Saturday, July 15, 2017

SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA

INTERVIEW
BACK TO THE ROOTS


SONGSOPTOK QUARTERLY:  What does the phrase “Back to roots” mean to you?

SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA: At first glance, “Back to roots” means going back to a surrounding where I speak Bengali, eat aloo-posto, sing Rabindrasangeet and get back to a leisurely culture of adda; a life of more participation and cooperation and less competition. On further reflection, I find my roots where people struggle to exist. Be it in South Asia, in South East Asia or in Africa. I have worked in these regions and I find my roots amidst the struggles of the have-nots. Languages, foods or cultures then become secondary to me.


SONGSOPTOK QUARTERLY: Where are your roots? Have you migrated far from your roots? Why?

SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA: I was born and brought up in Kolkata, India. I lived there until I was 35 years old. I lived in Singapore for 12 years and then moved to New York in 2006. When I graduated (early 1980s) from Jadavpur University, the mainstream political party introduced two major initiatives: anti-automation ideology and primary education in Bengali (our mother tongue). During the 12 years that I worked in Kolkata, I became a computer-illiterate engineer and my daughter was supposed to study only Bengali at school. Don’t get me wrong, I have no disrespect for my mother tongue. But it was the early 1990s. Globalization was knocking at our door and becoming a professional without computer literacy or putting my child in school without English was not acceptable to me and to my wife.  So, I was left with no other choice but to leave Kolkata. (Interestingly, both these moves were withdrawn after some years). This high-handedness by political elites was a major reason for many professionals to leave Kolkata in 1980s, the Mecca of arts culture and education in India. The view that automation was a capitalist ideology and rejecting it without sound alternatives was at best naive, if not grossly illogical. I often used to argue with my left-leaning friends that Lenin himself had said, Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.”


SONGSOPTOK QUARTERLY: In today’s fast-changing world, is it important to feel “rooted” to something, some place or some culture – or is the feeling just an impediment to progress?

SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA: Of course, it is important to feel “rooted” to something: some convictions and some belief systems. But if that “something” has a universal appeal then you feel less alienated even on a foreign soil. I had the unique opportunity to work with Grameen Telecom in Bangladesh where a mobile phone was used as a social tool to empower rural women. Currently, I work in Kathmandu, Nepal to disseminate health information to young boys in a men’s engagement program. My roots are my efforts in offering support to marginalized communities through new technologies. So, personally, I don’t feel rootedness is an impediment. On the contrary, my rootedness for a social cause offers me wider opportunities to design new technologies at the base of the pyramid. So, rootedness is not about some place or some culture but to my personal values.


SONGSOPTOK QUARTERLY: Do you think the urge to go back to one’s roots is at the root of global political disturbance today? Can you please elaborate your views for us?

SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA: I don’t think we have reached that stage of global political disturbance yet where everybody feels an urge to go back to one’s country of origin. But as Noam Chomsky recently said, “We are yet to experience the worst …” So, I have no yes/no answer for this question at the moment. Due to global political changes some people are definitely feeling pressurized to go back to their countries of origin. But let me add a slight distinction here.  Going back to one’s country of origin and going back to one’s roots are not the same. An element of individual agency guides you to your roots but you float back to your country of origin when you don’t have any other choice.


SONGSOPTOK QUARTERLY: Do you have any such yearning for going back anywhere? Is that your pleasure or pain? We will be happy if you can share it with our readers.

SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA: For me, the work that I do is more important than simply moving away from my roots or going back to my roots. Currently, I am developing a women’s football academy, Shreeja India, in West Bengal. We aspire to stop early marriage and prevent human trafficking and violence against women in rural West Bengal through this project. Along with coaching football, we also design programs to foster self-esteem, teamwork and leadership among these girls and help them continue education.

It is definitely a huge pleasure for me when I show the village girls football videos of developed countries. Coaching and learning have become quite easy with modern technology. We never had these opportunities when we grew up in Kolkata. On this respect, I would agree with Thomas Freidman that technology has leveled the world; the world has become flat. And I feel proud to be part of a movement where my organization is acting as an agent of change at the base of the pyramid. “Going back to my roots” then becomes my distinctive choice. It’s a pleasure and not a pain at all.


SONGSOPTOK QUARTERLY: The feeling of being rootless is often equivalent to nostalgia which may be defined as a longing for a home that no longer exists or even one that has never existed. In your opinion, is it a longing for a particular place or a particular time? Can you please explain with some examples if possible?

SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA: You have caught me on a very sentimental position with this question. I lost my father when I was in secondary school. My mother and my elder sister managed to run the family. It’s definitely a question of nostalgia when we visit that house in South Kolkata. I was born in that house, I got married in that house, and my daughter was born in that same house. I can still recognize the clicking sounds of every single switch in that two-story building. We had a few plants in our house and my mother used to maintain a rooftop garden with much care and tenderness. When my mother passed away in 2004, all the trees in the house withered within a week in spite of our efforts to keep them alive.

Of course, it is a longing for a home that no longer exists. The house is still there but not the people. You remember the Tagore song “Likhon Tomar Dhulay Hoyechey Dhuli …” That song depicts my sentiments in exact words.


SONGSOPTOK QUARTERLY: Are your roots in the country or the society you live in? If not, then why? Is it because of political, religious or cultural reasons? Or is it related to your own value system? Please take some time to answer this question and illustrate with examples whenever relevant.

SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA: I have deliberately uprooted myself when I realized that my daughter needed more exposure. You hardly make roots on a new soil when you are 35 years old. We try to believe that nothing has changed. But we constantly struggle with our inner I. When we were in Singapore, I organized a Tagore dance drama with young children. We made garlands with white paper flowers for the girls. They performed the dance well. But my daughter commented while returning home, “Baba, the program was good but these garlands have no fragrance.” Even a six-year old child could realize something missing from her original life.

But going to schools and colleges on foreign soil, children often pick up new roots but it is difficult for adults. For me, it is more cultural than religious or political. I still visit the tea stalls at Jadavpur 8B bus stand (outside Jadavpur University) whenever I am in Kolkata. The tea tastes the same; those biscuits inside the glass jars taste the same. Language, food preferences and adda do not die.


SONGSOPTOK QUARTERLY: In the country or the society you live in, have you witnessed the ‘Diaspora’ phenomenon? If yes, then in what form? What, according to you, are the main values and concepts shared by a particular Diaspora?

SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA: I don’t subscribe to the typical ‘Diaspora Phenomenon’ of justifying rigid rules as if it were prescribed by a higher authority. We need to challenge and improve our knowledge base constantly. The word root suggests that it is the source of strength and comfort to many people, as religious beliefs are to millions of people around the world. My decision to sever my ties with the Bengali urban Kolkata roots, after 35 years, was painful and difficult initially. But once I was out of Bengal, I preferred to gather more new ideas from the West rather than remain stuck to whatever I had learnt or whatever I used to do in Kolkata.
Let me give you an example here: I am associated with a choir in New York City. We present Tagore songs with more piano, violin and guitar accompaniments than Sitar or sarod players. Rabindrasangeet with western accompaniment takes a new form that we could not do in Kolkata. Good or bad is another question but the experimentation is important to me. A typical Diaspora phenomenon would resist me from these experiments. That’s not to my liking.

SONGSOPTOK QUARTERLY:  In your opinion, is this nostalgia of going back to roots a direct consequence of globalization and technological progress? What are the specific reasons for your opinion?

SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA: I came out of Kolkata to enrich my roots. I joined a PhD Program (Science and Technology Studies) in New York that is not taught in India. Globalization and technological progression definitely helped me to move out and implement my work. So, I would answer your question by saying that “rootedness” to me is a natural consequence of my higher studies and has followed through in my work. Globalization and technological progress have offered me better tools to achieve these results. But definitely, it is not a direct consequence of globalization and technological progress. “Back to roots” is moving around the globe with a mission, however small.


SONGSOPTOK QUARTERLY: Finally, do you think that the concept of ‘back to roots’ is ultimately derogatory to progress and unity in any given country or society? Why?

SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA:   It depends on the reasons and circumstances of your movement. Simply moving out of your roots or going back to your roots sound very shallow to me if it is not supported by clear objectives and action points. One has to have solid reasons for severing one’s roots and one has to have equally solid reasons to go back to one’s roots.

The dimensions of rootedness have changed during the last three decades of globalization. Now, I work on a subject called Social Construction of Technology (SCOT). I have developed a mobile phone system to distribute health information to village women. Primarily, I work in alleviating poverty and empowering women through technology in developing countries. In addition, on the non-profit side, I empower rural women through sports and education. So, I have distinct reasons for moving out of my roots and going back to my roots. Naturally, “back to roots” doesn’t have any negative connotation to me. But some people simply follow the crowd. Personally, I hate floating with the crowd. After all, it’s only the dead that floats, the living should be swimming for or against the current.


SHIB SHANKAR DASGUPTA, PhD aspires to bring science, technology and society together to address various social constraints to health, education, and business in developing countries. His main focus is to integrate women and marginalized communities into the mainstream of development through mobile phones and social media. Shib Shankar has developed a concept, the Cyber Capabilities Framework, to broaden the conventional understanding of well-being of individuals from simple ICT access to enhancement of the “cyber capabilities” of ordinary and empowered citizens. Currently, Shib Shankar is busy setting up Shreeja India, a non-profit organization that empowers young rural girls through football and education in West Bengal, India. The idea is to stop early marriage and prevent human trafficking and violence against women through this project. Along with coaching football, he also designs programs to foster self-esteem, teamwork and leadership among these young girls and help them in their regular school studies. You can obtain more information on Shreeja India by joining this group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/ShreejaIndia

We sincerely thank you for your time and hope we shall have your continued support.
Aparajita Sen
(EDITOR)

SONGSOPTOK QUARTERLY


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