Meet the frontiersmen who showed the West how it could be won.

Bipul Kataky - UK

Rita Payne - UK

Ritu Kataky - UK

Wahid Saleh - The Netherlands

Dipak C. Jain - USA

Gagon Hazarika - UK

Chandan Mahanta - USA

Nandini Saikia - USA


Bipul Kataky - UK


53, architect, Durham

As with most Edmundians (students of St Edmund’s in Shillong, once the capital of Assam), proceeding outside the state for higher education was quite normal and Sibsagar-born Bipul Kataky ended up at Sir JJ College of Architecture in then Bombay. Here, he endured what he describes as “five years of hard grafting”.

As a budding architect, his first job was with Designers Private Limited in Bombay, an architects’ outfit whose clients included the rich and the famous. By 1973, he decided, however, to pursue further studies in urban planning design at the University ofNewcastle upon Tyne. He had, in effect, moved from the Northeast of India to the northeast of England.

By 1975 he had acquired both his first job in the UK (as a town planner) and his first new car, a John Player Special Ford Capri. In 1977 he bought his my first house in Durham —a city steeped in history.

Durham proved too good a place to move away from so that is where he has settled along with his wife, Ritu, who is a research scientist at the well-known Durham University. Their daughter Gemma Nandita is studying to be a financial analyst and son Jamie Sandeep is studying for his A Levels in Newcastle.

Kataky is a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects and of the Royal Town Planning Institute. In 1998, he was one of the founding members of the Institute of Historic Buildings Conservation. Looking homeward, his pet project is to be able to restore and enhance the three main lakes within Guwahati — Dighali, Shil and Zoor pukhuris. These are precious assets, he feels, that have not been given their deserved pride of place.

The family it keeps in touch with Assam by visiting it frequently and by keeping the “Assamese language and food habits well-oiled”. “Even my 62-year-old American Willys Jeep, which I shipped from Assam, has the word ‘Assam’ inscribed on the cover of the spare tyre,” says Kataky.

At the end of the day, he supposes what brings Assamese people together is Bihu and there is nothing more Assamese than the Bihu festivities which bind all the Assamese together regardless of caste or religion. This factor certainly applies to the first generation of Assamese abroad, he agrees, but if the same will continue into the next, only time, he says, will tell.

Rita Payne - UK


57, Asia Editor BBC World, London

Rita Borgohain PayneAs the Asia editor of BBC World, Rita Payne has quite a few opposing political egos to juggle. She remembers going to a dinner thrown by the Pakistani High Commission during Musharraf’s visit to London and hearing all the complaints on Kashmir. Then there was an one also at the Indian High Commission and she got the opposite view. “We have to do a balancing act,” said Rita. “But it is quite a privilege to be in the frontline.”

Born Rita Borgohain in Dibrugarh in Assam, Rita went to Loreto Convent in Shillong, followed by Loreto House in Calcutta and a short stint at Loreto, Darjeeling. University took her to Delhi where she studied English at Miranda House.

She stumbled into broadcasting when her father’s friend, the director general of All India Radio (AIR) asked her if she would like to consider a career in broadcasting. Rita went along for an audition, got the job and joined AIR.

She first met her present husband, architect Geoffrey Payne, when she was interviewing him for a programme on AIR. They married and Rita arrived in Britain in 1971 to face new challenges. Eventually, she joined the BBC as a sub-editor in the World Service general news room. From then on, it was only upwards. And now, she has been shortlisted for the Asian Women of Achievement awards in Britain.

Meanwhile Assamese, she says, is a language “that always stays with you”. As she discovered when her mother came to stay with her in London. “She wasn’t well, so I went out of my way to find Assamese people for her to talk and mix with. It brought me close to the community and I realised their warmth for the first time. I had never had the opportunity to interact with them as I had been so busy with my work.”

Rita goes for Assamese festivals whenever she can make the time and always attends the Bihu festival which is held in London. Then she wears a mekhala and meets up with the community. She has been very enthused by the younger generation and finds they are searching for their roots now in a way their parents — who were preoccupied with their careers — never had the time to do.

Her own daughter, Tania, has been to Assam a few times and enjoyed it here. Rita regrets that she never managed to teach her Assamese, though she succeeded with Geoffrey.

(Shrabani Basu)

Ritu Kataky - UK


50, Research Scientist, University of Durham

Ritu KatakySpring is in the air in the UK… the first daffodils and crocuses are peeping though the ground and the cherry trees are pregnant with buds about to burst into glorious blossom. The grey winter days are brighter and the chirpings of the migratory birds returning from distant lands lighten the heart. A pensiveness pervades the busy mind… memories of a different spring… a spring filled with the sound of dhool and peepa, pithas and laroos, trips to the Bihutolis, wearing new clothes stitched by the local tailor, flit across the mind, making it impossible to concentrate on the task at hand.”

So reflects Dr Ritu Kataky, whose education at Shillong’s Loreto Convent may have been Westernised, but who lived in an atmosphere at home that exuberated the richness of Indian culture... each festival was celebrated with great enthusiasm, pujas and Assamese nams were held regularly.

She did her MSc at the IIT Delhi, followed by a couple of years lecturing at St Mary’s College Shillong. After her marriage to Bipul Kataky in 1981,she moved to UK where she did her PhD at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. During her PhD she had two children Nandita (Gemma) and Sandeep (Jamie). Following this she joined the University of Durham, at first, as a postdoctorate and then as a Research Fellow. She is now a member of the academic staff with her own research group.

Her research interests are in the field of bioactive electrochemistry and electrochemical sensors. She has over 60 publications, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a trustee of the Analytical Division. She has been to several countries on lecture tours.

“I probably would not have had such opportunities in Assam,” she admits. “In recent years, I have tried to share this richness of intellectual challenge by enabling students from Assam to come to and work in this stimulating environment for a short period.”

Right now she is nostalgically gearing up for Bihu. “Bihu will be celebrated in London, during the May Bank holiday,” she reveals, “so that people can travel in from afar. The festivities are planned months in advance and no expense is spared in the exotic food and entertainment. There is little in these adult-orientated festivities to attract the youngsters. We join in the celebrations most years… but personally for me the soul seems to be missing.

Wahid Saleh - The Netherlands

64, Social worker and retired IT professional, Berkel en Rodenrijs

Wahid SalehWhen Wahid Saleh boarded his ship in Bombay for the long journey to Europe, the Jorhat-born student of aircraft maintenance had a two-anna coin in his pocket. It was an experience he recalled with amusement when, nearly 40 years later, Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands knighted him with the Ridder va de Orange in 2002.

His journey to distinction began when his college in Ernakulam selected him for higher training in Germany. But when he eventually got to his workplace, BMW, in Munich, he discovered he had been taken on not for training but as an unskilled labourer.

But there was no going back, so he forged on, determinedly and, some jobs — and disappointments — later, joined Lufthansa in Hamburg. And then he fell in love with a new phenomenon. It was the computer, for it was the dawn of the computer age. And so he joined the computer industry.

And then love of another kind happened. A penfriend he used to correspond with in The Netherlands came to visit him and romance blossomed. As she was studying medicine back home, he decided to join her there, and eventually joined a Dutch company in Rotterdam as a computer programmer. He excelled at it and, by 1983 was able to implement one of the biggest PC networks in Europe. The couple have two children. Tasnim has an MA in law and another in pedagogy. Qauthar did his masters in financial economics and works with the Amsterdam city council.

Saleh is a board member of the Netherlands-India Association and has developed an Internet site —
www.indiawijzer.nl. Indiawijzer–India — a guide to India. He now has some fellow Assamese to meet up with, speaks and writes in his native tongue and even has an Assamese font in his computer. For a man who grew up in a house without electricity and ‘news’ meant a man in a rickshaw who announced events over a loudspeaker, his life has seen some dramatic changes. He misses the old country, but when he visits ‘home’ and faces the lack of infrastructure, the bureaucracy and the corruption, he wants to take the next available flight back to The Netherlands.


Dipak C. Jain - USA

47, Dean, Kellog School of management, evanston, Illinois

Dipak JainWidely recognised as one of the finest graduate business programmes in the world (ranked just behind Stanford and Harvard), the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University is home to a renowned faculty. Among them is Dipak C. Jain, associate dean for academic affairs since 1996.

One of Kellogg’s most popular professors since he first went there in 1986, Jain has taught courses in strategic marketing research practically all over the world — Germany, The Netherlands, Thailand, Hongkong and Israel (and of course India) being only some of the countries on his vast itinerary. He is also part of the team that has planted a unique management sapling in Hyderabad where Kellogg and its equally famous rival and peer, the Wharton School of Business, have started the Indian School of Business.

Jain is in Hyderabad five days in a month to nurture this project and says the school is coming along famously. Jain lived and studied in India’s Northeast after his father, an airline official, was posted in Tezpur in the 1950s. He received his undergraduate and masters degrees in statistics from Gauhati University. He then earned an MS. in operations research and a PhD in marketing from the University of Texas before joining the Kellogg faculty in 1986. Jain lives in Evanston suburb close to the Kellogg School with his wife Sushant, and three children Dhwani, Kalash, and Muskaan. “I must be the only Indian in the United States who hasn’t learnt to drive even 18 years after coming here. So I live on the campus,” says Jain, explaining his choice of residence.

To call his a hectic schedule is a euphemism, so Jain can’t really always go where he wants to go. One of those places is Assam. On one of his trips to India, he was quoted as saying regretfully, “My tours have been booked for the next one and a half year. Still, I will try and take out some time to visit my alma maters. I attribute my appointment (to Kelloggs) to the rigorous teaching standards of the Rashtra Bhasha Vidyalaya in Tezpur, Darrang College and Gauhati University where I came in contact with great teachers — and my parents — who embedded in me the right values in spite of having very limited resources. One of my brothers, Ravi, teaches in Darrang College. My brothers and sister still stay there.” But then, work always came first for him. “There is no substitute to hard work,” he says. “It has been said that chance favours the prepared mind and I completely believe in it. Be yourself and respect your culture.”


Gagon Hazarika - UK


67, Former civil servant and social worker, Surrey

Gagan HazarikaGagon Hazarika was nearly 30 when he emigrated to the UK where he now lives in Surrey. But the software engineer had his unlikely beginnings in a sleepy village called Dhapalial in Lakhimpur district of Assam. He had always been fascinated by the new so when, while he was as a postgraduate in economics, carrying out research for a doctorate degree at Allahabad University, England beckoned with a work permit, he took off for that foreign shore — but with every intention of returning once his research was complete.

But study in England required funding as well as a university place, which looked difficult to fulfil. And employment was hard to find. After some time in a private company he joined the ministry of power. Returning to Assam, he married Puspa Rajkonwer. After further postgraduate studies at London he joined the ministry of technology. The British civil service not only provided opportunity and job security but was also completely free from corruption and political influence and had very high ethical standards. In 1989 he moved on to British National Space Centre (BNSC) which brings various government departments, research councils and laboratories together to present a coherent and cost-effective programme in respect of all space matters. In the summer of 1990 the director general of BNSC informed Hazarika that he had been selected to become a member of the British delegation to the European Space Agency, thus making him the first Indian to represent the British at an international organisation. More importantly, during his time in the ESA, he had the opportunity to recommend clauses renewing the ongoing bilateral contract between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and ESA.

Now retired, remains active as secretary of the Assam Association, UK, he helped mobilise Assamese residents to keep up with the mass awakening in Assam. His elder son Raj is an MBA and the younger, Rishi, is a doctor. The family reads Assamese papers over the Internet and yes, are happy to report that now the ingredients for Assamese dishes are more readily available in the UK markets. They make frequent trips to Assam, with Puspa enthusiastically updating her wardrobe with the best of muga garments, Assamese jewellery and renewing her collection of the latest Assamese albums (she is a talented singer herself) and DVDs.


Chandan Mahanta - USA


59, architect, St Louis

Chandan MahantaChandan Mahanta was born at and grew up near Namtiali, a sleepy little railway station between Nazira and Amguri of Sibsagar district, where the express trains still don’t stop. His school was a one-roomed hut, mud-plastered, bamboo-walled and thatch-roofed. After school and college, he studied architecture at IIT Kharagpur. After graduation — and some footpath-pounding looking for what turned out to be a series of futile jobs — he left for the US as an “economic immigrant”. But there was another reason: the upbringing his photographer father had given him led him to develop a deep respect for the personal and social freedom the West held out. So off he went.

Suburban town Pasadena, where he landed, went dead at 5 pm. Even in the downtown area there was hardly anyone after hours. Businesses closed and streets were empty. The nights were deathly quiet. After Calcutta, it was a
shock.

When he first encountered Los Angeles’ highways, he was awed by the traffic, but the buildings and city left him unimpressed. He preferred suburbia, with its well-manicured lawns, flowers and lovely landscaping.

For a year he met no other Assamese. When his wife, Banti, now a radiologist, joined him in the States, they were the first Assamese couple in the Los Angeles area. By the time they moved to St Louis in 1975, there were two more, who still live there. Now there are more than perhaps 50 families.

They have a son, Rudy, who graduated from the University of Dayton in Business and MIS and works for H&R Block Corp. in St Louis. He lives apart, but comes ‘home’ every week, if for nothing else, for Mom’s
cooking.

His sister, 23-year-old Loni, is at law school in San Francisco, having graduated from Stanford University in international studies. As an undergrad, she spent a summer in Guwahati, volunteering at a shelter for homeless
children.

Both the children speak in English. For Mahanta, being Assamese does not exclude other languages and identities. To him, American society is what it is because of its participation and involvement with community. He likes to give some of that back and is socially active, serving as a member of the Old Jamestown Association, the Mahatma Gandhi Center of St Louis, and has co-founded the Annual National Architectural Photo Contest organised by the St Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.


Nandini Saikia - USA


33, Stay-at-home Mom, Somerset, New Jersey

Nandini SaikiaAs a child she’d heard a lot about this country where everything was possible. Nandini Saikia finally wound up here in 2000, but not before making a detour in life. She met her future husband Priyank Barbarooah in Guwahati. When he decided to do his masters, they moved to Perth, returned to India for a bit and then made their way to the States. Eventually, they both got job offers in New Jersey. NJ is known for its Assamese population since the first few who immigrated to the US in the Sixties and Seventies. There are a couple of hundred families living in NJ at the moment. It is not possible often, but twice a year everyone gets together to celebrate Magh and Rongali
Bihu.

They have been living in NJ for the past five years now. Priyank joined an international shipping portal company in 2001 as an IT analyst. Nandini got into a software firm and worked for them till 2003. The following year they had their daughter Reona so Nandini had to give up her job and look after her. She’s a year old now. Her paediatrician told Nandini an interesting thing: always speak to your child in your native tongue so that she learns the language. Never worry about teaching her English as that’s what she’ll eventually end up speaking.

(Courtesy: The Telegraph)