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Queen Mary Alumni

Alumni profile - Sheba Remy Kharbanda

I arrived in the US right after 9/11 so my work with Amnesty was documenting the stories of people caught up in the post-9/11 Patriot Act sweeps. These people were largely South Asian, which threw me into a really confusing space. I knew the stories of my family, I knew my dad and grandparents were refugees, that my mum was in the generation that settled Southall and put it on the map in terms of immigrant towns in London. But it wasn’t my story, it was an inherited story.

(Law and Politics BA, 2001)

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Why did you choose to study Law at Queen Mary?

My guidance counsellor at school suggested Law, I didn’t do the degree with a view to practising or working in the field. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I thought I’d give it a go. I ended up loving it, but also realising that I didn’t want to practise Law.

When I was at Queen Mary there were a lot of minorities and people who were the first generation, or the first after a really long time, to go to university. My dad and my grandparents on both sides were refugees so there was an interruption in access to education. Being in that space with so many people whose experiences were like my own, was a great place for me to learn.

One of the best experiences I had was a programme where we could go into neighbouring schools in East London and provide teaching support. It was hard because these schools are crowded and the kids have stuff going on, but there’s little more gratifying than being with young people in that way. It was done with so much consciousness around social class and place, and it felt like I was getting more than I was giving, so I feel really grateful for that experience.

Can you tell me a bit about your work?

I’m an interdisciplinary artist, working at the crossroads of visual art, storytelling and healing – catharsis. Although it’s not related to Law, I came to it through Human Rights work. I was working for Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) as a staff researcher, and had done internships with other international Human Rights organisations, like Human Rights Watch, conducting qualitative research. So I was talking to people, learning their stories. It was then I started to realise how drawn I was to story. It’s powerful, and the reason we use story in those contexts is that it’s humanising, and connects people.

I arrived in the US right after 9/11 so my work with Amnesty was documenting the stories of people caught up in the post-9/11 Patriot Act sweeps. These people were largely South Asian, which threw me into a really confusing space. I knew the stories of my family, I knew my dad and grandparents were refugees, that my mum was in the generation that settled Southall and put it on the map in terms of immigrant towns in London. But it wasn’t my story, it was an inherited story. I grew up here, I’m a Londoner – a minority, but nevertheless a Londoner. There’s a way in which being a Londoner shields you. I didn’t have any of that when I was in the U.S. I was fielding calls from my community and just wondering what on earth was going on. And the stories I had heard from my family were starting to come back.

I was talking to my mother one day about the work I was doing and the way it was affecting me. She had just read a story in the local newspaper about a Punjabi historian who was curating the first ever archive of South Asian stories in West London. Because of the work I was doing, I felt I had to get in contact with the historian, Hema Raull – who is now one of my best friends. I told her about this idea I had to interview women of my grandmother’s generation and she just set it up for me! I had no plan, we just filmed these women elders, and created this oral history archive on video, which hadn’t been done before. That sowed a seed and morphed into all kinds of other storytelling, including self-portrait storytelling. It all came from the Human Rights work that I was able to do because I had a Law degree. So even though on the face of it I’m doing something that’s completely unrelated, it’s so related.

I also have a metaphysics practice teaching and offering sessions in tarot, astrology, energy work, meditation and so on. Although that seems even further from Law, it also feels related, because it appeals to my need to put things in their place, to categorise (to make meaning?). Whether we like it or not, our legal systems define the way our society’s structured, at least in the western world. The other work I do is also about that, how do we understand, what’s the language that we use to describe our life, the way we fit into the world, the way we see the world. Law gave me the ability to look, see, ask questions, be probing, and to think with a certain kind of mind.

What are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

It’s again in the vein of storytelling - an oral storytelling project around the subject of love as a force for social and personal change called the ‘Love Is…’ storytelling project. I’ve done a lot on video, it’s one of my favourite mediums because it’s so immediate, and powerful. However, with the pandemic, I had to pivot. I have seven very basic questions I ask people about their relationship to and thoughts on the subject of love. From this, I create a meditative podcast - you hear the person I’ve interviewed interspersed with chimes and bells. The podcast is also intended to be healing. I have found that everyone has something to say about this subject. I started interviewing people I know, because it’s so intimate but then word got around and thanks to the gift of technology, I can cast the net wide, and speak to people all around the world, who I’ve never met in my life. All the interviews are available free online. So that’s what’s helped me stay grounded while we’ve been on this rollercoaster of the last few years. Corny and cheesy as it sounds, it’s a labour of love.

Other people have taught me how to be a good interviewer, researcher and listener. I learnt how to listen to what was important to them, and pay attention to that. I have questions, a general space in which I’m inviting people to be with me, but really my work in these interviews is just paying attention to what people want to say and then facilitating them to tell whatever story they want to tell. I’m also thinking about how I could turn it into a sound installation.

What’s one of the most interesting conversations you’ve had?

Every single conversation has been absolutely stunningly beautiful and I’m honestly not saying this just so I don’t upset anyone. I’ve interviewed family members, and they’ll reveal through the story they’re telling you, a perspective, philosophy or attitude towards life that they have, and you just think, ‘I know you so well, and I didn’t know that’. So every interview is humbling and heart-expanding. There are many times when I’ve cried with people because the stories they tell are very intimate. I feel so humbled and privileged by that, that they would have the confidence and comfort to share some of these really deep stories that they don’t tell many people.

Love is a very big topic, which in modern times we’ve squished into a very narrow topic. We experience love, and act on love, in much bigger ways. There are threads that run through the interviews: three things that are common across every interview; love for nature, maternal presence and love, and animals. The way that people feel and can access love when they’re in the natural world, that’s universal. My brother talked about the smell of this certain flower in Hyde Park right at the beginning of Spring, and what that did for him, about going into the park on a warm day when it had just rained, the smell of that flower, the concrete and the water on the soil, the olfactory environment that created, that made an imprint on him. I’d known my brother his whole life and never realised he was paying attention to that. Another person talked about crying at the sight of flowers in the middle in the fashion district of Manhattan, which is just concrete, concrete, concrete. We live in these busy times where we’re not in contact with the natural world as much, so maybe we forget how much we need it, how much we respect it, how much we love it, and how much it loves us.

Then mums and grandmas, and the love shown to people, but also the absence of love, because a mum passed away or was sick or a grandmother wasn’t available in this life, but there’s a legacy they left. There’s something around that maternal energy that’s again, universal. The third thing is dogs - animals, but dogs especially. One of my teachers talked about how when her dog was dying, she learned about love, because she was able to just attend to this being unconditionally. We can do that for humans, but it’s different. People talked about those three quite commonly. I had my own theories about it, but I was still surprised. So I have learned something from every single conversation.

What made you want to move to the US?

I actually moved the states for my ex-partner. I really wouldn’t have done it by myself. I thought I might end up in Spain. It’s been very hard on multiple levels. I lost a sense of identity and grounding that I had here. London is very diverse, and people say that New York is diverse, but not in the same way. London is not without problems. I have been reminded that I’m not ethnically British many times, but I never felt that way in this country, this city. In the US it’s an everyday thing. When I became a US citizen, they want you to identify the subgroup right away, so ‘Asian-American’, and I didn’t want to do that. I will do that when I choose to do that, I don’t want to be forced into a box. At the same time, would I be doing any of this if I hadn’t moved to New York? I don’t think so. The pressure and need to figure this stuff out in a foreign place wouldn’t have been there. So whilst it’s been difficult, with everything that’s going on, it’s been a real blessing.

What next?

I had no plan when I started the ‘Love Is…’ storytelling project, but I really wanted to make it into a multifaceted project, so I would like to write a book with people’s narratives, and the installation I mentioned, and just see where that goes. I have a goal with the interviews and I’m not there yet.

Elevating storytelling is number one, but also love. Having worked in the fields I’ve worked in – art aside – people often think that love is soft, weak. When I was doing Human Rights work about 15 years ago, I showed up to a meeting with a bell hooks book, ‘All About Love’. All my colleagues just rolled their eyes at me, and that was the beginning of the end of my time doing that work. I could feel my heart calling me to another place. But one of my dear friends who is a very tough civil rights lawyer who had been at that meeting told me yesterday that the person she’s dating sent her this book. She had already read all of bell hooks’s other books, but not this one because she thought bell had lost her mind. She got one chapter in and realised she was wrong. Love is the biggest and most powerful force in the world, and where we’ve been going wrong is our understanding of it, our appropriation of it, commodification of it to sell things. So that truly is where my energies are focused going forward.

Do you have particular memories of your time at Queen Mary you would like to share?

I was talking with my brother recently, who also went to Queen Mary, about the quintessential campus experience. He feels he missed out by not having that, but I really don’t. What I had at Queen Mary was such a perfect experience for London. We’re all the way out here in Mile End, and you’re interacting with the community in many different ways. There’s something grounding and humbling about that. And the kind of events, opportunities, and experiences that would happen were incredible. In my first year there was a meet up for students who were the first in their generation to go to university. It was amazing, the room was packed, and that’s important to someone like me, to be in community with people in that way. So I felt like I was in exactly the place I needed to be. My teachers were all amazing and supportive, I had this plan to go to Cuba and do research, and the dean of the law school just said ‘right let’s work out how to make this possible for you’ because they didn’t have a pathway for that. Then my supervisor in the Politics department, Pilar Domingo was also just so supportive, and I just remember being held and really seen as a student not a number. I don’t work directly in academia in the states, but I work with a lot of academics on my research. I still feel like I had one of the best educations of anyone I know, partly because of where it is and because the staff were so invested.

One of the best experiences I had was a programme where we could go into neighbouring schools in East London and provide teaching support. It was hard because these schools are crowded and the kids have stuff going on, but there’s little more gratifying than being with young people in that way. It was done with so much consciousness around social class and place, and it felt like I was getting more than I was giving, so I feel really grateful for that experience. I’m so glad I went to Queen Mary, and had these encounters.

If you could speak to your younger self, what would you say?

I speak to her all the time, and she usually tells me to take the afternoon off! This is going to sound so cringy, but it’s true. I would tell her to follow her heart, her bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say. It always takes you exactly where you need to be. There’s this extract from Fragrance After Rain by Jaiya John: ‘A precious child asked “grandmother, what does it mean to reweave your life?” Grandmother answered “Unlearn your old harmful ways, learn your new healing ways, garden the stories you tell yourself, allow beauty to run like a river through your soul again, permit peace to graze your heart, drink the rain, savour the sun, love like love loves’. When you’re in that space of really listening to what your heart wants, you’re doing that. So I’m glad I trusted my guidance counsellor, even though I didn’t know what I was going to do with a Law degree, because something in me said it was the right path. And I’m glad I’ve allowed myself the experiences that I’ve allowed myself, so I’d tell my younger self ‘well done, girlfriend!’

Lastly, this year marks the 75th anniversary of the Partition of India. What is your personal connection to this anniversary and how are you seeking to commemorate it? 

I come from a family of storytellers and storytelling has felt like my calling. A thread shared by both sides of my family is the story of witnessing and surviving the Partition of India. Though I did not live through that momentous event, like many descendants of those who did, it's as if I carry it in my DNA. It’s like a haunting. My father is the only relative still alive with a clear enough memory as well as a desire to share publicly his recollections of that tumultuous time. I felt a strong call to house his memories, to give them a literal and metaphorical home in order to sacralise them, in so doing, transforming them into an occasion for collective catharsis and healing. And this is exactly what I have done via my project, ‘Five Rivers: A Portrait of Partition’. This project is a documentary in cyclorama. Staged inside a traditional wedding tent, four synchronized videos tell the story of my father, Amrik Singh, an Afghani Sikh who left the Northwest Frontier Province for East Punjab on the cusp of the Partition of India. Watch Five Rivers: A Portrait of Partition

Similarly, the aforementioned oral history video archive that I have curated chronicles the stories of mostly Punjabi women who left India in the decades following the Partition of India to remake home in Southall, West London. This project has been another pathway to collective catharsis, healing, and understanding. 

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Hannah Dormor. If you would like to get in touch with Remy or engage her in your work, please contact Hannah at h.dormor@qmul.ac.uk. 

 

 

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