Joanne Huskey, author of 'The Unofficial Diplomat', and one-time Chennai resident, on her work with physically challenged children in the city. CHITHIRA VIJAYKUMAR writes
She was a professional clown in a circus, a mime in Paris and a masked theatre performer. But her travels from the streets of China to the jungles of Kenya were in a rather different capacity — as the wife of a U. S. diplomat.
A glance at the events that transpired in these countries while she lived there reads much like a list of the ‘Events that Changed the World'. There's the Tiananmen Square massacre, the bombing of the embassies in Kenya, and the September 11 attacks in the U.S.
This is the stuff stirring autobiographies are made of; enough to make any literary agent swoon with delight. And Joanne Grady Huskey penned it all, from Manhattan to Mylapore, and New Jersey to Nairobi, in her memoir The Unofficial Diplomat.
“When I looked back on hiding in the basement of the Nairobi Embassy as bombs went off around us, I knew I had to make sense of it all. The trauma helped me realise how little we understand each other.” And the journal that she diligently kept let her revisit exactly what she had been feeling through it all.
In the fall of 1993, Joanne Grady and Jim Huskey, their four-week old daughter and a three-year-old son moved to Chennai. For the next three years, Joanne worked with the physically challenged, acted, danced, and did theatre — up to and including a Neil Simon play the night before the Huskies left India.
“Sometimes, the present has a tendency of erasing the past. I have seen it happen — governments and people sweeping inconvenient histories under the rug, pretending it didn't happen. And having lived through some of these inconvenient moments, I thought they should be recorded, and I have to tell those stories.”
“Ignorance about a culture breeds distrust, breeds hatred,” she said. In the book, at some point during her stay in Chennai, she writes how she realised why the U. S. is looked upon as a hegemonic, arrogant state, as the controversy over the NPT treaty raged. “I realised the logic of the arguments of people here,” she said, “and I was free to express it, unlike Jim, whose every statement could be construed as U.S. policy.”
She worked to bring the physically challenged into the visual arts. This meant dancers in wheelchairs, and theatre for the deaf, as part of ‘Very Special Arts', a committee she started in the city. “It is a way of bringing them into the mainstream, which also becomes a way of rehabilitation.” She would then take VSA to China, with the eminent politician Deng Xiaoping's son, Deng Pufang — “who had been thrown out of a window during the cultural revolution.” — and then to more than 50 other countries.
Starting a school
“When I first came,” Joanne said, “there wasn't a school here which taught a western curriculum.” Realising this was a disincentive for several families considering a move to Chennai, since most would eventually return home to finish school, the blueprints for a school were drawn up. In September 1995, the American International School of Madras opened its doors to its eighteen students. “Ironically,” a passage in her book reads, “in those early post–Cold War days, the rooms we found to rent were in the Russian Cultural Center!” That initiative would later grow into the American International School of Chennai, with more than 800 students.
In her first few months in India, as the Irish woman battled personal crises, the oppressive heat, and her homesickness, there came a moment of astonishment. “If I, with all my contacts, was finding it so difficult here, what about people who didn't have the luxury of connections?” And that was the beginning of Global Adjustments, a venture she co-founded with Ranjini Manian. “We take care of everything for foreigners new to the city — finding homes, learning the language, finding schools for your children — everything. Leaving you to discover India,” she smiled. And now, fifteen years later, what started as a two-woman show has blossomed into a nationwide enterprise, with 60 employees in seven cities, besides a tie-up with the Women's Leadership Board at Harvard. “We weren't sure if we would even last fifteen months,” said Ranjini Manian. “The next few years we're going to concentrate on bringing about cultural and gender intelligence amongst people, nations. We'd like to think we've come full circle — we're going to help India re-root itself, become aware of its own strengths.”
And now, looking back, does Joanne think it would have been easier to have become the official diplomat? “I'm blessed that I wasn't the official diplomat!” she laughs. “It gave me so much freedom, not having to represent a country, and being able to speak my mind.”