The Life Interview With Shivaji Das

Shivaji Das gives voice to fringe communities

Management consultant and author Shivaji Das organises activities for and shares the stories of fringe and lesser-known communities

Shivaji Das has been helping to give fringe communities a voice in more ways than one - a role that the management consultant and author took on quite by accident.

While volunteering in 2014 with local non-profit organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), the 38-year-old started the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition.

It has since evolved into a widely popular platform for migrant workers here to share their stories. Last year's edition received poems written by construction workers, domestic helpers and other migrant workers in Bengali, Tamil, Chinese, Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia, Cebuano and English.

His three published works - the latest is titled Angels By The Murky River: Travels Off The Beaten Path - highlight his encounters with lesser-known communities around the world.

Das - who speaks Bengali, among other languages - noticed a group of migrant workers who would regularly come together to share poetry they had written at Banglar Kantha at Dibashram, a recreational space for them in Cuff Road.

He found their passion inspiring, more so when he realised that few outside of their community knew of their talents. A desire to showcase migrant workers in a new light and push back against deep-set stereotypes drew him to organise the first competition in 2014.

We often have preset notions that we impose on people based on where they live or what they do, but I've come to realise that these are often far from the truth. With my work, I hope to encourage more people to be open to listening and sharing - especially with communities that deserve more of our attention.

MR SHIVAJI DAS on what he hopes people will take away from his work

The first year saw 28 entrants, all Bangladeshi workers. In 2015, with greater interest from other non- governmental organisations and volunteer groups, participation jumped to 75, with entries from Indians, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Filipinos and Indonesians, among others. Sixty per cent of the participants that year were women, including Ms Rolinda Espanola, a 40- year-old domestic worker from the Philippines.

Last year, she placed third with a poem dedicated to her daughter. She will be sitting out the competition this year, choosing instead to encourage and mentor other migrant workers who might be thinking of trying their hand at poetry.

"Mr Das has always been so kind and the migrant worker community here appreciates so much that he created this platform for us to showcase our talents," she says. "It makes us feel like we have value."

That is something that Das recognises.

"There is so much value in each of these individual stories - the thoughts they have and the humanity that comes through can leave a deep impression. The competition is a platform for not only migrant communities, but also for the rest of us to learn about people who are living in very different conditions, with very different life experiences," he says.

It is a world that is far removed from his day job. He is a partner at American management consultancy Frost & Sullivan, where he is the head of consulting for AsiaPacific and global head of the public sector and government practice. His work often sees him travelling two or more weeks a month, with a packed schedule of calls and meetings that can extend late into the night and over the weekend.

He is affable and relaxed when he meets The Straits Times at Raffles Place. When asked where he finds the time to volunteer and write, he says with an easy laugh: "It's just about creating strict habits."

While at work, his focus is unwaveringly trained on the needs of his many clients all around the world. But over the past 15 years, he has also built a disciplined habit of journaling every day.

"For me, writing is quite therapeutic. And even though I don't always want to write something, especially on very hectic days, I've found that it is important to have a fixed routine," he says. "It helps me remember the people I've met and stories I've heard - some of which have stuck with me over the years as a result."

These days, you can often find him pulling out one of his thin notebooks - "they've got to be light and easy to travel with" - whenever he has some spare time, be it in an airport lounge, on a long flight to his next business meeting or right before heading to bed.

Many of these daily journal entries have served as the foundation for his published material.

His latest book, which was launched in March, includes stories of female boxers in the Philippines, farmers-turned-painters in Morocco and China and diamond miners in Indonesia.

Talking to strangers has become second nature for Das, who often makes time in his business travel schedule to walk around new cities and speak to locals. It helps that he speaks four Indian dialects and four languages - English, Russian, Chinese and Bahasa Indonesia.

But, as he lets on, his extroverted and curious demeanour today is a far cry from his introverted personality as a child.

Growing up the youngest of three siblings in a small town in the north-eastern state of Assam in India, he was an "introvert and homebody", he says.

The big age gaps with his two older sisters - nine and 16 years respectively - meant he grew up quite independently from them, choosing to spend his time at home with his nose in his books.

His parents - his father worked for the Indian railways and his mother was a housewife - were happy to let him do as he pleased and did not put too much pressure on him academically or otherwise.

Introverted homebody meets and connects with strangers

The bright student excelled in school and went on to read computer science at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, one of India's top universities. He went on to do his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta before starting his first job in consulting in Mumbai with Tata Strategic Management Group in 2002.

A switch to American management consultancy, the Strategic Decisions Group, and a move to Ohio in the United States six months later in 2004 became a pivotal moment in Das' life. For the first time, he was living in a foreign country and in a rather remote area too.

"I hardly knew anyone where I was stationed and, after visiting the same museums multiple times, I quickly ran out of things to do," he says. "Before I knew it, I was taking random bus rides around the city to explore the area and, as a result, inadvertently immersing myself in the community."

What struck the quiet and introverted Das during his two years there was the friendliness of strangers. Though he recalls hardly ever making the first move, he says he encountered numerous curious strangers who would strike up conversations with him on public transport.

"I spoke to immigrant families and had conversations with burly tattooed men who would turn around and offer me some of their chips and snacks," he says. "It was an eye-opening experience because I had been so closed off to these things for most of my life."

Das moved to Singapore with Frost & Sullivan 11 years ago and has lived here since. He is married to Singaporean Yolanda Yu, 34, who works in strategic partnerships in a technology company. The couple, who do not have any children, live in the east.

He brought along with him, from his time in the US, that curiosity and love for interaction with different communities. It led to him volunteering with TWC2 in 2012 and starting the poetry contest that has grown from strength to strength.

In 2015, he and his fellow volunteers took the event to Malaysia. Since the first run of the competition two years ago, the Malaysian arm has seen submissions from migrants as well as refugees and children, in Urdu, Pashto, Persian and various Myanmar languages.

This year, the finals of the competitions will be held on Oct 1 in Malaysia and Dec 3 in Singapore.

The competition is one platform through which Das hopes communities can view migrants in a new light. "Singapore can do more for our migrant workers. Not only on a governmental level, but also on an individual level, as biases most definitely continue to exist here," he says.

In his books as well, he hopes to offer a glimpse into other communities. His most recent effort includes stories of interactions he has had with various groups in 16 countries.

They include diamond miners in South Kalimantan - whom Das went out of his way to seek out after hearing about and researching the community in Indonesia. He recalls meeting men caked in mud, who would spend all day in 30m-deep pits in the hope of finding a big diamond that would change their lives. Despite their hardships, the families that Das met were warm and welcoming - inviting him into their lives and smiling widely for his pictures.

For his wife and fellow travel enthusiast, Ms Yu, it is this innate ability to connect with people and communities completely separate from his own that she considers one of her husband's finest traits.

"He looks at the outside world with such an objective eye and can appreciate the finest nuances of people's lives - many of which most of us would just ignore," she says, adding that he makes the effort to keep in touch with people he has met. "Keeping an open mind and appreciating these small moments during our volunteer work or travels is something I've learnt from him over the years. It is these interactions and conversations that have enriched my life."

And for Das, the drive to develop such connections continues to inspire his writing and travels.

"These are interactions that are often simultaneously tragic and humorous," he says of his experiences.

"As a writer, though, I push myself to be objective when I speak to people. I'm not trying to exploit their lives because no matter how difficult their circumstances are, most of them are hopeful and kind, which is what leads to these raw connections."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Community centred'. Print Edition | Subscribe