I have great expectations of Calcutta: Helen

US consul-general Helen LaFave bids adieu to the city this week but before leaving she told Metro about her time in Calcutta and the road ahead.

By Chandreyee Chatterjee
  • Published 15.07.15

US consul-general Helen LaFave bids adieu to the city this week but before leaving she told Metro about her time in Calcutta and the road ahead.

Let's start at the beginning. Why did you choose Calcutta?

I actually tried to come to Calcutta on my second tour. When I was bidding it was on our bid list and I tried to bid on it and suddenly it was gone. I wanted to come here and I complained to the state department. They asked me 'you want to go to Calcutta?' and I told them yes. They sent me to Chennai and that's how I ended up in India. I had a great time in Chennai. I worked in other countries after that and then I was in Washington, and we have a regulation for foreign services officers that you can't be in Washington more than five years. You have to go out. It was coming up to my five years and I was bidding. I got the list and I had several wonderful options and Calcutta was one of my first choices. In October 2012, I found out I was coming here. I was delighted.

Did you talk to anyone with a Calcutta connect before making the decision or after?

Yes, absolutely! I saw Dean (Thompson, the previous consul-general), he was back in Washington in the spring of 2013 and the summer of 2013 I saw him before I came. In fact we had breakfast at my hotel in the morning before I got on my flight. He sold me his rupees (laughs)! And then we have our normal process of consultation, we talk to people who are working on the issues that we deal with and I also talked to some of the think tanks in town.

What caught your eye when you started going around the city?

I just kind of had my eyes wide open, which is interesting because I am doing the same thing still. I was driving around, even this morning, and thinking oh I haven't noticed that before. I had seen the maps, so I knew that there was a green space, the Maidan, but it is really shocking to see how big that green space really is. The Central Park is big, the Boston Commons is big, but not quite in the same way. This is huge! And the idea that there is a military base in the middle of a major city!

The other thing that fascinates me about Calcutta is, I ... the latest numbers I am hearing is 14 million people. That makes Calcutta, people-wise, bigger than New York. As an American nothing is supposed to be bigger than New York (laughs). So, just the vastness of it and the juxtaposition of old and new, and the fact that there was a Mexican restaurant (Amigos) at the end of the street (Ho Chi Minh Sarani), I was like, what?!

After two years, what about the city do you love the most?

What I always love, and it is true here in Calcutta, I am touched by the people I get to meet. It can sound practised or trite but it is actually true. It is the people that you come across in your life, that are part of your life, who make your life. And I know, looking at the consulate, I have wonderful, wonderful colleagues inside the consulate. I have met some incredibly wonderful people in town. This week I've been feeling the love especially. People have been incredibly gracious....

There are people in NGOs doing some amazing work. Sanlaap is doing amazing work, Kolkata Sanved - watching those girls dance is just amazing! You know, just the commitment that some people have.

The art. I love getting art, and I love that the galleries here are approachable. I think the Victoria Memorial... Jayanta (Sengupta, the secretary and curator of VMH), has been so impressive and the events there have been truly just wonderful to go to. I am going to miss seeing what he does with the Indian Museum but I've gone there a couple of times and I think that he has got a vision of what he wants to do.

The business people have been terrific to me too. I had breakfast this morning with the American Chamber of Commerce and they are doing some really interesting work here. Last night I was with the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce and just before this I was having tea with BCCI - really interested and committed people who are working at making things work in Calcutta and want more. We are trying to figure out how we can work with them and how to increase Calcutta-US business.

What do you like the least about the city?

I was asked that the other day and it is hard to pull out a thread from the weave.... I could say leaving (laughs). I think Calcutta has an amazing history and that Calcutta is very proud of its history but I think sometimes I would want to push Calcutta a little more towards figuring out the future and what to do to get the future that they want. The past was what it was and you have to have a vision for the future and then take action on it. I'd like to hear a little more about that. A little more about the young people's commitment and what they see for Calcutta. I was at an event two weeks ago at the Indian Museum and I think about Calcutta in the coming 20-25 years. Actually what do people think about it? And what do they need to do in order to make that happen?

You have been very involved with young people in the city, is it something that interests you?

It is fun to work with young people. Before I joined the foreign services I was with a university and there is nothing more fun than hanging out with smart young people who have the world in front of them. They are excited and they have interesting things to say. Sometimes they need some guidance and a little worldliness is needed but those will come with time. I visited SRFTI and that was amazing. The kids had done incredible short films on the topic "Our Environment".

What would you call quintessential Calcutta?

It would be rain or humidity, one or the other. It would be lots of colours and come winter it would be the smoky air. It would be sweets that are too sweet. The fish, which is wonderful. Mangoes, I love the mangoes. The people. The fact that there is a Mrs (Alokananda) Roy who does dance therapy at the prison, that is amazing. The music....

You are a book lover, any book you've picked up from here that will remind you of the city?

I have been reading Geoffrey Moorehouse's Calcutta. I can appreciate that it is a bit dated but it is a helpful flavour book, so I have been looking at that. I have read the Sea of Poppies and The Glass Palace, which I thought was fabulous. I also think that it is incredibly important, especially for someone like me, who reads non-fiction - well I hope it is non-fiction (!), everyday, you know the geopolitical stuff - to read fiction because it is a reframing of your framework to make sure you are not stuck in a hole and that to me is really important.

Did you have any focus areas during your tenure here? Any mission of the consulate that was personally important to you?

When I got here I saw both what the consulate had done and how it mattered. Our anti-trafficking in persons (TIP) work, I am incredibly proud of that. We did our TIP conclave in Guwahati and the people in the room were people who work on TIP issues like NGOs, police or judges. There were people from Bangladesh and Nepal and Burma. They rarely get together and the passion, and the connections that were made.... We have a convenient power of bringing people together and I thought this is good. Then we went out to Ranchi, Jharkhand, and did this again and I was absolutely amazed. We had the room set up for 200 people and they were packing the room with extra chairs. And people stayed the entire time!

It really spoke to me about how necessary this was. I am proud of it and it is something that really captured my attention. I've met some of them, mostly girls, although men, women and children are trafficked. I've been to Kolkata Sanved and Urmi Basu's place (New Light) and Women's Interlink and Sari Bari. We took ambassador (Nancy) Powell to Sari Bari and we've taken ambassador (Richard) Verma. He has now talked about Sari Bari here in Calcutta, in Washington, in New York, as an example of people doing good work that matters, that is effective and that is transforming lives.

What would you say was your biggest achievement in your two years here?

This year we had three big conferences and that is a programmatic achievement. One of the things that I have tried to do... we have a foreign services office and they work with the chambers, work with the business and when they ask me to do stuff I can't think there is anything I've said no to. My answer was yes because it was part of my job and it is an important part of the Indo-United States relationship. There are some really interesting companies that do business in US and India.

I have travelled to Burma and Bangladesh to see how as the American mission here in Calcutta we can work with our colleagues in Dhaka and though I haven't been to Nepal we do some work with our embassy in Kathmandu. After the earthquake we brought in some of our TIP partners and did a phone link with embassy Kathmandu to know what's happening on the ground, as one of the anticipations is increased trafficking and what the organisations here can do.

I am proud of visiting all 11 states in my consulate district. Most Indians don't go, especially to the Northeastern states. I am proud that I was able to make the effort because it is an effort. There is transportation effort and in certain places I needed special permission from the ministry of external affairs. Because the missionaries in Nagaland were Americans there is a connection between the Nagas and American Southern Baptists, which is quite fascinating. Mizoram was fascinating, Tripura was fascinating, Meghalaya is beautiful, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh.... As Americans you think about the Wild, Wild West, Arunachal Pradesh seems to be the Wild, Wild East.

India's look-east policy and our policy of supporting South Asia and South-East Asia are complementary and the idea of what help we can provide in the international world, what support we could offer to that, is of importance to us.

How open has Bengal been to American investment?

Bengal is open to investment but I also think that it is not just investment needing to come here, you have to go out and get the investment and I think with the programme (Bengal Leads) that they had in January they need to do more of. I know they are endeavouring to do more work in that direction. Certainly the chambers and foreign commercial services officers are working together for the bilateral investment, because we certainly want investment in the United States too. There are interesting things going on but there can always be more.

What areas do you think will see more partnerships between the US and Bengal?

I don't have a direct answer for that because every company will make their own decisions. But the number of companies that are here and that I foresee there being more of are tech companies, because of the intellectual capital that is there in Bengal and in Calcutta. It is a good source market for people who are smart and capable and companies that are already here are generally having a good experience.

What's next for you?

I get to go home to see my family in New Hampshire, and be a little cooler. Then I will be in Washington for some months and then I'll go out to our embassy in Tunisia. I will be based there but I will be covering our embassy in Tripoli. Our embassy in Tripoli is closed due to security reasons and our Tripoli embassy is in Tunis. I will be deputy chief of mission for embassy Tripoli and my objective, and most importantly my nominated ambassador's objective, is that we will do our work and help support the stabilisation and development of Libya. That will be exciting when it happens and I look forward to it.

Any goodbye message for the city you'd like to give through Metro?

My goodbye message for Calcutta is a message of thank you. It has been an honour and pleasure to serve here. Perhaps because I am a diplomat I am an optimist. I have great expectations of Calcutta and Calcuttans. There is great talent here and great inspiration and aspirations. Now I'll read the papers about Calcutta. I read the papers about all the places I've served at. The message is... I'm watching you!