Jaipur: When Oprah was young, her grandmother's only wish for her was that she'd manage to get a maid's job with ‘some good white folks'.
Today, Oprah Winfrey is one of the most recognisable faces in the world, a much loved and admired talk show host and a woman who has touched the lives of millions of people.
On the third day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Oprah Winfrey was in conversation with Barkha Dutt, for the session, “‘O': Oprah in Jaipur.” Thronged with people who had been queuing up for seats since the early hours of the morning, the session lasted an hour, and gave the fans a glimpse into the life and mind of a woman who has proved her worth against all odds.
Asked about the one thing that struck her about India, Oprah told Ms. Dutt that there were, in fact, three. ‘My first impression was that of chaos! And then, I started noticing the underlying calm.' The other thing she admired and respected was the all-pervasive sense of karma and spirituality. “People here don't just talk religion, they live it.”
Born in a poor family in Mississippi, Oprah admits that childhood experiences amidst racial segregation and prejudice, coupled with dire poverty, were a big influence on who she is today. Early in her childhood, she developed a personal relationship with God, something which became the fundamental reason why she could hold on to her sense of self. ‘It made me believe that there was something greater than my front yard.'
Another thing that struck her as wonderful was the Indian sense of family and tradition. ‘I remember asking Abhishek and Aishwarya [Bachchan] on my show, I asked them — How do you still live with your parents, what's that all about? And Abhishek replied, ‘How do you not — what's that all about?' It's a glorious thing that in this country, families take care of each other.'
This is her first visit to India, and already, Oprah has seen the paradoxes that make it a ‘complex and contradictory' country. She has visited families in the slums of Mumbai, dined with the glitterati and royalty and stayed at an ashram with widows in Vrindavan. ‘I met an 11-year-old girl in the slums, and it was all I could do to not take her home with me. She lives in a tiny space with her parents and siblings with barely any space, but she is the star of her class and wants to become a teacher.'
‘I came here with an open mind and an expanded heart', she says, ‘And it has been one of the greatest life experiences for me. It makes you feel like you are in the centre of something bigger and greater than yourself. Your humanity is expanded in a way that won't be possible in any other place.' This trip to India has been on the cards for quite some time, says Oprah. ‘I have this vision board in my house. The first vision board I had simply said Obama for President. The second one had a picture of a woman on a camel, and it said, ‘Come to India'.
The Oprah Winfrey Show ran for 25 seasons, and made her a household name in countries all over the world. She sees it as her responsibility to be a connector to the human heart and it was post an interview with the skinheads of the Ku Klux Klan that she also began to see her show as a platform. Over the years, Oprah has worked on various projects, including dedicating a large part of her time to seeking justice for sexual abuse victims, opening a school for girls in South Africa and supporting and founding various charities across the world. ‘I believe that you are not what happens to you, but what is possible for you. The one way to expand and enrich your life in this world is by sharing what you have.'
Oprah confessed that she hadn't quite known if her show was aired in India. ‘Now, I know it is' she said, at the festival venue bursting at the seams with her fans. ‘Will you come back,' asked Ms. Dutt, to which, Oprah replied with a simple but definitive ‘Yes'.