In India are you mainly coaching ex-pats or do you also coach Indian people?
Coaching in India is actually mainly coaching students to get into universities. Life coaching would more be considered as counseling. Life coaching is not so much present here in Kolkata but it is developing in cities like Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore. I have a few coaching clients, mainly expats, a few locals. I give training sessions to expats and also to teachers and students. I love giving training here, people are very eager to learn and very open to personal development. This might be a cultural difference: yoga, meditation, questioning yourself etc. is something that is starting early. My children have yoga classes included in their school curriculum and they had an introduction to meditation. Having a spiritual master is also something very common here, that makes personal development fascinating. And no one is shy to admit it!
PWI – How have your husband and your children coped with life in India? What is the most surprising thing(s) you and your family have found out about living and working in India?
We have adapted very well, I am so proud of my children! They did not speak a word of English and have picked up the language very quickly. Here in Calcutta, there is no real international school and there aren’t many expat kids their age (11 & 14). They made a lot a Indian friends and speak some Hindi, share meals with their friends (this does frightens me a bit though!). They had to get used to the climate and be careful about hygiene. They were quite shocked by the pollution and the lack of environmental awareness; on the other hand, they realize how privileged they are. The contrasts of India have enriched us all so much, I think it is an experience we will never forget. I honestly think that if you can adapt here, you can live anywhere! Being away has also tightened the family strings, we spend much more time together and that is really wonderful.
Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Samskara, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.