When Ananya Dutta's husband's job sent him on an assignment to Ikea's headquarters in Sweden, it was the start of a life-changing journey for her too. But at the time she was mainly grappling with the culture shock from moving from India's Bangalore, a city of more than eight million people, to 9,000-strong Älmhult.
“My first thought was 'there are no people on the road, where are all the people?' My husband explained that that's what it's like here. Now when I look back at it I think our first years in Sweden were very calm and quiet,” she laughs, some 12 years down the road.
There's a large community of Indian IT and tech workers in the town of Älmhult, the rural municipality where the Swedish furniture giant was founded and still has its headquarters. But staying home with her three-month-old daughter, Dutta could not help but feel lonely.
“We had some company and there were some gatherings. But I am an engineer by profession and had worked back in India, so it was frustrating for me to stay at home,” she tells The Local.
The Indian company her husband was employed by did not permit his spouse to work for Ikea while he was there, and so there were few jobs left in Älmhult that fit Dutta's resume.
“Sitting at home for three years was not nice. Of course I was spending good time with my child, but I'm career-oriented and I don't like to sit idle,” she says. “When I found my first job, I felt I had achieved something. That really changed the life I was living in Sweden.”
That opportunity came when her husband's project changed and the couple moved to the slightly bigger city of Helsingborg in 2008. Dutta landed a job at Qlik, then known as QlikTech, a software company founded in Lund, Sweden, which now has global reach.
“It was a little bit stressful leaving the child eight to nine hours in daycare. It was harsh in the beginning getting used to that. But the work was good. I really like the Swedish work culture. I was the first Indian in the company and they all looked to me thinking that what I do all Indians do – if I didn't drink coffee they thought no Indians drink coffee,” she laughs.
“I remember someone told me that I was brave to come and work where there was no one from my nationality. But I didn't think of it like that. I just thought that irrespective of the culture or language I had I was supposed to do my work like everyone else.”
But having thrown herself from staying home with her daughter into a full-time career in a high-paced job, she found she was still feeling lonely, despite getting on well with her colleagues.
“In Helsingborg I led a very lonely life. I didn't have a social life. I'm a very social person, and I didn't want my children to grow up in that environment. I noticed that my daughter was getting shy because we didn't have any visitors over to our home,” she says.
Ananya Dutta. Photo: Private
In 2010 the couple relocated to Stockholm, bought an apartment, and decided to live in the Swedish capital permanently. “I was very much willing to move to Stockholm, because I still missed the Indian festivals and wanted to connect with the Indian community here.”
This is the point where all the pieces of the puzzles really fell into place, and for the first time in Sweden Dutta was able to combine her career, life as a mother, and social life.
Today, she works as an IT consultant for Accenture, and has managed to reconnect with her Indian culture, being a regular artist at the Indian Embassy since 2010 and involved in the running of several Indian events and organizations in Stockholm. Some of these are the Stockholm Sarbojonin Puja Committee, which organizes cultural programmes and festivals, and Sanskriti, which promotes Indian culture in Sweden.
“My experience from working in Sweden so far is that many don't have relevant knowledge of India. When you say 'India' they think of poverty, population and pollution. That is not what India is. So I wanted to show some of what India is to me,” explains Dutta.
She explains she is regularly asked questions such as “how come you're the only child of your parents” by people who had seen news reports about over-population in India, without realizing the incredible diversity of a country of more than 1.2 billion people.
“There are ills in every country, of course, but also good things. The Indian diaspora is spreading far and wide, because we're needed, not because we're poor. Just go to an IT company and you'll see that many of the workers are Indian,” she says.
Her crowning glory so far has been organizing the Colours of India dance and music show during the Namaste Stockholm festival in front of an audience of 4,000 people in the Kungsträdgården park for two years running and also leads a team of artists in performances promoting various social causes.
“To me India is a very diverse country with lots of different cultures,” she says. “If you combine the whole of Europe, that's India – there are some similarities, some differences.”
Ananya Dutta and her husband, Subroto Dutta. Photo: Private
Multiculturalism and integration are currently two hotly debated topics in Sweden, which has seen an unprecedented wave of immigration in the past couple of years. Asked if there is something Sweden could learn from India's approach, Dutta notes the language barrier.
“Accept the diversity. There are a lot of people from different countries here, but there are still gaps where we are not integrated. I think integration would come easier if language was not seen as such a barrier in Sweden. People don't get jobs even if they are very qualified because they don't speak the language,” she says.
As for herself, she feels at ease in Sweden today. Her passion for spreading Indian culture is not just a way for her to remembering her background – it is also a way of giving something back to her adopted country.
“I think Sweden is a great place to live. This is true from my heart,” she says.
“There's a lot of gender equality in Sweden and it's comparatively safer than other countries. My daughter has been travelling by herself on the tunnelbana (underground) to school since she was eight years old – I wouldn't have been able to let her do that alone in India.”
And just to prove the point about the benefits of sharing cultures and traditions, she has certainly not been able to live in Sweden for 12 years without adopting some new habits herself.
“Lucia and the kanelbulle. I eat all the Swedish food for the special days! Even if we go to India for Christmas we take the glögg and the pepparkaka and celebrate it in India.”