She came to India from France as a student, learnt Hindi, Bharatanatyam, Dhrupad and yoga, and spent more than two years in Varanasi, basking in the country’s spiritual wealth and wisdom. Little did Sonia Barbry know back then that she would one day become the first, and the youngest, Consul General of France in Mumbai - and the first woman to hold the position in 154 years!
Sonia is not afraid to walk the extra mile to prove that women are equal to men in all aspects. She tells us from experience that no matter where women are today, irrespective of their position, they always have to fight the misogynistic mindset. Despite that, she’s hopeful for the future of India’s women. In an interaction with us during her visit to the city Sonia spoke about cultural exchange, women issues and, of course, her newfound love for Pune...
‘Namaste. Aapko meri Hindi kaisi lagi?’
Sonia is fluent in Hindi and that’s the first thing that strikes you during the meeting. She insisted that we speak in Hindi during the interview. “Main sabse Hindi mein vartalaap karti hu, and people feel at home with me. They see me as their own, I think that’s beautiful,” she said. Her maiden visit to Pune was an important one. She visited the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) to strengthen the exchange programme between Indian and French filmmaking students, to make it a possibility for them to study in each other’s country and in exchange, learn the different cultures of both countries.
“I want Indian students to visit France, where one can get a lot of opportunities and options in terms of universities, courses and fees. And I want students in France to come to India, from where they can take home memories for a lifetime. France wants more of India, its tourists, students, businessmen and artistes. We want to strengthen our ties in all areas,” said Sonia, who was reminded of her days as a student in India during the trip to the campus.
“I have been to India in different avatars. First as a student when I was 18. I did an internship with UNICEF and worked with the street kids in Chennai. I traveled the country and fell in love with its culture. After a year, I came back again and went to Varanasi and learnt Hindi, Bharatanatyam, Dhrupad and yoga. Then, I taught French at the Banaras Hindu University. All these experiences have helped me immensely to know the country better. Later, I joined the foreign services and here I am, as a Consul General today,” she shared. Throughout her time in India, Sonia has met people from all walks of life - from spiritual gurus to diplomats and intellectuals, and she says that it has allowed her to connect with people better.
Some of her impromptu plans during her visit to the city included basking in history at Shaniwarwada , meeting potters in Kumbharwada and visiting Tulshibaug - besides official work, of course. She is in charge of five Indian states under the French Embassy, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Goa, but coming to Pune was a different kind of an experience for her; one that reminded her of her Varanasi days.
“Shaniwarwada is incredible, so is Kumbharwada and Tulshibaug. I feel connected to the soil after visiting these places. There’s so much to explore in the city. It is a perfect balance of old and new. I would love to visit Pune off work soon and explore more,” said Sonia.
‘I’m very hopeful for India’s future. It is an open-minded country’
Sonia, who is the first woman Consul General of France in Mumbai in the last 154 years, feels that women in India are empowered compared to many other countries, but that doesn’t mean that the fight for gender equality is over.
“India is a country where I find empowered women and that needs to be celebrated. Unlike other countries in the world, where women are still struggling for basic rights, India gives a lot of freedom and space to its women. I want women to take up more of that space. I want them to break glass ceilings and they have to trust their capacity to do so. Women are dealing with misogyny everywhere, including Europe. So, everyone is needed to solve the problem. I’m very hopeful for India’s future, as it is a very open minded country,” said Sonia.