There are expats who arrive in India and ensconce themselves in a bubble of comfort, usually in gated communities until it is time to return to their respective home countries. And then there are those like Benjamine Oberoi who are not fazed by the rich chaos that is India, choose to embrace the local culture, and impact the lives of the poor by empowering them, either directly, or through NGOs.
This week, H E François Richier, Ambassador of France to India, bestowed her with an award — the French Honour of Officer of the National Order of Merit in recognition of the work she has been for the past 35 years.
The intimate ceremony, held at the Bangalore French Consulate in the presence of her friends and family was a grateful acknowledgement of her work that has spanned decades, countries and continents. The sentiment that came through to the gathering, as the French flag fluttered on the open terrace of the consulate and the Ambassador pinned the medal on her lapel was that one can be an ambassador of change despite linguistic and cultural differences.
It has been 37 years since the French born, Bejamine first came to India. A brief visit in 1978 was soon followed by a scholarship programme at NIMHANS as part of her PhD on Child Develop-ment and Psychology. She met and married her husband, Bhushan Oberoi, a restaurateur and soon after started two foundations; Objective France-Inde (OFI), in 1998, registered in France and Casa Foundation in 2011, registered in India. Chanelling the services and skills of volunteers and donations, she collaborated with organizations like SEVAI, HUT, BOSCO and GRAMIUM, OFI, in Bengaluru and Tamil Nadu. The Oberois also run a bed and breakfast in a charmingly restored heritage home, Casa Cottage in the heart of the city.
Clad in a cotton salwar kameez, over six feet tall, blonde and with a distinctly foreign accent, Benjamine cuts an incongruous figure, whether she is cuddling HIV-infected children or striding through the fields of Tiruchirapalli, to supervise the watershed management projects. “Language is never a barrier. There is always someone to translate,” she shrugs, “I am also a consultant for funding agencies, I work closely with NGOs, I monitor the progress of the projects we work on and keep abreast of government schemes and help NGOs leverage them effectively. Our guests at Casa Cottage donate Rs 100 towards the Casa Foundation. If every business gave a tiny portion of their income towards a cause we would have enough to go around,” she says earnestly.
Her journey thus far has not been easy. There are myriad challenges — finding the right people to keep the projects up and running, travelling to remote areas in the scorching heat, creating a synergy for international agencies and interns to pool in their resources, all the while running her business in Bengaluru full time.
But her enthusiasm is apparently limitless. “Every little bit adds up. And it also helps that I see things not as they are, but as they could be,” she signs off....