Mrs Poonam Patnaik, wife of Deputy High Commissioner and Acting High Commissioner of India in London Mr Dinesh Patnaik, talks to Ragasudha Vinjamuri
Being wife of a high-achieving man may be a challenge by itself, especially if he is a diplomat who would move to different countries every couple of years. Coping with different languages, societies, cultures, acclimatisation, and balancing family life may not be a bed of roses as it may seem. Asian Lite holds a dear conversation with Mrs Poonam Patnaik, wife of Deputy High Commissioner and Acting High Commissioner of India in London Mr Dinesh Patnaik.
Tell us about your background.
I was born in Sambalpur, Orissa. My parents shifted from Pakistan during partition. As the youngest of six children, I grew up in a very safe and secular environment, with certain values and belief systems. There was only one English-medium convent in our town. While my parents took us to Gurudwara visits every week, I imbibed catholic values too. I learnt Hindustani vocal and was also a part of the school Choir group. Being in a Hindu state, I loved seeing Kali Puja and Lakshmi Puja. Considering the social condition in 1960s and 1970s, I grew up with much liberal views. At the age of 15, I wanted to earn money and started tuitions to little children and also at schools during my college breaks. I left my parents’ house when I was 21.
How did your professional life start?
I went to Mumbai, joined as a Trainee in Indian Express and worked there for about two years. I went to evening classes in Mumbai College of Journalism and stayed in YWCA, Colaba. Mumbai was the place where I became an independent woman. It was an empowering experience to me.
Tell us how your diplomatic family life began.
In 1990, as I was in Bombay, my would-be husband (Dinesh) who already graduated from IIM Calcutta has expressed his intention of appearing for Civil Services exam and he got through too. We got married in 1991. Within one month of our marriage, we went to Geneva, my first ever step into the outside world.
Tell us about your passions and interests.
Some experiences in Geneva strengthened my determination to learn the language of the land, as communication is a key tool to understand others. I have a strong CV with teaching, but I did not have a teaching degree. I worked as teaching assistant and discovered I have a strong passion for teaching. In 1995, we moved to Bangladesh. It was in this country that I grew as a person, pursued my singing, painting thanks to the famous artist Rokeya who inspired me. I have joined Dhaka International School for teaching. As I would need a Praktikum to pursue my B.Ed. from Annamalai University, I flew twice to Delhi with my toddler. We then got home posting in Delhi, where I had my second child. But I was in action when my second one was just 6 months old. I have founded Sanskriti School for children. Dhaka and Geneva have taught me how to become an international teacher, hence I have applied all the new teaching practices and bring the best of both worlds to this school.
Then we moved to China. I have applied in the Western Academy of Beijing and luckily I could fill the position they had. They needed a PYP qualification so I was sent to Mumbai to do that. After that I had a strong inclination to do my Master’s degree, my second one. I had opted for Masters in Education at Oxford Brookes University in England. All this was happening as my two children were growing up, hence it was very intense. I went to London Recruitment Fair and chose a job in Vienna. My husband got two years off as mid-career break. I was the only Indian teacher at Vienna International School and I was deeply loving my job when my husband had to report back at Delhi. I stayed on in Vienna with kids. I had to obviously give up my diplomatic privileges, which not many people do. I started to learn German, by which time I already knew 6 other languages including Chinese, French and Bengali.
What were the challenges you have faced?
My husband was again posted in Cambodia, but I stayed on because the younger child was appearing for her high school exams. I gave up on lot of comforts. It was okay as I always wanted to be my own person with my own rights rather than only wife of a diplomat. I think that made me a better person. The flip-side was that my husband was always alone, torn between his job and family whereas I had my two children with me. UK is the first English speaking country that we are posted, Morocco, China, Cambodia and Austria being most challenging.
What is your current engagement?
I still do freelancing for “Train the Trainer” programs in IB (International Baccalaureate). I am contemplating on taking up some teaching here. I would also like to involve in some charity. I have done Bazaars in Vienna, bring things from India, make food and do fund-raising. I wish to continue such fairs. I have rekindled the spirit of IHCLA (Indian High Commission Ladies’ Association) and put up an Indian stall at the Commonwealth Fair recently.
What would be your message to our young readers and to other women?
Follow your passion, make a difference to the society. Woman is the source of valour and beauty, educate yourself and celebrate womanhood.