Weekly Local Biography

 Roshan Dhunjibhoy


Retired in Chiang Mai is a lady who has been in the forefront of the women’s ecological movement. She is Roshan Dhunjibhoy, an intelligent, interesting and articulate woman who travels the world on a German passport, but describes herself, with tongue in cheek, as the great great great grandchild of Lord McCawley, the Viceroy of India.

She was born in Calcutta in India, but when one week old was taken to Ranchi, “the most backward province in India” where her psychiatrist father had set up a mental hospital. That situation is always with her - the clerk who wrote out her birth certificate got confused, writing her father’s name as the attending midwife, leaving the father’s name blank and putting the place of birth as “Mental Hospital Ranchi”.

She was an excellent student, educated by Catholic nuns in India. “I am very proud of it. They taught me a love of literature, and my feminism started there too.” That love of the arts fuelled her ambition. “I knew from the age of six years old what I wanted to be - but I didn’t become it. I wanted to be an actress.”

She had the talent, being offered an acting scholarship, but her father responded with a resounding “No!” A bargain was struck - she had to get herself a degree so she went to America to study journalism.

Having arrived in America, Roshan shifted the goalposts. She auditioned in New York and enrolled in an acting school which offered a degree course in drama. This did not mollify her father, who in traditional fashion, cut her off without a penny (or even a rupee).

Again in traditional fashion, Roshan continued studying to be an actress, but having found that she didn’t cut it as a waitress, worked cataloguing specimens in the mammal department of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. At night she was acting, and becoming an activist as well.

In those days of McCarthyism witch hunts, left-leaning tendencies were considered security risks, so it was easy to invoke alien labour laws, so after three years in America she was told to ‘exit stage left’, by Uncle Sam.

France was more liberal (and liberated) than America in those days, so she went to Paris and studied a subject without much thought of what it could do for her future. An understanding of 17th Century French Tragedies rarely comes up in qualifications required for any job these days (or then)!

However Paris was a city where a young woman with strong political views could grow and mature and develop her concepts on life and society. She also studied film and TV, becoming a director/producer during the eight years she lived in France.

Her work was seen by the German government TV and she was commissioned to make a TV documentary for them in Egypt. In this TV medium, she found that her political direction was an advantage, giving her entr้e into some countries that German TV otherwise found it very difficult to gain entry visas. This was the way she was able to get into Egypt, through Nasser, and even into China and North Korea.

She spent a total of 27 years associated with German TV, and in that time lived and filmed in over 40 countries, some of which were wonderfully exotic like Jamaica and Venezuela and some of them were downright dreadful like the war zones in Angola and Vietnam. Her experiences in the theatres of war did not fill her with the excitement of action, but left her seeing how biased journalism can be. “War reporting is a mad thing. I saw how tainted and unobjective this (style of) reporting really is.”

With the privatization of German TV, Roshan saw the standards of TV journalism begin to spiral downwards. Makers of serious TV documentaries were being displaced by inane sit-coms and the documentaries were relegated to late night TV slots. “Times when only your close relatives and insomniacs would be up to see them.”

It was time to move on, and Roshan found that there was a place for her within the German Greens Party. This political party sponsored the Heinrich Boell Foundation which was involved in political social work, and since Roshan was ‘green’ in her outlook, believing in an ecologically sustainable philosophy, there was a place for her to continue to develop her personal ideas, while doing something for others in the world.

It was with the Heinrich Boell Foundation that she established their first office abroad with a women’s project in Pakistan. There she was involved with pressuring the government into changing the laws that were repressive to women and educating Pakistani women to be more politically aware and active. “Our work with women was quite unique,” she said with some evident pride. From Pakistan, the foundation mushroomed into Asia and an office was set up in Chiang Mai 4 years ago.

Though now retired, I put it to Roshan that she could never stop, because her belief system is such that she must continue to campaign. She agreed, saying, “Today we are in an ecological crisis. I am an ecologically sensitive feminist - and women are more ecologically sensitive than men.” She also has an ongoing personal project looking at women and religions - and why women have been given a back seat in the major religions - even her own, being a Buddhist for the past 20 years. “I am also in a life and death struggle with the Thai language,” a situation many of us sympathise with.

I asked if she was no longer Indian, but now an international woman. She replied, “My roots are very solidly Indian, but after that my training has been very British,” prompting the reference to Lord McCawley who promoted the idea of Indians becoming Anglicized.

Roshan Dhunjibhoy will never stop investigating life, society and its basis, and will never stop being one of the more interesting women in Chiang Mai. The political debate starts now!