The woman with the phoenix tattoo

Growing up in Calcutta, Richa Bansal devoured the work of English authors and says that studying at Cambridge changed the course of her life. Now based in Delhi, she’s director of communications for one of India’s leading think-tanks and a strong supporter of women’s rights.

Richa Bansal in a Delhi coffee shop (Richa Bansal)

I grew up in Calcutta, one of the most colonial cities in India, under a Communist government. It was a charming city, a slow city, a city still caught in a time warp. The rickshaw rides to my English convent school are among my favourite memories.

I read two books a week. I loved Enid Blyton and the Famous Five. I also absorbed the classics, as well as Doris Leslie and James Herriot. Today’s generation doesn’t read. They rely on apps to give them the news headlines.

I’m doing my dream job. Our think-tank (The Centre for Policy Research) works with leading scholars on global issues. We interpret policy research on a range of subjects such as environment, urbanisation, accountability and foreign policy. We look at the issues which are topical to life in India today, such as demonetisation, and weigh in on world events, too, like the impact of Donald Trump.

Cambridge is the reason I’m where I am today. Doing a masters in development studies at Darwin College had a profound effect. So much was crammed into those nine months. In India I’d been taught in a very prescriptive way. Cambridge opens your world to amazing intellectual influences and has wonderful libraries. You have the freedom to learn the way you want to — to read, interpret and draw your own conclusions, while being guided.

My marriage was rocky and I’d been low for some time. I was walking down a dark alley and my personal life was an absolute mess. I turned a corner when I came to Cambridge. I grew up in a patriarchal household. By coming to Cambridge, I was making my own choice for the first time. It was made possible by the funding the University offered. I left the marriage behind and began to discover myself.

As a woman, equality matters to me. India is a male-dominated society, but I lead my life on my terms now. I’m proud of being able to transcend the barriers and the past to live independently today. I sometimes have to ask myself ‘has this really happened to me?’ And then, I feel deeply grateful for it all.

Delhi is such an international city, a melting pot, there’s so much culture and art. You can never get bored here. If anything it’s hard to take time out to just ‘be’. I actually missed Cambridge when I came back to India. The lack of structure and the chaos of India was something I had lost the ability to cope with. But now I love it here.

I work passionately and I meet people who are passionate. Communications is a really important tool. Look at where the world is going with Brexit and Trump and the shifting of perception in the way messages are communicated. There’s so much digital and social media, we don’t know how to cope with it. It’s not enough just to put information out there — you have to engage with people. We have to reach out to people with facts rather than let perceptions shape outcomes.

At weekends I spend at least half a day alone — reading, reflecting, writing and realigning myself. If I wasn’t doing my present job, I’d probably be running a guest house in the mountains with a reading room, somewhere known for its character. That’s my old age dream and I hope to make enough money for it.

I think people would be surprised by my tattoo. Most people wouldn’t think of me having one. Especially because I don’t think I have a flamboyant personality. But there is a fun part to me — something people might not see in my professional life.

The design is a tribal falcon or phoenix. I had the tattoo done in the New Year as a tribute to the potential in all of us. It was inspired by a couplet and translation of a work by Allama Iqbal. It’s part of a longer poem or Ghazal, but the section that inspired my tattoo is this:

Tu Shaheen Hai, Parvaaz Hai Kaam tera

Tere Saamne Aasmaan Aur Bhi Hain

You are a falcon, to fly is your task

You have more skies to conquer still.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.