Writer Dominique Hoeltgen chronicles the lives of Indian women in her book, Inde, La Revolution Par Les Femm
Dominique Hoeltgen has lived and worked in Algeria, Japan, Italy and the U.S.; she has toured extensively across Asia and Africa as a freelance reporter. But, the women she met during her four-year stay in India moved her more powerfully than any others in all her travels. So much so, indeed, that her fifth and latest book, Inde, La Revolution Par Les Femmes (India, the Revolution by Women) is devoted entirely to them.
“There's a big, big difference in India — the women here have a dynamism I haven't seen in any other country,” says the journalist from France, who was in Chennai recently to discuss her book at the Alliance Française. The event itself was almost entirely in French, but she shifted to fluent English for the chat afterward (no sweat for someone who also speaks Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic and Hindi).
“I believe that women have the power to bring about social change,” says Dominique, who has been working as the correspondent for L'Expansion in Mumbai for the last four years. “They are more philanthropic than men — a man in charge of a company will speak first of budgets and numbers; all the women I met who are heads of industry spoke of their team before their turnovers. See the difference?”
This wasn't a subject Dominique set out to write about — her earlier books were more centered on the power of the Internet and of e-commerce (“I wrote about New Media when it was still new,” she says wryly). But her interest was piqued when she met Shabana Azmi and saw her interact with 10-year-old Sangeeta from the slums. “I was told that Azmi is an actor and an activist; I hadn't seen that combination in France,” she says.
Through her Indian friends, she began to meet women of all strata of society who were trying to change the world around them — industrialists and bankers, farmers and shrimp collectors, rural women who were learning to use the Internet to check the prices of produce, and urban activists such as Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA.
It was inspiring, but not always easy. “One of the hardest parts was meeting young women who told me how they were raped by their uncles, sold to someone else…” she says. “I will always remember them crying as they relived those experiences.”
Her objective with this book is to depict contemporary Indian culture in all its diversity for her primarily French audience. “I know this is a difficult country — you have big tragedies every three months and a huge tragedy every year,” she says. “Some of my friends died in a recent blast, so I know. But, at the same time, it's so fascinating.”
Indeed, Dominique has fallen in love with Mumbai, “this city of eight million bustling, struggling people”. “It's so lively,” she says. “I visited Puducherry now — it felt like a vacation after Mumbai!”
But, she isn't likely to stay in India much longer, any more than she's likely to return to her own country. For this journalist, travel is as natural as breathing. “I've lived abroad always,” says Dominique. “I wouldn't know how to work in France anymore!”