Ms. Smita Purushottam: down-to-earth, motivated, realistic – and a true Indian at heart. Her disarming smile and caring manner add charm to her persona. Read on to find out more.
When ‘Namaste Switzerland’ contacted Ms. Smita Purushottam for an interview, her prompt response reflected her openness to encourage new ventures.
On entering the office of the ambassador in Bern, true to Indian hospitality and tradition there is an immediate appearance of ‘chai’ or coffee with a plate of cookies.
As we meet and greet, Ms. Purushottam sits on the comfortable white sofa and shows us the human face of the ambassador. Her smile adds a dash of comfort and her easy demeanour encourages you to be yourself.
That said, we launch straight into the interview – starting with her childhood.
The growing up years
“My father was also in the ministry. So I travelled a lot with him and experienced all the diversity that one can be exposed to, starting really at a very young age. For example, for a part of my childhood, I lived in Switzerland, in Geneva. Here I studied at the local school. Then, we spent a few years in the (erstwhile) Soviet Union. Again – my schooling was local. The concept of going to an International School was never there. I believe local schools are really the best. In Russia, I learned so much… the language, the Russian culture that included ballet, theatre and literature. It was Russian literature that inspired me and, to a large extent, got me thinking about human welfare. That’s what really struck me,” she says.
“When I went back to India – I was more keen on academics and journalism. I never really thought of foreign services. But then things just worked out in such a way that I finally did end up getting into the foreign services, without really planning for it.”
Ms. Purushottam is glad that she took the step. She reveals, “I have learned so much by being on the job. Right from understanding the various societies to learning in depth about the economies and policies of the places that I had been to… there was so much going on at all levels.”
Charting her career progression
Like everyone else, Ms. Purushottam, too, started her career from joining the Foreign Services at a junior level.
She says, “I started as a junior and stayed in the ministry for many years – I was in Delhi and worked with the SAARC, the Soviet Union and Bhutan divisions at different points in time. I learned a tremendous amount by working with NGOs on the one side and government departments on the other. The NGO work brings in so much positivity. We did a lot of good work. I continued to be in Delhi for the first 6 years as my son was still very young.”
She continues, “Later, I moved to Brussels. Then I was posted to China as a Counsellor and initiated a lot of new commercial work. I saw the unfolding development story of China. I felt that there was so much we could learn. I reported on developments to headquarters and later presented analyses that were positively received. I was in London as well, where we did some interesting work.”
Ms. Purushottam then took a sabbatical and went to Harvard. She submitted a thesis on whether India could overtake China and laid strong emphasis on the need for manufacturing, embedded technologies (now called the Internet of Things) and the impending success of the Indian telecom sector.
On returning from Harvard, she worked in the Ministry of Defence for a while and gained exposure to some interesting insights in this field. “Defence studies and technology were also my main interests and many newspapers and websites carried my contributions during my next sabbatical,” she says with a hint of pride.
On becoming the Ambassador
It was time for Ms. Purushottam to take the ambassadorship offered to her.
“Ambassadorship,” she says, thoughtfully, “It’s worth it. Although, I’ve never faced hindrances earlier, but as an ambassador I can implement my ideas without constraints and be more effective.”
“I went to Venezuela, where we promoted Indian pharmaceuticals, Indian culture and the economy to a certain extent.”
After her posting in Venezuela, Switzerland was her next destination. With complete dedication reflecting in her eyes and voice, she says, “I’ve worked extremely hard at my job. In line with the ‘Swachha Bharat’ movement in India, I have personally cleaned up the embassy here, improved consular services, and promoted Ayurveda as India’s next gift to mankind after Yoga. “We held the first workshop for Ayurveda in Switzerland. It was the first platform where all Ayurveda practitioners in Switzerland came together. The workshop was a success and received a very positive feedback.”
“’Make in India’ is getting a lot of resonance here. Indian economy, investments, and collaborations, yoga, Ayurveda – a lot is being promoted; and I’m happy to be part of it.”
Ms. Purushottam’s goal has remained singularly to help her own country – socially, politically, economically. She states with pride, “ That inspiration comes from my father. He was one of a kind so completely dedicated to India. He wanted to leave the ministry and work hands-on for India, in India. But he passed away very early and couldn’t realise his dream.”
She continues, “I feel it’s my privilege to think what I can do for the country and to be of use to my country. That is what motivates me. Like many of my colleagues, I have tried to make a positive dent.”
What lies ahead?
Ms. Purushottam will remain in office until October 2017, after which she will retire and head back to India. What next? She says, “A lot! I have a lot to do back in India. There is a technology think tank that I am working on, I want to work on the environment and launch Swiss vocational education in India, and there’s so much more to be done.”
As a parting question, ‘Namaste Switzerland’ asks her about how she balanced her career and motherhood
She smile and says, “My Mother helped me a lot. My son was my priority as I wanted to give him complete emotional security. He was never left behind. A few years ago, my son was looking at our photo album and he said, ‘Look, we’re together everywhere. You never did anything without me!” And that was true. He was with me at social events. I made sure I came home from work on time – and that meant bringing work home to complete until the early hours of the morning, hours after he went to sleep.” She points out that while it is difficult to handle the two roles, she ensured that her son took priority over her time and career decisions.
Her strong belief: “The woman has to manage it all – home front, children, career. She is the cohesive force in the family. I urge that women should take a short break once the kids come in the picture. Prioritise children. Like it or not – ultimately it’s the mother who is the ultimate force.”
Her message to Indian women in Switzerland
“When you come to something as beautiful as Switzerland – learn the language, integrate and enjoy life. You can be a great bridge between the two countries. You have a mission. You can all be ambassadors of India. Keep in touch with your country and try to share the positives.”
It indeed has been a pleasure to interview the charming lady, who we all know as Ms. Smita Purushottam, Ambassador of India, to Switzerland.