I see her walking on the pedestrian pathway. I’m in a taxi crawling through the cramped traffic. She is walking in the opposite direction. Her hair tied severely away from her face. It is her attire which catches my eye, as the taxi stops in the traffic snag. She is wearing a chef’s coat. It bears no insignia. But I spot a large yellow-red stain on the lower right side of her coat. She holds a handkerchief to her nose and sniffs, but she doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. She seems to be quietly strolling. She doesn’t have a bag or purse in her hand.
This particular area in Delhi has several large hotels, most of which are hosting important international meetings today. I’ve just exited one of them. Which hotel does she work in, I wonder. Did she just have a bad day at work catering to hundreds of delegates? Did someone yell at her? Did she just need to get out of the heat of the kitchen? Is she frazzled and does she need to calm her mind?
I wonder how women react when they are emotional at work. First, it is no easy task to get your way up through a system which is largely patriarchal. Little things make a difference. Physically comfortable surroundings, safety, security, and having to prove they are efficient twice over. They are constantly under the scanner. And any display of emotion is always considered a weakness.
I was in a meeting where Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director of the South-East Asia region of the World Health Organization (WHO) presented her Annual Report. She is the first woman to hold that post and serve two terms. No mean achievement. Her tenure will come to an end in January next year. Eradicating measles, filariasis, kala azar in several countries, fighting the COVID crisis, and improving the statistics. As she presented her track of remarkable achievements over the last decade the audience gave her a standing ovation lasting several minutes. Minister after minister from the 11 SEARO nations specifically acknowledged her inputs and leadership. The WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyeus, referred to her as “my sister Poonam” several times in his address. The affection and the admiration of the people for her was palpable. And yet as the cameras zoom in, I notice no display of emotion. She looks stoic.
As she speaks of her reflections of her tenure, she says, “Public health is a battle with several frontlines,” and you are aware of the many crises she has handled. “To leave no one behind is a tough challenge, and quite often you know who is being left behind and why”–she says. There is wisdom in those years. And a very calm demeanour. What a woman! I can only imagine the journeys she has been through. Without showing any emotion of the turbulence within.