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Call of roots

The call of roots is something very hard to define. Indeed, just what is it that makes a person come back to his or her roots, even after having gone far away to a distant land, to embrace new people and newer cultures, to a place where there is no trace of her ancestry. While we often tend to forget about our origins in the humdrum of day-to-day existence and in our quest to move ahead in life, the fact remains that a person is incomplete without his roots. Such is its power that it can make one go out of the way to preserve his or her heritage, even in foreign and unknown shores, against the set and conventional patterns of life of the land where he or she now resides.

Sanghamitra Kalita

Born to Mahesh Kalita and Nirmala Kalita – her mother was brought up in the Santipur area of Guwahati – Sanghamitra’s paternal family had settled down in Sadiya, a place of which she has fond remembrances even today. In fact, Sadiya was a place her family visited every few years i.e till she became twelve years old, by when most of her family had already moved to Guwahati. In fluent Assamese, she says, “I really enjoyed my childhood days and especially liked the long trips to Assam. I had once stayed in Sadiya for more than a month and it was truly a revelation for me. I still remember the feel of those times, how it felt to live amidst the lush countryside and to help my cousins with their homework on slates with chalk.” She adds, “Many youngsters living in urban India today are not being able to experience this part of India, which I am thankful for having experienced.”

As of today, Sanghamitra has made a mark as a top-notch journalist with one of America’s largest newspapers. She is presently an editor at the Wall Street Journal and thanks to her penchant for research and incisive analysis, she is today regarded as an authority on global economic trends. Her book on the Indian economy will be released by Harper Collins by the end of this year.

Journalism came calling early in Sanghamitra’s life. Her first efforts in journalism can be traced back to the time when she was around eleven years old, when she actually took the initiative to “produce” a newspaper with art paper by reporting on her parents. Though the newspaper she had produced then was nothing more than a childish prank, it amply signified Sanghamitra’s instinct for journalism, something which she continued to hone throughout her growing-up days. When asked about her newspaper, she elaborates, “My childhood saw a lot of travelling, shifting to new cities and new schools, on account of my father’s frequent job transfers. I did not like the travelling as I hardly got the chance to settle down in one place and make friends. Maybe the newspaper I produced then was symbolic of a social movement that I wanted to start inside my family to protest against this travelling, or it might also be that I saw journalism as a way to have a voice.”

Sanghamitra had the nose for news all right. But even after living in the States which can be much more liberal for children in comparison with India, she still had few role models in the media. Her predicament can be understood from the fact that journalism is not a field that Indo American families normally encourage their children to pursue. She recalls, “When asked to name some other Indian Americans practicing journalism in the States, I remember not being able to give a concrete answer. There were plenty of doctors or computer engineers then.” She, however, followed her dreams and went on to procure a degree from the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism.

Sanghamitra Kalita began her career in journalism in the New Jersey bureau of the Associated Press, a premier American news agency. But it was only when she joined Newsday, a major newspaper in the New York area, that she got noticed for writing a series of articles on the burgeoning Indian economy and how the country was about to burst into the world stage. She also wrote about small business, Enron and the terror attacks of 9/11. That was the beginning and since then, she has been bestowed with a number of awards and commendations and has also been featured in the Best Business Stories of 2003.

Besides economics, Sanghamitra is also a keen follower of immigration issues. Having lived in a variety of places in the US over the years, particularly in Puerto Rico, and having gained a wider perspective of immigration issues, she has extensively covered the South Asian diaspora in her news reports. For instance, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2011 terrorist attack at the World Trade Centre, she had reported extensively on the immediate backlash against Arabs and South Asians living in the New York city area, and had also written a chapter for ‘At Ground Zero: Young Reporters Who Were To Tell Their Stories’.

For someone who has got a taste of Indian journalism as well, Sanghamitra feels that the context in Indian journalism is largely missing and appears to be more “agenda-driven,” which is understandable, she says, given the larger number of newspapers – ideologically, linguistically and regionally – in India. “Over here, the lines seem to be much more blurred – politics, business, journalism,” she said, even as she harped on how ethics comprised a fundamental aspect of journalism. “Public trust and clarity is most important,” she added as she deliberated on the fixation of journalists in both countries for the “breaking news” phenomenon.

Despite her manifold achievements and even after following such a hectic lifestyle, Sanghamitra still treasures her Assamese roots. If you are wondering, just in case, she speaks extremely fluent Assamese and danced Bihu as a child, having learnt it in her grandmother’s drawing room in Santipur. Living in an environment dominated by English, I felt this is indeed commendable. “We speak Assamese at home and so does my daughter now – although we really have to remind her. My parents realized that language was very important for me to have a connection with my relatives back home in India,” she says.

Unlike the clash between cultures that seems to disturb most Indo-Americans, Sanghamitra appears to be comfortable with her identity and feels entirely at home in both Indian and American cultures. “I should thank my parents for rearing me up in such a way as to be comfortable in both settings. There were no cultural clashes as far as I can remember. We grew up celebrating Indian festivals and practicing Hindu rituals. Afterwards, when my father became a practicing Buddhist, we started having an increasing Buddhist influence in our lifestyles.”

As Sanghamitra has worked with immigration issues for a long period of time and since she is also a part of the Indian diaspora in the US, our conversation not surprisingly veered to the issue of racial discrimination, which has started occupying news headlines once again after the recent attacks against Indians in Australia. “The Assamese community in the States is very small and when we talk about representation, it is more on the lines of an entire country, say Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Racial discrimination certainly exists in the US but I can’t say it pervades my daily life. To be honest, Indians benefitted greatly from the Civil Rights movement but the groups that made Indians’ success possible – such as Blacks and Latinos – still lag behind Asians in income levels.

Besides journalism, Sanghamitra Kalita is also a prolific writer, having authored a highly acclaimed non-fiction book, Suburban Sahibs. The book is an account of three immigration families and how they go about following their dreams in a foreign country. Each family represent an entirely different stratum of society, but together they build up the fabric of the greater American society. At a time when Indians have become a major community in the US and have become a defining factor in US politics, Sanghamitra has managed to draw in her book a vivid account of this particular community, touching on how their immigration has changed the American suburbs and how America, in turn, has transformed them.
Suburban Sahibs has won the ‘Winner of the Celebration of Immigrant Voices Award’ from the International Institute of New Jersey and the ‘2004 New Jersey Authors Award’ from the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance and New Jersey Library Association. The soft-spoken writer is presently working on her next book which is due to be released later this year.

Sanghamitra is married to Nitin Mukul – a designer and artist who also loves to DJ in his free time. Nitin works as a Visual Art Director for various projects, having conceived the promotional material of quite a few films. Two noteworthy films of recent times of which he was a part are 3 Idiots and Supermen of Malegaon. Together, Sanghamitra and Nitin have a five-year old daughter, whom they have named Naya Meenakshi. She now dances Bihu.

With both spouses following hectic lifestyles, the couple likes to live to the fullest whenever they can squeeze out time together. Having heard that the couple used to drive around in a purple-coloured ambassador while they were posted in New Delhi, I couldn’t resist asking them about the peculiar choice in colour. To this, Sanghamita replies: “We chose the ambassador because it is really a very sturdy car and. at the same time, very classy. With regards to the colour, I wanted a red car while my husband wanted a blue one. So we chose something in between!” She added: “Back in the US, I now drive a more “boring” red-coloured Subaru Station Wagon. I definitely miss the life that was represented in our Amby…”