Capturing inspiring Global Indian Stories, in lockdown and beyond

Capturing inspiring Global Indian Stories, in lockdown and beyond

Reena Ranger, Chair of Women Empowered, is In Conversation with Smita Sarkar as part of her regular series for ‘iGlobal’ to explore some inspirational facets from the life and achievements of prominent Global Indians.

Smita is the Hong Kong based Founder-Editor of webzine ‘Global Indian Stories’, a community project that she launched in 2019 to give a voice to those the mainstream media tends to neglect. She started her career as a broadcast journalist and juggled multiple roles as a reporter, researcher, anchor and producer across India, the UK and Singapore. She has also handled corporate communications for organisations and conducts documentary filmmaking workshops and also creates awareness-generating films for charities.

You have been compiling stories on the pandemic from Hong Kong, London, and India. What have been the similarities and differences you have found on this journey?

The three countries – India, the UK and Hong Kong – are usually thought of as very different, with vastly different social and government structures, but the pandemic has brought about similar strains of people and communities getting together to face the challenges.

The commonalities between the stories across the countries have been on how people have come together, made contributions beyond themselves and for the greater good, to help the vulnerable, support frontline workers and others. When I visited the countries, I dedicated time to find sources that could provide me with ground reports and positive human stories.

It is physically impossible for a single person, or even a team of journalists, to cover much ground during a pandemic. So, I encouraged citizens to become journalists, creating a section called "Lockdown Diaries" to compile and capture these human challenges and stories of resilience. We didn't just have stories coming in from India, the UK, and Hong Kong, but from across the world.

For example, there is a story on how the Indian soup Rasam, made by a Tamil chef in New York, has gone viral as an immunity-boosting soup among Covid-recovering patients.

In India, the lockdown had led to crisis, especially that of migrant workers and their families who had to walk back many miles with little food or money after all forms of transport was shut in the lockdown. We received several stories on how communities got together to help migrant workers, provided for the marginalised sex-workers, rendered emotional and professional support to the vulnerable elderly, children and the LGBTQ+ communities. Young, school-going children raised funds for communities during the pandemic. They are truly extraordinary human stories of the pandemic.

In the UK, we’ve had unique stories of people from the South Asian community who’ve raised funds in the most unusual ways, they have supported school-going children and their parents. Restaurant owners and community kitchens have come together to cook meals for the homeless, stranded international students, frontline workers and even raised funds to send across to India to support impoverished artisans after the Cyclone Amphan hit eastern India.

Whereas in Hong Kong, the government has controlled the pandemic really well, minimising the need for volunteering by individuals or social charities. However, we’ve covered stories on the supportive work by the Indian and South Asian communities in the institutionalised quarantine centres in Hong Kong.

You have a keen interest in human stories, having spent many years working with charities. What made you choose this field?

I find human stories tangible and therefore close to my heart. They also teach you that everything has multiple perspectives and that there is actual human pain and suffering attached to each perspective. They are also very uplifting, highlighting the power of the individual and their triumph over insurmountable challenges.

I grew up in a senior civil servant’s house, where my dad served in small districts and villages in India, so importance was given to addressing people’s hardships and serving the grassroots and vulnerable.

While I grew up in a city, I spent a sizeable time in the interiors of India, away from cities. My parents subtly shared stories of the Indian Partition and the struggles they had to go through while growing up in refugee camps and centres. Our generation had the money, but we were taught to live humbly. Subconsciously, over the years we imbibed the empathy and sensibilities that one needs, to be a humanitarian journalist.

So, when I started my career with the UNHCR in New Delhi, right after my Masters in International Relations, working closely with Afghan refugees, and other ethnic groups, seeing closely what a displaced life is like, my love for human stories began.

My projects while at the Film and Television Institute in India, FTII, were human stories. I worked on a documentary describing the plight of children living on the platforms of train stations in India. Then even though I’ve worked with leading networks like CNN, CNBC, Associated Press and Star News in India, Singapore, Hong Kong, and London, I kept coming back to roles within charities like Sewa, the Loomba Foundation, My Life Films, projects with Barnardos and others.

I started Global Indian Stories in July 2019 with the same approach, to impart digital literacy. It is an inclusive platform of human stories, written by the individuals themselves. You don’t need to be in the news, or extraordinary for your voice to be heard, or for us to publish you. Our over 150 contributors come from all walks of life, and from across the world – with a range of stories, from a five-year-old making his choicest cupcakes, to a 91-year-old sharing his tips on Yoga and well-being. We encourage and train people to write, have their voices and stories heard.

What do you think the “new normal” will be in a post Covid-19 world?

I would hope that the human race will become more humble, and that there will be a lot less hate and rage. A lot of the problems we create as a species, like pollution or climate change, come from the feeling that we are the masters of the world. Covid has come along and changed that perspective and shown us how fragile our lives can be.

How we reacted and behaved during this pandemic will define us to the future generations. For me, I learnt to make the most of any adverse situation and stay human, considerate, cautious, empathetic, and most importantly follow rules, no matter how hard they may seem.

We all learnt to live with the bare minimum, and make do with less, and I think that will be the trend going forward.

What do you think has been the most profound realisation or discovery about yourself over the last few years?

I’ve been an easy go lucky person, and I've moved countries several times over the years in order to support my husband's professional career. However, despite having to relocate, I’ve worked late nights and odd hours to follow my dreams. I've also made sure that I spend a lot of time with my daughters, shaping them well as global citizens. I gathered that even though my personal life has slowed my career down, I’ve bounced back in the game time and again.

I’ve realised that I probably have the guts, tenacity, patience, and skills to start from the scratch, over and over again. I can be adaptable, pick up new languages or lingo, traditions, and ways of living in new environments well. There is this burning desire in my gut to keep going, keep working and aiming to make a difference in the lives of those I touch in ways – big and small.

But a deep desire, unaccompanied by proper planning will be a bit of a disaster, and I understood this while speaking to a young HR professional recently in Hong Kong. Without planning and a long-term vision, it is possible to lose focus that can slow things down in your professional and personal life. The need for definite goals is key to strike a balance and thrive in both. It's a lesson that I still struggle with when it feels like there aren't enough hours in the day to do everything I'd like to.

Reena Ranger is the Chair and Co-Founder of Women Empowered. In this exclusive multi-media “In Conversation” series for ‘iGlobal’, the dynamic entrepreneur-philanthropist catches up with high-achieving Global Indians across different fields to spotlight some insightful life lessons.

*The views expressed in the answers are of the interviewees.

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