A little girl in India looks out from her family’s small apartment and wonders, What is beyond this city? She is too young to know that there is an entire country beyond what she can see. And beyond that, an entire world.
Debotri Dhar has always longed to transcend geographical boundaries. As a child, reading was her form of travel. She visited distant countries and interacted with different people through the eyes of the characters in novels. After receiving her bachelor’s in economics from Delhi University (India), she traveled to the United Kingdom to earn her master’s in women’s studies, with distinction, from Oxford University. Not being one to stick to the straight and narrow path, Dr. Dhar traveled next to Rutgers University (New Jersey) to get her PhD in women’s and gender studies. Currently Dr. Dhar is a professor of women’s and gender studies here at the University of Michigan.
“I always had an expanding sense of home,” says Dr. Dhar. Through her extensive travels, she’s learned to carry little pieces of home within her, wherever she goes. She has found new markets to buy food, creating familiar recipes with new ingredients. She has added new styles to her wardrobe, finding expression through the melding of fabrics. She has met new people and carried their stories with her as well. Constantly shaping and being shaped. She journeyed through countries, confronting different histories, realities, and ways of life, all the while collecting those experiences like books on a shelf.
Dr. Dhar has translated her travels into words, authoring novels and short stories, and curating and editing scholarly volumes, essays, academic articles, and newspaper columns. Dr. Dhar writes from her own life experiences, her relatable characters giving language to the experiences many women have. “If you stick to the straight and narrow, you don’t get these experiences,” Dr. Dhar reflects.
Having crossed oceans and borders, Dr. Dhar emphasized the importance of appreciating the small things, the things that are right in front of us. Some of her simple pleasures come in the form of paw prints on freshly fallen snow, walking along a stream, or sitting with her feet in a bucket of warm water for a much-deserved pedicure. Especially this past year, it has been all the more important to connect with these small joys and prioritize well-being.
As a U-M professor, Dr. Dhar worried that the vital human connections created in her seminar-style classes would be lost in a completely virtual environment. Would students feel comfortable sharing personal experiences on camera? How would assignments that required a physical presence be adapted? How can I continue to demonstrate care and compassion for my students? These were all questions Dr. Dhar asked herself as she prepared to teach her classes online. However, she has been pleasantly surprised by both her own resilience and the resilience of her students.
“I am so proud of our students for going through the hell they did and for how well they have collectively adapted. We are going to continue to be called upon to be adaptable and resilient, while also prioritizing self-care.”
Yet she knows that being able to prioritize self-care is a privilege. Looking back on her own life, Dr. Dhar acknowledged that it was not until she had found a certain level of stability—financial, career, personal— that she could finally slow down and begin to put herself first. She emphasizes the importance of having a living wage, especially during this challenging time, so people are able to take care of themselves. “Looking back on life, I don’t know if I would do it any differently. But looking back, what was the cost to my well-being?” As an achievement-oriented woman in the highly competitive world of academia, well-being was often the last thing Dr. Dhar could focus on. She spent most of her 20s accomplishing the big things: getting her master’s and PhD, becoming an established writer and professor. Now that the big things have been done, she can spend time taking care of herself.
“We must devise ways to do more than just exist in the world; we have to thrive.”
Dr. Dhar discussed what well-being means in her own life. Well-being happens in the spaces in between: it’s embracing the imperfects and the unexpecteds. It is learning over time to be kinder to ourselves and turning self-acceptance into self-love. It is accepting life in all its messiness. And just holding that truth. And knowing that life is infinitely more complex and layered and joyful because of it.
In her story of personal growth, Dr. Dhar highlights the impact of Josephine Diamond, her late PhD supervisor. Dr. Dhar was instantly drawn to Diamond’s warmth, remembering her as a loving woman who wore her heart on her sleeve. She lived with dignity and grace and authenticity. Over the years, her relationship with Dr. Dhar began to resemble that of a mother and daughter. Her unwavering support not only propelled Dr. Dhar’s professional pursuits, but also inspired her personally. She wanted to do the small things to bring warmth wherever she went, just as Diamond had. Dr. Dhar was Diamond’s final student before she retired.
To all young women:
Actively practice self-love. Celebrate your hard work, creativity, courage, hopes, even heartbreaks—they make your journey unique. Embrace the uncertainty of the road, distant horizons, the adventures yet to come. And shine your love and light back, as often as you can, on this trying, troubled, less-than-luminous world.
– Debotri Dhar
Blog written by Keara Kotten, #UMSocial Intern and Michigan Ross Junior