Interview by Yifei Wu. Photos by Victor Alvarez.
Nirupama Rao, the former ambassador of India to the United States, is a Senior Visiting Fellow in International and Public Affairs at The Watson Institute. She was a Meera and Vikram Gandhi Fellow with the formerly existed Brown-India Initiative at the Watson Institute for International Studies. She has worked in the US, India, Sri Lanka, China, Russia, Austria, and Peru and speaks English, German, Spanish, Hindi, and her mother tongue, Malayalam. At Brown, she is teaching a course called India in the World, that focuses on policy and diplomacy. Below is a more in-depth look at the life of Professor Rao as “a global citizen.”
Where are you from? Where do you consider home(s) to be?
I am from the state of Kerala, India, which is in the southmost part of India. It is the most literate state with a highly educated, particularly female, population.
What is a food or dish you miss from home?
In the US today, there are over three million Indians. They’ve lived here for many years, and they’ve become Americans, but they’ve retained a lot of the lifestyle from back home. So you can get all the ingredients you need for doing Indian cooking. I don’t miss any dish because I can make everything I want here.
What’s an Americanism you’ve picked up, if any?
I’ve picked up a lot of the American English, and I love American songs. I like to listen to Broadway and jazz. I wanted to see the show Hamilton, but I haven’t been able to get the tickets for the show.
Has living in the US changed your relationship to/perspective of your home country/culture?
I’ve become a citizen of the world now. I am comfortable in most situations in most countries. When I go back to India, I feel very much at home. Of course I bring back the experiences I’ve had in different countries, and the different things I learned. I try to talk to people back home about the experiences I’ve had abroad. In the process, we can further improve the country.
What do you find most difficult about representing India in different countries?
I am very proud to represent India. I don’t find it difficult at all because India is a very fascinating country, and people all over the world are fascinated by India, the colors of India, the diversity of India, Indian democracy, and the role India plays in the world. India has a very positive profile, so it’s an honor to represent India, so I don’t find it difficult at all.
What do you teach/specialize/research? Why did you choose this field?
I am writing a book the relations between India and China from 1949 to 1962. I’ve been interested in politics and diplomacy since I was a child. When I was 12, I sort of made up my mind that I would become a diplomat. I was very inspired by some personalities in the field, and was very interested in current affairs and politics.
Why did you decide to teach in the US and Brown?
I came here during the India Initiative in 2014 as a fellow, and I spent a year here. I was really fond of the environment of the Watson Institutes and all the academic work that was going on here. The spirit of debate and inquiry was all very exciting and admirable. I was offered to come back to teach based on my experience in the field. This will be my third year at Brown.
How did living in the US differ from expectations you had? What did you find most difficult/easiest to get used to?
I’ve been coming to the US since 1983. I’m very much at home here. I know the country and I have established many friends, so it doesn’t feel like a foreign country. I’m very comfortable living in India, and I am very adjusted to life here also.
What do you find different about teaching in the US versus where you’ve taught before?
Teaching is a different experience itself from diplomacy. As a diplomat, I would attend meetings and negotiations and represent India in different countries. When you’re teaching, it is a much more personal experience. With teaching you are trying to address [the students] concerns and help them learn about new areas of knowledge. There’s a lot of give and take because I also learn from my students; they bring very fresh thinkings to subjects and issues. It enlarges my awareness of a particular issue.
How do you define good teaching?
Teaching is giving and sharing, giving and sharing your knowledge. The hallmark of a good teacher is when you’re able to make your students enjoy the process of learning and awaken their intellectual curiosity, to help them ask questions, and for them to be interested in exploring new frontiers of knowledge.
What are some of your interests outside of teaching?
I like Indian art, history, and I am a collector of old books on India. I also love listening to music; both Indian and Western. I like to sing; I’ve even given a few concerts. I like to travel and love the mountains, especially the Himalayas. I’ve gone on a one month trip, crossing from the Indian side of the Himalayas to Tibet.
Where do you see yourself in the future? Any big plans?
I want to finish the book I’m writing. Some publishers want me to write my memoirs. I’ll be busy writing for the next two to three years. I would be happy to continue to teach. I would like to do a lot of traveling, and possibly learn Chinese.