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P. Sivakami

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CHENNAI, India — Eight years ago, P. Sivakami went from Tamil Nadu to Tokyo to serve as Egional director of the Indian Tourist Office. She was in her early 40s then, usually dressed in a sari but often in slacks and a sweater, and still wearing her hair long and loose. She took her two young sons with her, but her husband could be with the family only during his holidays. Many people in Japan remember Sivakami for her energy and initiative, her merriment and seriousness, her curiosity and desire to know and join in. She was a bright presence in the original Indian Tourist Office on the Ginza, a Tokyo showplace since the 1960s of Indian color and flamboyance.

Sivakami, who uses only one name, with the initial standing for her father, returned to Tamil Nadu four years ago. She has come a long way since she was a child here on her father’s farm. He, twice married with 13 children, had little education but was eloquent, politically alert, and an active freedom fighter. Sivakami valued his generosity of spirit and wide vision, qualities she made her own. Her father wanted all his children to advance, but insisted that at the same time they should help every day on the farm. He believed they should stay rooted in reality.

Sivakami carved her own way. When she entered college and moved to a hostel, she said, “My father made me go alone and look after myself from the beginning. He wanted me to be self-confident and independent.” She took her BA in history, then moved farther away from home to study for her master’s degree. She passed the demanding, all-India public service examinations, which have a success rate of only 1 percent, and entered the Indian Administrative Service. As she received further intensive training in all branches of national administration, she made social issues her particular concern and avocation.

“I always wanted to be a creative writer,” Sivakami said. “In high school and college I wrote stories in Tamil, my mother tongue.” Eventually she found a publisher, and became a prize winner. Now she has four published novels, one of them translated into five languages, and a new novel due for publication this summer. She has published four collections of short stories, and one book of nonfiction. She has written, directed and produced a feature film.

Sivakami was in Japan, on a scholarship management program for top executives, before she went as tourist officer to Tokyo eight years ago. She traveled abroad on government missions, and was assigned to different departments within India. She was in charge of tourism in South India before going to Tokyo. With great affection she remembers the years she lived in Tokyo, and is loyal to the many friends she made at every social level.

Together in Tamil Nadu now, the family lives in a splendid house designed by Sivakami. One of her appointments since her return was to the state’s tribal welfare department. She said: “My job was to see that teachers remained in the schools in small towns and villages where some tribes settled. I had to motivate the parents to send their children to school, inspected programs and made sure that the schools were properly utilized.” Sometimes she camped in tribal settlements. On one occasion, she heard of rock paintings found in thick jungle on a remote mountain, and asked to be taken to see them, “a three-hour trek one way, up through jungle where tigers and wild elephants live, and three hours back down. The next day I couldn’t take one step,’ she exclaimed. Currently she is commissioner in the government data center, supervising a staff of 260 employees.

Family, home and dogs, responsible career and published writing total as much as many a young ambitious woman can handle. Sivakami does more. She is passionate about social inequalities and injustices, and gives time and her own money to strengthening underdog causes. Ten years ago she founded a magazine to publish papers, read at conferences she attended, that she thought should be made available to a wider audience. “It is now a twice-monthly social, political and literary magazine, the only one evolving out of a group, noncommercial effort, the only one concerned with the welfare of the ‘dalit’ community,” she said. Additionally, she coordinates the work of some 200 volunteer organizations, which between them take up wide-ranging, basic issues on behalf of the dispossessed. Her father would be proud.