Bikas Sanyal’s is the ultimate expatriate success story. From very humble beginnings in India, he has had a remarkable career in the fields of academia, international diplomacy and intercultural dialogue. He has received the highest civilian honour from the President of France, the ‘Légion d’honneur’ and a prestigious award from the President of India. His wife, author and poet, Priti Sanyal, was always by his side. We speak to this amazing husband and wife duo about their life, expat experiences and their partnership.
You’ve been an expat in France for several decades, was it difficult to adjust when you first arrived here?
Bikas: Oh yes, it has been 46 years since we settled in France. I was always busy with my work so it was easier for me to adjust here than Priti. It was quite difficult for her as she was at home taking care of the children.
Priti: The language barrier was the most difficult. My world was all anglophone before, suddenly it was all French people. If you didn’t speak French, in fact very good French, in those days, you were looked upon as uneducated.
You earned a faculty assignment in 1966 as post-doctoral researcher at Iowa University. Tell us about your experience in THE USA?
Bikas: The US encouraged me to grow professionally and academically. I learnt how to appreciate cultural factors for planning and cultural education. For the first time I could articulate it empirically in my planning models. On the social side I was the President of the Association of India.
Priti: It was my first culture shock. I was teaching History in the university of Iowa and it was a great opportunity for me to teach the youth cultural values. It was the time of the Vietnam War and many of my students were drafted in the war. The American university environment was very different from Indian university, a very informal culture and it was a great experience for me.
1966 was also special for you for another reason-your marriage to Priti. How did you two meet?
Bikas: I wanted to marry before I moved to the US and my family and friends were on the lookout for a match for me. When Priti was introduced to me, my friends were quite critical of her as she had a reputation of being a rebel. Priti’s father was a lawyer and she was involved in student unions, and protest matches and was very outspoken and straightforward. But to me she seemed to be my perfect life partner. She took 6 months before she said yes, I wasn’t sure if she would accept me as I had a physical defect, I have only one eye, but I am lucky that she did accept.
Was it smooth sailing from the start?
Bikas: I didn’t think it would be easy for Priti to adjust. My family was large and fairly poor and she came from a small and well-to-do family but she adjusted very well. I realised that she had a great quality of bringing people and cultures together and many artistic talents, like painting and writing. I wanted to encourage her to pursue her talents and I did.
You have worked with UNESCO for 30 years, what was your greatest challenge and greatest Joy?
Bikas: I started working for UNESCO in 1969. The greatest joy and challenge was working with different cultures, ethnic groups and countries developing their education. The Poland and Philippines project was quite challenging but rewarding as we were using the cultural variables for an educational and planning model. It was the first time a project of such vastness was carried out but it was very successful.
Priti, your husband has worked and travelled in many countries around the world, did you accompany him on all his diplomatic missions? Was it difficult for you to stay away from India for so many years?
Priti: I accompanied him on 35 missions out of the 77 official missions he travelled on, including remote places like Rwanda, East Timor, Yemen, Poland, Kenya, Tanzania and Palestine. Being an historian I greatly enjoyed travelling with him and visiting places of historical and cultural interest and then writing about my experiences in journals, magazines and my books.
Bikas, Around 1999-2000, you took up the position of Director of Maison de l’inde in Cité Internationale Universitaire. Can you tell us how this came about and your fondest memory of this association?
Bikas: It was the time I retired from UNESCO in 1998 and had offered my services free to India and Africa for development projects when I was requested to take up this position and try to renovate the dilapidated ‘Maison de l’Inde’ or House of India. My fondest memory is of the initial years of struggle when my wife and I worked hard to navigate through the web of French bureaucracy and acquire the money from the Indian Government for a new building which is today the new House of India. She was more involved with the cultural side and started many cultural activities. We were the founders of the ‘Sammilani Association’ for the Bengali community that organises the Durga Puja every year amongst other activities. Priti later took on the formal, non-remunerative role of ‘Cultural Attaché’ for the Maison de l’Inde.
Bikas you received the highest civilian award in France, the Prestigious Legion D’Honneur from the French President in 2007. How did you feel when you learnt you were chosen for this honour?
Bikas: A member of the government board and the ambassador of the President reviewed my work and informed me that the President had nominated me for this tremendous honour. I was speechless.
Priti: When I heard the news, I was dancing around in sheer joy. It was such a proud moment for me to see my husband receive such a great honour. He is only the second Bengali to receive this honour.
You will be retiring from your post for the Maison soon, what are your next plans?
Bikas: Mentally and physically we are exhausted and want to stop although we will regret not being around the younger generation, the students. There is so much to learn from the youth, this is what we will miss the most but we will like to travel more for pleasure and take perhaps a cruise to relax. I will still have my mission to Jordon where I teach the masters students occasionally but would like to go back to India for a few months. It has been 50 years that we are away from India, it will be hard to resettle again but we will divide our time between France and India and see how things go.
You have been married for almost 50 years, what is the recipe of a successful marriage?
Priti: I think it is important to be friends with each other, help, support and give space to each other. Marriage is a partnership, there should be no dominance and control but mutual respect. He always encouraged me in my writing, poetry, painting and I supported him in his endeavours. When he took off on missions, I sometimes stayed at home and looked after the kids but also accompanied him on many missions.
Bikas: The missions she accompanied me on were the most memorable and successful. When she joined me, we truly were able to explore the culture and country to the fullest and it helped my work too. Both of us have different opinions and we do argue with each other, but we always accept the differences and that enriches our marriage.