Following living in Cairo, Damascus, and now based in Abu Dhabi, Vandana Sudhir, wife of the Indian Ambassador to the UAE, reflects on a life well-lived in the Arab world.
“Growing up, my life was quite adventurous. I was only ten when my father’s work took us to Libya, where we lived in various cities. It was my first trip abroad, and I had to become accustomed to the culture, the sounds, and the sights — it was a whole new experience. I remember the children I played with didn’t speak the same language as me. Unfortunately, when we moved to Benghazi, my parents couldn’t find the right school for me, so I returned to India for my education. From living with my aunt for a year to eventually attending boarding school, I was once again learning to adapt to new surroundings, only now, without my parents. Ultimately, my resilience grew, and so did my independence. You can say my childhood prepared me very well for the many moves I would undertake as a diplomatic spouse.
I met my husband Sunjay when we were in high school. We married seven years later, in 1990. At the time, he was preparing for the highly competitive India civil services exam, and I was a teacher’s assistant to my college professor. By the time he cleared the exam, I was working in the special education sector — I was very keen to work with differently-abled children. With his new role as third secretary, our first international posting was in Cairo. I was pregnant with our second child while our older daughter was nearly three. One of our biggest challenges due to the move was filling the void of the loving family and support system we were accustomed to in India. Nonetheless, Cairo was fascinating — Sunjay was learning Arabic, and we were quickly making friends and settling into our new lives. One of our most memorable postings throughout our career of diplomacy was Syria. Before the conflict, things were wonderful, and Damascus was one of the most beautiful cities I’ve lived in. We traveled so much and got to visit Palmyra, the souks in Aleppo, the Umayyad Mosque, and the water wheels. Every three years, we get excited, wondering what’s next and how it will be. The first three months are always tough in a new country, but once I find work, it all falls into place.
The diplomatic postings were great for my teaching career as there were always excellent opportunities wherever we were — be it Cairo, Damascus, Geneva, or Sydney. I was able to explore so many different aspects of my profession, whether it was as a preschool educator or a pre-university trainer. When you’re able to fulfill your passion, despite external circumstances like frequent moves, it becomes an extremely rewarding experience. However, as much as I’ve enjoyed my teaching career, I’ve now forayed into art full time. As a self-taught artist, I like to delve into various mediums like watercolor, acrylics, collage, and work on different surfaces.
While officially, my duties entail supporting my husband’s social obligations, I am much more than a diplomatic spouse. I contribute to the community via teaching, volunteering, and organizing cultural exchanges with local communities. During the pandemic, when 6,000 Indians were repatriated from the Maldives, we formed an anonymous group of six women from the embassy to help them. We threw ourselves into this task and assisted in providing social and emotional support to those stranded, organizing food and water, and even helped them fill out immigration forms. There’s a lot we do, and it’s not considered a sacrifice for anyone or even as serving our country — we just feel drawn to these situations. Additionally, I am very passionate about raising awareness around muscular dystrophy, and education for the underprivileged. As an educator, I have cultivated a wide network of people who I reach out to, to spread awareness for these causes and involve them in fundraising efforts.
Familywise, my husband and I have grown together as a strong couple despite such demanding careers. One thing we did was make time for our children, and we did that in equal measure. They were always in our social circle — we saw our family as a natural part of our professional lives and not exclusive from each other. It’s been a beautiful journey so far, and traveling has helped us explore new facets of life from hiking in Switzerland, to diving in the Maldives, and now, exploring the UAE.
Moving to the UAE has been so exciting. My husband has previously worked in the oil sector, and the two countries have a very strong historical connect — we were on the same trade route and have been trading partners for centuries. There are so many commonalities in our way of life, history, and culture.
Linguistically, the Arabic language has given us so many words in our vocabulary within different languages in India. Our cuisines are similar — we like spicy and tangy food. Additionally, we are in a position to be there for each other. For example, during the pandemic, India and the Gulf have collaborated very closely in providing vaccines and food security. I think that’s probably why we value our relationship; it helps us grow economically and strategically.
I’m enjoying the peace and calm of Abu Dhabi; it keeps me grounded amid the happy chaos of my work. We’ve been busy soaking in the culture and the richness of the country by visiting historical sites, museums, and art galleries. There’s so much art here. I enjoy exploring the warehouses at Alserkal Avenue and chancing upon the experiential art there. Some of my favorite galleries in Abu Dhabi include the Manarat Al Saadiyat, N2N, and the Etihad Modern Art Gallery. With the help of the spouses’ association of the diplomatic corps, I’ve had some amazing opportunities to talk to and meet with the artists. That narrative helps you understand art at a deeper level.
My story could have been characterized by all the troubles I faced when moving around — not knowing the language, health problems, and other impediments. But I chose otherwise. Attitude determines altitude. I never felt that I sacrificed things to be able to do what I’m doing now. It’s been a pleasure to serve my country alongside my husband.”
As told to Hanadi Merchant-Habib
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia