I have known this incredible woman only through the amazing web, the internet. She is academically brilliant, a scholar, a researcher, a traveller, a self-confessed Bollywood lover, a photographer and many more such wonderful things. Devasmita talks about her life, dreams, hopes and happiness in this interview with us. This interview was conducted via email, excerpts.
Who is Devasmita? What are you like? What are your dreams, aspirations?
I am a world traveller. I am a story teller. I tell stories through my photographs, writings, and research. Most of my pivotal life decisions were made with the sole aim to see what the round world looks like in other corners, be it my move to the US at age 25, my desire to pursue academia, or my love for studying different fields. I am constantly fascinated by the stories of others.
I am usually an upbeat and enthusiastic person, barring some days when I wake up disillusioned about everything around me. I used to be a school teacher, and then a toxicologist, and now I am an educational researcher in Chemistry. I study how teachers teach, and teach them how to teach better. When not evaluating class lectures or greying my hair running statistical analyses, I stare at Google maps, planning my next travel. I dream to live and work in every continent someday. I am a huge fan of travelling singly, and my solo backpacking trips to several European countries has transformed me from a tourist to a traveller. While most people roughly my age are looking to “settle down” and grow roots, it thrills me to be constantly on the move, seeking new job opportunities, living in new places, and meeting new people.
What defines you?
I do not let anything define me, because by trying to define ourselves, we set invisible boundaries, and do not explore our full potential of pursuing things.
Tell us something about your childhood and growing up years.
My childhood was a lot of fun, because of my love for reading, Bollywood, and food. When I visualize my childhood, I see myself happily solving math problems while the radio or the television played Hindi songs in the background. I grew up in many places in eastern India, in an exceptional upbringing, because although doing well in school was important, coming first in class or aspiring to be a doctor or engineer was not important. At home, Bollywood was not considered “bhalgar kalchar”, like it is with many Bengali families. For me, Bollywood epitomised life in every way. I never went out of the way to love Bollywood, it was inherently present in my upbringing. In the eighties, when a movie became hit, my mother would make sketches of the dresses the female actors wore, bought cloth, and personally instructed the local tailor to stitch my dresses. In my childhood pictures, you will see a three foot version of every popular female actor of those times.
And your college days.
My college days were fraught with anxiety. In school, I had no worries. All I did was study. I loved science and math, and that is all I did, somehow managing to respectfully pass the other subjects. I loved astronomy, and this interest was fuelled by all the books about rockets and space exploration my father used to buy me. However, college was the first time where I saw people around me worrying about a career, and that worry bled into me. Coming from a different school background, I had difficulties adjusting to the culture of education at universities. College gave me a real taste of what the real world looks like. For the first time, I saw that professors didn’t always teach in English, students didn’t always attend classes, and the curriculum was not designed to promote independent, creative thinking. Although I mingled freely and enjoyed college life, five years of living in constant insecurity was no fun. In hindsight, that actually inspired me to move to the US and be a part of an educational system that was fair, top quality, and didn’t care about rote learning.
Tell us about your first years of working.
I had the most awesome job in the world. Before I moved to the US, I used to be a math/science teacher in a school. While a lot of people had frowned upon this, labelling this as a career for people who had no ambition, I had the best time of my life teaching. I would dress up early in the morning, and go to school, to be greeted by everyone from age four to fifteen. My children adored me. There was never a dearth of chocolates from birthdays. Children performed for me on Teachers’ Day, and I performed for them on Children’s Day. My days would fly by, teaching the laws of reflection and refraction of light, integers and exponents, and acids and bases. I loved scribbling a “Good” for a well-written answer, and signing copies made me feel like a celebrity giving autographs every day. Without belabouring my point, you can imagine what a wonderful time I had, being paid to do all my favourite things- sing and dance, teach science, get chocolates, and sign autographs. It was a temporary arrangement for a year while I was waiting for my acceptance at a US school. Most of my children are in college now, and it gives me an immense sense of pride and accomplishment when they acknowledge that I inspired them to study science or math.
Any special achievements?
Completing my PhD has felt like an achievement. It has given me a chance to work with very talented researchers, and understand how to pursue research independently. I see this as an achievement because I am the first one in the family to move to a different country and pursue what I love- academia. I never had any pressures from home to become this or that. No one interfered in my life, and my decisions were my own to make and live with. It was not the PhD per se that is an achievement; in fact, it makes you realize how little you know about everything around you. However, it was this sense of setting a target and accomplishing a goal, living an independent life, being economically independent, and being constantly stimulated intellectually that I see as a gift.
Any experience or incident which made you stronger as a person?
Getting used to living in the US was not painful, but was the biggest challenge I have overcome. From learning to cook to doing well in a very competitive learning environment, everyday posed new challenges for me. A lot of you who have gone through this journey of adjusting in a new country and new culture without any help from family will identify with me. Back in India, I was a spoilt brat who never cooked or cleaned, never worried about managing my money, and was used to having everyone at my beck and call. But living independently has made me a much better person.
What are you doing now?
I work as a Chemistry education researcher now. I say this with joy mingled with pride. Where I grew up, shifting fields or changing jobs too frequently was frowned upon. But I wanted to learn different things. I grew up studying Biology because I was fascinated by life processes. Then I branched out into environmental science, public health, and toxicology for a while. I worked as a teacher, and then a toxicologist. Then one day, I decided that I had enough of science learning experiences, and I wanted to explore social sciences. So I enrolled myself in a PhD program in education. And although I never studied chemistry beyond my undergraduate courses, I somehow ended up in the Chemistry department, doing research in Chemistry education. These varied experiences were not because of a lack of focus, or a clear idea about what I want to do. In fact, I had a very clear idea that I wanted to learn about a lot of things. The American education system just catalyzed this desire, letting me study whatever I want to, and be whoever I wanted to be. I will not be surprised if tomorrow, I embrace my childhood fantasy and start learning astronomy.
How do you see yourself in the future?
Hopefully travelling all around the world, living in different countries, trying different cuisines, learning new languages, pursuing research, writing stories, taking pictures, and living a life free of garbage and baggage. I have a long list of things to do- learn Spanish. Be a part of a dance group. Write stories. Travel South America. Work on a public health project in another country. Be an editor of a magazine. The list keeps growing with time.
Message for the readers of our blogazine.
Have fun in life. Life is supposed to be easy, not hard. Open the windows, and let some breeze in. Don’t get stifled by your own ambitions, and your own ideas about what you ought to be. There are no deadlines in life, we set our own deadlines. In fact, the word “deadline” sounds so wrong, as if you are going to die if you do not cross that line. Identify what you love doing in life, and do it. Travelling, writing, teaching, cooking, building, do whatever inspires you in life, and do an exemplary job of it. The idea is to have fun learning things, and not let pressures leach the life and energy out of you. And while you do all this, set time aside for your physical and emotional well-being. Work out. Eat well. Hang out with friends. Crack a silly joke. Or in my case, enjoy Bollywood music every day. Nothing that seems big today will matter tomorrow. The pain of failures, breakups, and losses will all even out. So identify what makes you happy, do it, and have fun while doing it.
Lastly, I want to drive home the point that anyone reading my interview is privileged (not because it is my interview), because of two things: 1. They know how to read English, and 2. They have access to internet connection. People out there are suffering due to illiteracy, lack of food, water, and other resources. If we keep this in perspective, our own lives will seem like a privileged life. This is my personal philosophy as well, that I know I have had a privileged (not struggle-free) life, because I got a solid education, never worried about food or money, and just pursued what I like doing. Hence I do not beat myself up about failures, and try to have a positive view, keep a sense of humor, and do not take life very seriously. 🙂
Devasmita is a brilliant photographer so we decided to add the link to her photography page for all you photography lovers, and given below are her few sample works. Hope you enjoy them.