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Archana Rao – Serving Others, Finding Her Place

By 6,August, 2018One Comment

Dinner is not good. Archana sighs but is a good sport about it. If she could have anything, though, in the world…salmon with coriander, lots of olive oil, and a side of guacamole!

A choice that suits the free-spirited, global citizen she is perfectly: petite Indian girl born in Sheffield but raised in Bangalore, who studied in America and the UK, has had many careers and addresses. Who is just as comfortable in a sari as in the baggy jeans and large sweatshirt she wears as she tells me the story of her journey in search of…her place.

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When she was fifteen, Archana declared that she was dropping out of school and going to travel the world and serve others, as her parents were doing. They had given up their own jobs and moved to Panchghani, Asia Plateau, where Jayashree now worked on rural development and Ravindra, on peacebuilding.

She had to find her way first, though, and in her parents’ words: an education.

‘“When you have money and a career, then you can help the poor.”

So she studied developmental economics and got an MBA. Then it was time for that career; she was hired by a construction company.

It was not her place; she did not play golf. She was not fifty years old, male, or Caucasian. She was the overeducated “Indian” who for five years, made tea and crunched numbers. She would survive the day till the clock hit 5, then run off to a local café where she would read till closing time. She was happy there. Was that her place?

A place where all people did was read. She found it: a publishing house! She leapt. It was terrifying. She submitted resumes, went to book fairs, sent emails and knocked on doors until finally, finally one of them opened:

Archana now had a job in which she was paid to travel and read.

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For the next decade, almost, her journey took her from one city to another, reading, discussing, selling books over rich dinners in luxury hotels. From her flat in London she zigzagged across the the world, her place in a business class seat. Occasionally, stopping to visit her parents when it was on her way.

Until one weekend, having been spent helping her mother on a project procuring water access to a village, then attending a talk her father had given on ethical living, she paused her journey in the back seat of the taxi to the airport from Panchghani.

She was on her way back to the life she had chosen and her next destination and meeting. There would be cocktails in an elegant bar, all the salmon and guacamole she could eat. Then a long, luxurious bath, five-star sheets in feather-soft bed. But she could not shake a nagging feeling:

This was not her place.

She was leaving a village where clean water itself was a luxury. Where education, work and travel opportunities, even good nutrition, were lacking. Leaving her parents to travel the world, as she had dreamt when she was fifteen, but she was serving no one. Her journey suddenly felt hollow.

“I had known where my place was from the start. I had just forgotten. The only life that was going to give me happiness was one of service and compassion.”

She leapt. Again. From a cliff, the summit of a mountain this time.

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She left her job and lifestyle and London and bought an economy class ticket to India. She spent three years serving with her mother in those rural communities. Reconnecting, learning from both her parents: compassion, fierce vulnerability.

Now Archana works for Global Citizen Year, a social venture that brings American high-school graduates to India. There, they spend eight months performing service, from assisting births to teaching English, developing empathy, self-awareness and grit, exploring a new culture and themselves.

She walks them along that path to becoming impactful leaders. She listens, counsels, trains, and cares deeply for every single one of those hundreds of kids. And every day at 5 she comes home happy to her books and Rumi, her “very Rumi-esque rescue dog who teaches me more about selfless compassion than anyone.”

Jayashree and Ravindra live nearby. She often goes to their place. They talk, laugh, have dinner together. Masala, always masala. “No salmon, coriander, or guacamole here,” she jokes, but is a good sport.


Yara Zgheib

Author Yara Zgheib

Yara is a writer, policy researcher and analyst, and lover of culture, travel, nature, art. She is the author of The Girls at 17 Swann Street and blogger behind Aristotle at Afternoon Tea. She has written for The Huffington Post, The Four Seasons Magazine, The Idea List, A Woman’s Paris, and Holiday Magazine.

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