Sheeba Sen: My Journeys to the centre of self

When I was asked to write an article about my journey for Bhoomi Magazine, I could not help but be a bit overwhelmed. Where does one begin and which story does one share? 

Having been awarded the Bhoomi Senior Fellowship this year, I had accepted the role of sharing my work with other aspiring social and eco entrepreneurs; and what it takes to start a grassroots enterprise in rural India. In reality, however, speaking of my journey with Alaap would be analogous to seeing just one side of a prism. There have been so many self journeys and narratives intertwined with the Alaap’s journey, some open to all and others embedded deep in the forests of my soul. I realized that to do any justice to the request, I would need to ‘break the shell’ and make a new start. 

To counter the danger of a single story, many different stories must be told. 

Empowerment and healing are not events in our lives that are always marked by heroic struggles and successes. Sometimes they happen in the quieter moments with ourselves when we realise who we are.  

Today, I introduce myself as Sheeba, a mother foremost, a co-traveller and Founder and CEO of Alaap. However, if I had met you 10 years ago, I would have introduced myself as Sheeba, a corporate lawyer, a girl in love, a lost soul perhaps. 

What transpired in the past decade that unveiled a social entrepreneur from within the lawyer, from the high streets of London to rural Himalayas, from being lost to being found?  

I was the second born in a middle class family in Lucknow, U.P. My father worked as a sales officer in a sugarcane processing company and my mother as a home maker for most of my growing up years. From the age of four I was brought up in the suburbs of New Delhi where I grew up with, what you may call, a typical middle class Indian family’s dreams and aspirations. I would be the hard working, diligent girl who would always get good grades at school and would be the house captain.

I went on study at the University of Delhi (swerving from taking entrance exams for medical schools) and made it to one of the top universities in the UK for my Masters. Yes, I was diligent and I worked hard. When I was sent off to England to study, I was sent off with an aspiration of ‘making something of myself’. It was not just my journey alone. It was that of my family’s too. I had to live up to that. I was to focus on my studies, get good grades and most importantly, get a well paying job and a visa extension. 

Miraculously, I ticked all of these boxes. By the age of 25, I had degrees from two of the world’s best universities in England. I had landed up a job at one of the world’s top international law firms in London, where I could earn my parent’s combined annual income in just a month; and most importantly, I had fallen in love with Rohit, a banker. And he was British. 

Bingo! I was crushing it. I had checked all the boxes. I would be the ‘quintessential’ good girl. Bright, hard working, with a promising (and well paying) career in England. And now I had a potential husband lined up as well. 

This could be my journey…A high profile lawyer… a banker’s wife… living the dream in one of the richest neighbourhoods of London. 

But the truth was that I felt hollow inside, battling a constant emotion of feeling like a failure, an emotion no one around me, including Rohit, could make any sense of. That was the time when I started introspecting on who was I and who did I want to become. And it was when I started asking these questions something even more painful emerged. I had no answers to my questions. I felt lost and confused, rebellious and weak. The only truth I knew at that time was that I did not belong to the life I had created for myself. 

It was then, I believe, the genesis of what I am today, had begun. 

Another journey may unfold. My journey. 

For the next three years, I would continue working at the law firm. I needed to save money and there was plenty to be saved! When I had saved enough to pull the trigger so to say; and I could no longer take it, I resigned. 

Finally. First step

At this stage I only knew one thing – I no longer wanted to make rich people richer. I wanted to get real. For lack of a better phrase, I wanted to make a difference. I felt compelled to put my education and experiences to better use. I wanted to be part of the journey of my country, my people. I wanted to belong. I had no idea how, only that I needed to do it. For myself. 

What would a story be if there was no drama? Be rest assured, I am not here to tell you a patriotic tale of return to the homeland; of becoming the saviour of the poor and of saving the planet! No. My journey is more about a deep desire to find my own path; a deeper meaning in my life and being authentic to it. 

It has been about finding myself. 

While I floated in the fantasies of my compelling need to serve, I was also married by now and my decisions wouldn’t just be mine anymore. My parents were ageing and could not understand my existential dilemmas. They had worked hard all their lives to see that their children got a good education, had sacrificed holidays and new clothes on Diwali for themselves, so that my brother and I could go the best schools in the capital and wore new clothes on every Diwali; that we had the trendiest school bag every April when the new session started in school and that we wouldn’t have to live in the same parts of the city where we grew up. They wanted me to climb the ladder to the top, not dig a grave(as they saw it!). 

I can only appreciate now how insecure they would have felt whenever I would express my unhappiness to them. Also, why was I seeking meaning when I was married? I should have had other things to worry about. And for a long time, I believed that too (how deeply ingrained is patriarchy in us women!). Rohit continued to be in denial, just as he was when we got married. Just as I was, when we got married. While he would listen to my growing unhappiness, it remained at that – just listening. I finally started to question the marriage and wondered if we could ever find a middle path. It was apparent we belonged to different worlds. And we seemed to be chasing different aspirations. 

At the age of 29 I decided to return back to India. I returned to my parent’s home in Delhi. 

Full circle. 

All the boxes that I had ticked, now needed to be unticked. And it would churn up a storm! No longer did I have a steady income and most of all, I was now officially in a ‘long distance marriage’, a marriage that was falling apart. 

Michele Obama, once said in one her interviews with Oprah Winfrey.” We can have everything in life. Just not at the same time.” Here I was at the helm of starting a new journey, one with a promise of a deeper meaning, one that seemed the right thing to do – to me. But it was also the time where my marriage was breaking down and my parents were struggling to support my ‘unacceptable’ actions. 

My return to India presented to me a blank canvas. Only that I didn’t know how or what I would paint on it. By now I knew that I wanted to work in rural India, the deep hinterlands of my country; a country where 70% of its people still lived and struggled to lead a dignified life. I wanted to change that. But change (inner or outer) doesn’t come easy. With all these unknowns, I mustered up the courage to face the situation as it was and figure out how my life in India would shape.

For a year, I worked with coffee farmers in Karnataka to establish a direct supply chain from farm to shop. In this time, I learned about the challenges being faced by farmers in selling their produce. The market linkages in coffee trade were rife with middle men, not leaving much for the worker on the farm. Hence, they were never able to escape the poverty trap, generation after generation. 

After over a year of working in Karnataka, a chance encounter with a person who is a friend now took me to the mountains in rural Kumaon, Uttarakhand in July 2012. Rohit was visiting me and we decided to spend a week in the Himalayas together. It was only later we would learn that, that visit was the turning point in our lives together and apart. It was during that visit that it was clear to me that it was in the Himalayas that I would begin my journey of getting down to serious work on the ground. My dream of working with rural communities would start to unveil here. It would also be the period where Rohit and I would start to reframe our marriage – could we see ourselves as co-travellers, helping each other define their destiny? 

Things moved fast from then on. Soon after the one week visit, I found myself a job with a local development organisation, Aarohi, which had been working in the region for over two decades. I would work in Aarohi for the next four years where I would learn the building blocks of rural development.

 I would learn that for a rural family – their ecology is their economy; that their whole life rests on the natural ecosystem surrounding their home. Three pillars: water, cattle and farming form the bedrock of their existence and their forests are the backbone of their ecosystems. I would understand that these communities, spread all over the villages of my country, are most threatened by climate change because they are physically isolated, are poor and do not have diverse options of livelihoods. I would understand that just like parents in the city, parents in a far away village too wanted better schools and hospitals; and that young people in villages also complain about the lack of opportunities and freedom. 

It was also the period when Rohit and I went through a transformation, this time facing the storms together. And storms there were many. The uncertainty in our marriage kept us together. Somehow I learned that Rohit too was about to make a swerve in his trajectory. Something had sparked a churning in him too and soon he would leave Goldman Sachs, to work with young people in India. I became a mother. I realised that my marriage to Rohit was more than just him and I. His family was a big part of it too. I learned that my family unit was my strongest comfort zone, one that grounded me. I learned that the centre of our universe had now moved. Everything revolved around our daughter Tara. 

Finally, I learnt, in these 4 years of working at Aarohi, that I was ready to start my own organisation- one that would enable rural Indian communities to bring back their native forests and protect them from being helpless in the face of climate change. Alaap was born in concept in July 2016. Tara was 3 by then. Rohit had moved to India. We were a family. And thus started another journey, My journey.

Alaap is social change organisation working in community afforestation. Established in 2017, it works with rural communities and governments to help bring back native forests and restoring local habitats.  Currently it is working with rural Himalayan communities in Uttarakhand.

To read more about the organisation, please visit www.alaap.in. For more information, write to info@alaap.in. Should you wish to support them, please visit https://ketto.org/alaap2018


Sheeba Sen


 

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