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The Rediff Interview/Rhodes Scholar Pooja Kumar
December 19, 2003
There are times Suresh Kumar and wife Shila envy their children Pooja and Aditya. Pooja, a medical student at Harvard University, was recently chosen a Rhodes Scholar to study at Oxford.
The 22-year-old Duke University graduate has worked in relief camps in East Timor and Azerbaijan. Her younger brother Aditya, who accompanied her and their grandmother to do volunteer work at Mother Teresa's Prem Dan in Kolkata about eight years ago, is interested in a raft of community work including inner city education.
"We look at our children and wonder why we didn't have the kind of opportunities they have had," says Kumar, who till recently was a senior official at Johnson & Johnson. "But I think I can do something inspired by their work," he says as he speaks from his Princeton, New Jersey home. He wants to start a non-profit organization, he says, adding, "Talk of parents learning from their children."
Pooja Kumar, who was among the 32 Americans chosen recently for the Rhodes Scholarships, graduated with a degree in health policy and social values from Duke University. She will pursue a master of philosophy degree in international relations at Oxford.
She traveled to East Timor in the summer of 2000 to conduct assessments for the Save the Children Federation. She helped design a national maternal and child health program and offered health services to indigent children. While a junior at Duke, she ran an independent study of the mid-1990s cholera outbreak among Rwandan refugees. She has also worked with refugees in Azerbaijan for a year and with children afflicted with AIDS and the terminally ill in Kolkata.
She is hardly without her camera: She worked with pediatric patients at Duke University Hospital, teaching them to use photography to express their thoughts on illness and on life in general. A recipient of a John Hope Franklin student award through the Center for Documentary Studies, she used the money to teach the street children in East Timor to use cameras to describe their war experiences.
Pooja, who has been recognized as a top student both by USA Today and Glamour Magazine, spoke to rediff.com Senior Editor Arthur J Pais.
Do you find it difficult to adhere to a vegetarian diet when you worked abroad?
When I was in Azerbaijan it wasn't difficult. There was plenty of yogurt, nuts and fruit. But I found it hard to remain a vegetarian in East Timor. I did not want to fall sick. So I did the sensible thing: I ate fish.
Bengalis describe fish as a sea vegetable. Did you know that Swami Vivekananda, for instance, continued eating fish even after he became a monk?
(Laughs) My grandfather has been telling me for a long time to eat fish since it is sea vegetable.
Photography is a major part of your relief work. When did you get fascinated by it?
I don't remember the exact year. Possibly I was seven or eight when my mother gave me a bright red camera. I began using it immediately.
What made you decide to go to Kolkata to work with Mother Teresa's nuns?
My brother and I had heard about the work being done in Kolkata by Mother Teresa's nuns. We used to read about the poor and the dying, and we used to hear about them from others. So we asked ourselves one day why we had not seen it, why we did not have a first hand experience. And then we started working on it.
Wasn't it difficult to convince your parents to let you go and work in refugee camps?
It was. They knew of my passion and convictions but it wasn't easy for them to approve of my travels at first.
How did you help them overcome their fear?
When they knew I was also working with well-known international agencies that had plans to evacuate us in case the situation became dangerous, they felt a bit more comfortable with the idea. Even then there are always risks involved in what one does and where one goes.
What would you tell someone who wants to follow your work?
Know what exactly you are going to do. Once you arrive at a place, be it East Timor or some other place, don't isolate yourself from the people there, thinking that you are going to be there for just a few weeks or months. Language, food habits and cultures could be barriers. But overcoming these barriers is part of the challenge.
Atul Gawande, a Rhodes Scholar and now a high profile doctor and writer, enjoys espionage and mystery books. What are your guilty pleasures?
I enjoy eating. I love Thai and Malay food. I also love cooking. Besides cooking, I would count browsing at used bookstores, listening to Algerian music, and spending hours on end playing with our family dog, Max, among my guilty pleasures. And perhaps my biggest guilty pleasure — putting aside everything else to read The New York Times on Sunday and the New Yorker.
Have you ever felt even a little discouraged in your relief work?
Of course. There are times, especially after a hard day in a camp or community, when the unfairness of a situation or the hulking extent of a problem can become daunting or overwhelming. The task is not to be swept away by this, because even small steps make a difference in the end. It's a matter of chipping away at it.
You said your grandmother [Vasantha Sundaram] accompanied you to Kolkata. What did she do at Mother Teresa's hospice?
We all worked with the patients at Prem Dan, cleaning wounds, feeding the inmates, and doing whatever else was necessary.
Are you religious?
I'm giving this question a lot of thought lately, so unfortunately there's not much to tell since I haven't come to any grounded conclusions. I do believe in God, but I don't know how strongly I believe in the institution of religion.
Have you asked yourself when you are working with the refugees that if there is a God, how is it that he or she allows such things to happen?
Constantly. Again, this is something I've been thinking lots about lately.
As a leader and a self-motivated student what would you tell newer immigrant students in America?
Explore areas that you wouldn't normally. Become involved in activities outside of school. Find what makes you passionate and interested, and go after it!
Why did you choose to study international relations at Oxford?
I hope to focus on the intersection of war and health. I'm engrossed in my medical training, and a sound foundation in international relations is key to understanding how and why conflicts occur, as well as the role of international institutions.
What preparations did you make for the Rhodes scholarship interview?
I did not prepare as much as some of the people I know did. People take coaching at their schools. I spoke to some of my former professors at Duke University and asked them for their guidance. I thought a lot about what I do and where I want to go. Even then, some of the questions they posed — like what would one do caught in a dangerous situation like in Iraq — were not expected.
What are some of the important things they told you?
To be myself during the interview. Be natural, they said, and your passion for what you do and want to do will come out.
Who are some of your role models?
I've had so many role models over the years, namely several of my professors and advisors at college and in medical school. They have all been passionate about their work, focused on making a difference in their fields (from medicine to public policy) and so supportive and encouraging of their students that they have been true examples for me.
So you will be a doctor with strong interest in public health and international affairs. Can you tell us about your vision?
A world in which people can be free to live lives uninterrupted by conflict, poverty, disease, hunger, or the several other problems that we as human beings create, ourselves.
Many people start as idealists but as they grow older, idealism begins to vanish. Have you thought about this?
My idealism is grounded in reality. Some people give up idealism when they face hardships. Some people may step aside from it for some time. But if I am convinced of doing something, I should not have a problem continuing doing it.
What are some of the life lessons you have learned from working in refugee camps? And with the dying children in Kolkata?
This is a tough question, because there aren't always "easy" lessons to be learned. Most of all I've seen the tenacity that human beings demonstrate in difficult situations and after having endured hardships that are almost beyond imagination.
I've seen people help each other. But I've also seen that bad decisions or disagreements can lead to massive human suffering.
Design: Lynette Menezes