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Overseas Member Spotlight with Kokila Katyal

I think that living in Japan was always in my Karmic destiny. When I was a little girl, long before I could read, a distant uncle presented me with a globe. He pointed at a seahorse-shaped country and said that he lived there. The name of the country was Japan. For some reason I was fascinated, though I couldn’t explain why and would spend lots of time staring at the shape of this mysterious- sounding country. Decades later, I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and in the gift shop I fell in love with a set of placemats that had a gorgeous design of irises on a golden background – I had no idea who the artist was but I knew that I simply had to have it! The placemats have been used in all my homes and when I finally had the opportunity to see Kōrin’s divine screens at the Nezu Museum on a CWAJ trip, I was awash with a sense of déjà vu!

My story began in Calcutta, India, where I was born. I was a part of a cusp generation. On one hand, there were still signs of colonial rules everywhere –from the big British corporate houses where my dad and grandfather worked, to the clubs where we went very often, it was a way of life that reflected an era that was soon to pass. On the other hand, our life within the family was traditional – we lived in my grandfather’s large rambling home that housed an extended joint family. One of my earliest memories was doing something naughty and then hiding in my grandmother’s huge carved mahogany cupboard so that my mum wouldn’t find me!

When I was four, I started school at Loreto House, a convent run by the Loreto nuns from Ireland. I loved reading from a very young age and so after school, an Honours degree in English Literature seemed a natural progression. A Master’s in Comparative Literature followed. In the 80s, after I finished my Master’s, I decided to go to the US for my Doctoral studies and started studying for a teaching degree concurrently. Well, the PhD didn’t happen as I returned to India to get married but I got a job teaching English in a school. My proudest achievement was helping to set up the secondary section of a school called Vasant Valley in New Delhi, which has grown to be one of the premier schools in India today.

In 2001, we moved to Hong Kong and thus began a new phase of my life. I joined the University of Hong Kong and finally got around to doing a PhD – my research focus was the impact that teacher leadership has on student engagement with schools. A post doc followed and then professorial gigs at my alma mater and also the Education University of Hong Kong.

My husband, Vineet, was transferred to Tokyo in 2012 and at the end of December 2014, I found myself living in Tokyo having just given up my academic position. Life was lonely but a phone call from Ann Endo changed all that. She called to ask if I wanted to take on the role of the Recording Secretary for Scholarship. So, on a cold January morning, I packed up my laptop and went for the meeting. It was from that point onwards that I truly felt at home in Tokyo. I felt grounded and relevant.

 

CWAJ is an inimitable organization. Its mission is commendable – paving pathways for individuals to achieve their dreams via education, which resonated with me. Whether it was a young lady from Japan who wanted to study veterinary science in America, or an Afghan mother struggling to study in Japan, or a visually impaired ballerina who wanted to advocate the rights of differently abled people in universities in Japan, each story that I heard profoundly moved me. Soon, I became a member of the Board as the Recording Secretary and then, during my penultimate year in Tokyo, I had the honor of serving as the Director of Scholarship. In addition, I volunteered at the Print Show – as a docent and also serving at the membership desk.

I was also an active member of the Reading Group. There were a few books that we read by Japanese authors, for example, The Marioka Sisters, A Quiet Room, Confessions – that triggered an interest in Japanese novels and I now avidly read as many as I can.

There were numerous interesting programs that I attended such as a traditional music concert held during a beautiful fall day at a spectacular temple setting. This is where I heard the moving Furusato for the first time. Not only did I meet and become friends with the wonderful, capable and very welcoming members of CWAJ – but the meticulous planning of the structures and processes of each facet of the organization astounded me. I must be one of the few people in the world who has welcomed the strictures brought about by the pandemic as thanks to Zoom, when I now attend meetings, I feel that I have picked up the threads that I left behind when we left Tokyo.

We moved back to Hong Kong in 2018 and then to NYC in January 2020, spending the first year in lockdown. In March last year, we finally moved to our own home in New Rochelle in Westchester. I am now plowing through the crime fiction section of the Public Library! I have two sons, Karan who lives and works in NYC along with our daughter-in-law, Raphaelle, and Armaan who works in Hong Kong. And I mustn’t forget Ace, our grand-dog, who is the apple of his grandfather’s eye!

In the photograph, Kokila is pictured with a diplomat from the Embassy of Nepal, attending CWAJ’s May luncheon in 2017 (when she was Director of Scholarship).

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