There is something very heart-warming about meeting someone from Shillong outside of Shillong. To reminisce together about Fire Brigade or Laban is such a sweet walk down memory lane. Which is why when I met Dr Ratna Ghosh at the University of Melbourne, I was elated for more than one reason. Besides belonging to the same hometown, I was strangely proud of her as I would of a kin. For here was an academic par excellence and one who can truly be called Shillong’s gift to the world of education. Time magazine once described her as “the most passionate and influential architect of an inclusive yet workable conception of multicultural education” in Canada where she is now based.
Educated at Loreto School in the 1950s, Ghosh is essentially a Shillongite. Four generations of her family are settled here. After a year at St Mary’s College, she got a scholarship to study in Kolkata and completed her Bachelor of Arts in English with distinction from the University of Calcutta. Eventually Ghosh got married and moved to Germany and later to Canada where she resumed studies after a gap of 10 years, shuttling between university and home to study and look after her young child at the same time. “It was not easy doing your PhD then but it worked,” she says. She went on to create a name for herself in Canada and the global educational field.
I was curious about her life as a young girl growing up in what would have been pristine Shillong. True enough she says, “Shillong then was a paradise, the hills behind our house in Fire Brigade was full of greenery. I carry beautiful memories. Life was free of stress, free of any conflicts that we just had a very happy childhood. I always used to say I come from India which is not just another part of India but the best part of India.”
But it was in Shillong’s cosmopolitan culture with its eastern and western influences and her first hand brush with the ‘inspiring’ matrilineal society of Meghalaya that sowed the seeds of much of her work. “My mother was not Khasi but she was so strong. She used to tell me look at Khasi women, how educated and how nice they are!” As a matter of fact, much of Ghosh’s work later has been on women and women’s empowerment. “I always think that I should be talking because I know what women’s empowerment is from Shillong.”
As professor at McGill University in Montreal Canada, Ghosh has authored many books and received many awards and recognition. Two of her books Redefining Multicultural Education and Social Change and Education In Canada form two of her influential works which are among the most reading lists in teacher-education programmes across Canada, according to Time. But she is also known for her interest in human rights, international education and women’s rights. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) in 1999, she was also elected Fellow of The Academy of the Developing World (TWAS) in 2012. Her work on Education and Diversity has won her honours such as the Order of Canada and Order of Quebec. She was Resident Director of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute in New Delhi, and then President of the Institute (1988-90). She has been on the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation (now Equitas). She was President of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) of the USA (2011-12). Recently she was in Melbourne on a two-month fellowship with the Australia India Institute.
Our conversation also veered on women’s empowerment in India and she emphatically states, “Women in India are not at all empowered. If they have any power, it is manipulative power. Most of India lives in villages and that’s where women are. There are a small percentage of women in the cities who have a lot of power much more than men. But the majority who are in the villages have absolutely no power and they have very difficult lives.” Her assertion comes from her current study on how women who have moved or left their middle class or lower middle class families to a well-paying job are managing the change. In most cases it is the same structure she says, where these women are not only sole earners but often come back home late only to be expected to do the remaining household chores. The mothers discourage the boys from helping because “they are boys”.
Ghosh says that economic and political empowerment is very good and essential but that is not a sufficient condition. “The panchayat rule of 33 percent reservation for women is very good and an affirmative action but we found out they don’t act on their own. They are talking for the husbands, for the brothers, for the fathers in law so that they can proxy vote. But if they were educated they would say no; education means questioning not knowing how to read and write. It means critical thinking.”
It is not enough, of course, to condense Ghosh’s wisdom, experience and intelligence in this short space. Her impressive CV runs into many pages. I wish I had one tenth of her intelligence, but that is another story.