How much change, how much diversity, how much learning can one individual pack in a lifetime? How many times can one start afresh? Not too many would be my guess because it requires an immense amount of courage, fortitude, resilience and patience. After all, one had invested a lot of time and effort into a way of life, into a way of being. So it is not easy to give it all up. But some of us want to do that. When life presents us with a challenge, an opportunity to change, we have it in us to rise above the challenge, embrace the change and emerge as winners. Life may be a fight, but we have to win. That’s how we are, that’s who we are.
The ability to rise above; the ability to fight back doesn’t come easy. What comes easy is accepting defeat, letting circumstances rule your life, your destiny. We always have a choice between fighting adversity and what it brings in its wake or taking it as fate. Not many people can opt for the former. But what about those who do? Those who don’t set limits to how much they can do, how much they can fight. There are people out there who are willing to transform themselves, willing to reinvent themselves, not once, not twice but several times and emerge as winners. They don’t let life get the better of them. In fact, they get the better of life. Life just like the rest of us wonders at their determination, at their grit. And both can only marvel at such people and their achievements.
My focus this time is on one such individual, on one such woman achiever. Never say never happens to be the philosophy of life of this amazing woman, Panchali Belde, a woman with a name that is as striking as her life.
She is a woman whose life took her out of her comfort zone many times and rather than becoming uncomfortable in the new set up; she made that her new comfort zone. She succeeded in carving out a place for herself wherever life took her. She moved on and moved ahead.
They say that life starts preparing you for challenges very early on. They also say that everything happens for a reason. Well, it sure does. By presenting you with challenges, life is actually preparing you for what is going to be your future. You can’t see it; you don’t know what’s in store. So when things happen which are not to your liking or as per your expectations, you tend to question them, but you don’t know the reason why life is giving you that tutorial. When you look at the life of my woman achiever, you will see that accepting and adapting to diversity, to change came to her very early on in life and it was what helped her go a long way throughout her life and continues to do so.
Panchali Belde, my woman achiever, is a trainer offering customized training programmes to legal professionals in the Munich area in Germany. She specializes in legal writing as well as cross-border communication. Though her work and family keep her busy, she finds time to pursue her interests and hobbies which include reading, photography, gardening and travelling. She also loves music, and in particular Western Classical and jazz. She has a deep interest in architecture and culture.
Panchali Belde was born on the 6th of April at the beginning of the decade of seventies in Patna, Bihar to Ashwini and Swapna Singh. Her father is from Bihar while her mother is a Bengali. The challenges and struggles of growing up in a bilingual and multicultural household gave an added dimension to her life. They helped her integrate into the world of her parents and their families. Her mother’s family consisted of people from diverse backgrounds, religions and cultures- Sikh, Christian, Gujarati, Oriya, English and American. All this was a great multicultural exercise for her, one that broadened her understanding of the world and what it meant to embrace diversity and multicultural living fully.
Other than being from two different regions of the country, Panchali’s parents were very young when they got married. Soon after getting married, they had their first child, Ujjaini, who is older to Panchali by seven years. As a result from being young adults, all of a sudden, the couple had to assume the responsibility of the home, money, each other, and then the child. It was all too much and too soon. And they found it extremely challenging to handle everything. By the time her mother was in her early thirties, she had three children of whom the eldest was already 14. So a lot on her plate! Panchali is the middle child having a younger sister, Vidisha, who is seven years younger.
The parents loved the girls and wanted them to be independent and self-sufficient individuals and thus, always pushed them in that direction. The first obvious step in that direction was for the girls to do very well academically. The father being busy at work, it was their mother who constantly encouraged and pushed the girls towards their goal of academic excellence. Her desire to make them independent probably stemmed from the fact that since she got married very young, she couldn’t do it herself. Therefore she did not want the girls to go through a similar experience. The girls, on their part, understood what was expected of them and worked towards meeting the expectations. And considering that all three have done very well shows that all that pushing worked. So while Panchali is a corporate lawyer turned trainer, Ujjaini is a doctor while Vidisha after finishing her MBA joined the corporate world.
The family was pretty close-knit, and the sisters despite the age difference were and still are very close to each other. They have had their share of sibling rivalry, sharing of secrets, sorrows and crushes. But one thing which has stood the test of time is the fact that the sisters have always had each other’s back.
Panchali began her schooling in Patna, where she attended St. Joseph’s High School from preparatory till grade 10. The school wasn’t a happy space for her at all. It was more like an ordeal. This was because while the school appreciated and acknowledged those who did well academically, there wasn’t much support or guidance for those who were not able to. Now Panchali was an average student in school. The absence of tact and sensitivity in dealing with a low-performing student negatively impacted the young girl’s development. Her average and at times below-average performance at school naturally, caused her parents’ much concern and anxiety. So, beneath the young girl’s confident exterior, lurked a mass of insecurities – a lack of confidence in her abilities and low self-esteem. Her academic performance showed no signs of improvement. School and studies, and home had become an ordeal, and she wanted to run away from it all.
Her love for the performing arts brought respite to the pain. The stage was her refuge, her haven. And she was good at it. This gave a much-needed boost to her confidence/morale. She enjoyed taking part in plays, debates, elocutions, quizzes and dances. Her interest in dance made her learn the Odissi form, and she gave many stage performances.
Panchali, surprisingly, did much better than anyone had expected! A score of around 87 % in Class 10 sparked a ray of hope in her. Somewhere, deep inside, the young girl felt she had it in her! One way in which the young girl’s personality was shaping up was how she was developing the determination to follow her heart and do what she wanted to. At this point in time, the young girl decided that she wanted to change her school and not only that but move to a different city as well. The idea was to leave everything behind and start afresh. Her parents, despite financial constraints, wanted to give their daughter a chance and happily agreed to send her to this reputed boarding school in Lucknow.
By now Panchali had been bitten by the bug of becoming her own person, and her performance in the exam had made her start believing in herself. She sought inspiration from books and by achievers around her. It was during this time that she took to books in a big way.
She began to transform her insecurities and doubts to hope, courage and faith in herself and create a new her. So off she went to the new school to complete the last two years of her schooling.
The move was a beautiful and life-changing experience for Panchali. She was on her own, away from her parents, away from all the pressures living her life the way she wanted to. She had to learn to live independently and by herself, but she loved it. This new school was the place where she feels that her love and thirst for knowledge began. She figured that knowledge was nothing to be intimidated by. It was a vast expanse which was hers to explore and conquer. She started the journey towards that exploration as a 16-year-old and hasn’t stopped till now. The new school also helped because it was the exact opposite of the earlier one. For starters, nobody knew her, had no background and so there was no judgement. She had the freedom to start afresh and with a free mind. This, according to her, was a turning point in life for her. This changed her outlook towards learning, and she started doing very well in her studies. And though she still loved the stage and probably still does, it was no longer a refuge for her but a fun distraction.
She finished school and was ready for the next step. She had done extremely well in her school-leaving exams and knew that she wanted to go to Delhi and study at the university there. One thing that stands out in Panchali’s journey is that at every stage in her life, she knew what she wanted to do next. There was never any uncertainty or doubt. The broad parameters of the next line of action have always been clear to her, so accompanied by her father, she went to Delhi and got admission into one of the reputed colleges.
Apart from being clear that she wanted to study in Delhi, she was also very clear that she did not want to become a doctor or an engineer as there were a dime a dozen of such people in her family. She wanted to do something different and so decided to study History in college. She had always loved the subject and by now had decided that she wanted to become a Professor. She wanted to be able to teach in the way she thought teaching should be done, that is with lots of practical exposure and discussions. So with this end in mind, she joined college.
Though she continued to do well in her studies, the teaching method at the university disappointed her. She had expected teaching to be research-based, including stimulating discussions in the classroom, but sadly that wasn’t the case. However, she was allowed to carry out her own research by her Professors and supplement her knowledge base. Reading continued to be her companion. Works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Hemingway influenced and inspired her in a big way. She wanted to succeed in life; she wanted to persevere against all odds and these books, these stalwarts gave her the fodder, the inspiration to do that.
Being in Delhi and sharing a flat with three other girls introduced a whole new world of knowledge, of freedom for her. She met new people, experienced different and new things but through all of that she remained focused on her goal of academic excellence.
The exposure that she got led to a discovery for the young girl. As she met people, had stimulating discussions on current affairs and the happenings around her, she discovered that the space of corporate law fascinated her immensely. The more she read about it, talked about it, the more convinced she became about her next course of action, the next step in her life. Gone was the desire to take up teaching. She decided she wanted to become a lawyer and therefore getting into a law school was the next step.
The Bachelor’s degree was followed by a degree in law [LLB] from the same university. The learning experience was pretty similar to the earlier one. Lots of theory with no practical experience. Learning this way did not sit well with her, but she didn’t have a choice.
Panchali who had always derived a lot of inspiration from books, the characters in them and the people who had written them, now wanted inspiration from real people, from legends who had done well for themselves, made a name in their fields.
So after getting her degree, she wanted to start working immediately to get to her goal of being independent, but there was a hitch. She wanted a job, but she was in a big city where she didn’t know too many people and didn’t have too many contacts. So getting a job was not going to be easy. On top of that, she wanted to associate herself with a big name to get some valuable experience and to build her credentials. She wanted to work with a legend. So now what? But like with everything else in her life she did a lot of research and shortlisted the names of a few firms which she thought would be good for her career. Finally, she chose one of the oldest law firms in the city. The firm she chose was a reputed one, and since she had no one to help her or to put in a word for her, she decided to do it herself. In her own gutsy way, she took a chance and called up the senior partner of the firm from a public telephone booth and expressed her desire to work for him. The man, a legend, was highly amused to be approached in this fashion. But impressed by the girl’s spunk, he asked her to see him the following day. He was in his mid-sixties, an experienced hand and even his junior most associate had at least a 15-year experience behind him. Panchali knew all that, and though she had taken the chance and called him, now that she had to go and see him, she started getting nervous. Even while she was waiting outside his swanky office, having taken a local bus to get there, she was biting her nails. She didn’t know anyone there; the bus ride had taken its toll on her clothes and appearance. So was she up to it? Well, she was!!
The interview went off well. It was a memorable one with the legend agreeing to let her work for him; in fact, he agreed to be her guide. But there was a condition. She would not be paid at all and would have to consider the experience of working with him as a salary. On the contrary, he suggested that she pay him for having given her the opportunity to work with him!!
One of the other reasons why she needed to work with an experienced lawyer was that at that time undergoing training with a lawyer who had at least fifteen years of experience was a requirement to be fulfilled to be admitted to the bar. Though this rule lasted only for a year which was the year when she started her internship and seemed pretty unfair and impractical, she feels she got lucky because of it. It enabled her to get access to a good law firm very early on in her career, thus building a solid foundation.
Working with the legend was not easy. In fact, it was quite a challenge, but when has this woman ever refused to take on one. She had to work long hours, five days a week and of course with no salary. And surviving in a city with hardly any money was not easy. So five days she worked with him, and on Saturdays, she did other jobs to help her pay her bills. Asking her parents for money was out of the question.
She worked with the firm for a year at the end of which he rewarded her by giving her a sum of Rs 5000. Moneywise it meant nothing, but then that wasn’t the point. It was an acknowledgement from the legend of all the hard work that Panchali had put in and how wonderfully she had executed all that had been expected out of her. It meant a lot. Now she wanted to move on and was given an excellent reference by the firm which enabled her to join a big name in the field of corporate law where she joined as an Associate, Corporate Law. This was followed by a stint with another well-known firm as a Senior Associate.
All her hard work had finally paid off; she had risen in her chosen field and was now leading teams. The hours were long, the work was extremely challenging, but Panchali loved every bit of it. She had attained the goal that she wanted to; she was earning very well and was independent in every possible way.
Not only that she had now reached a stage where the big names wanted her to work with them. No mean achievement!! All this did wonders to her self-esteem. It helped her to deal with all the demons and nightmares from her time in school. For her being able to hold her own in a society which cared a lot about money and position was a very big thing. The satisfaction at the end of a day had no parallel. She was in a space that she absolutely loved, and though she had to work almost seven days a week, she loved it. Not only was she doing well professionally, but she was also able to deal with many of the things that had bothered her in her growing up years. For one, as a child, she had always been a timid person which did not let her speak up. Many times she was not able to express what she wanted to, which frustrated her. But with time and as she became successful at work, the timidity started disappearing, and eventually, it vanished. She reached a point where she had no qualms about asking for something when she wanted to. The girl who had agreed to work for free at the beginning of her career though she needed the money had now reached a stage where she could demand the salary that she wanted. She commanded respect, power and position. She was at the peak of her career, working with international law firms, international clients, joint ventures all very, very exciting and just up her alley.
And then in the year 2000, her firm selected her to be part of a lawyer exchange program which would take her to Munich, a visit that was to impact her life in more ways than one.
She was very excited about going to Munich and exploring the manner in which the legal world functioned over there. Also, it was her first chance to travel alone and out of the country. It was a great opportunity, and she wanted to make the best possible use of it. Since she didn’t know anyone there, the firm had to take care of her living arrangements. They wanted to house her in an apartment which was close to the City Centre so that she would not have to commute a lot. They found one, and as luck would have it, the apartment belonged to Nils Belde. Though in the ordinary course Nils and Panchali may not have met, it was meant to be. To let Panchali stay in the apartment, Nils had to move out to stay with his girlfriend which he did. She met him a few times during her stay there. And though she found him to be pleasant and fun to talk to, she also found him a bit ‘nerdy’ as well. – an engineer fascinated by the world of Linux, and all things computer.
On the completion of the programme, Panchali headed on vacation to the US, a solo trip full of experiences and learnings.
Although professionally she was at an all-time high, something was changing in her. She was 30 by then and starting to feel the need for a companion in her life, someone she could share her life with. By now her parents also wished to see her get married but finding someone was seeming to be quite a task. All the boys who came to see her in the conventional ‘boy sees girl’ manner did not want to get married to her. She was doing far too well, earning far too much, and they were insecure about marrying a woman with a successful career and who had no plans of quitting her work or slowing down.
This was where destiny stepped in. Nils got in touch with Panchali and expressed the desire to visit India and spend time in the country. Though Panchali knew that her work would not permit her to spend a lot of time with him, she, all the same, wanted to reciprocate his hospitality. So he came, they met and despite everything did manage to spend time together. They realized that they liked each other and also shared their passion for places, culture, music and learning, among other things. He respected her, her work which was quite a refreshing change for her. Here was a man, unlike so many others who she had met, who wasn’t intimidated by her, rather he cared for her and made her happy. In fact, he wasn’t insecure about being with a successful woman. He was comfortable in his own skin. And that made her comfortable with him. In fact, both of them at that stage were looking for someone to spend the rest of their lives with. This visit enabled them to find each other. It was Nils who suggested that she should move to Munich with him. To which she responded by saying that they would have to seek her parents’ permission first to get married. It had only been two weeks since he had arrived in India and she felt it was too soon. But he decided to speak to her parents and tell them about his intentions. It didn’t come as a surprise that the parents readily approved of the boy. After all, they were open-minded parents. They were overjoyed with their decision. He was a well-educated [an engineer] and a well-mannered boy. Her extended family liked him too.
So though not a conventional love story, it was a story that brought two mature individuals together and eighteen years down the line they are there with and for each other.
Something that is typical of Panchali is that she likes change in life. Once she has attained a certain level, a certain goal she wants to move on. She wants to explore different things, try out different things and probably Nils coming into her life at this stage was prophetic.
She says,” The excitement of change and a whole new set of challenges that come with it always gets the adrenaline flowing”.
Nils brought the opportunity for the adrenaline to start flowing, for her to reinvent, rethink and move onwards and upwards. It was as though the universe knowing her desire for more in life had decided to ensure that everything changed for her. So, therefore, she decided to take the chance and leave everything and go with him. She felt that it would enable her to be with a person who cared for her. Along with that, a new country, a new continent would allow her to learn more and grow more. So the two decided to get married.
The Civil Marriage took place in 2002, followed by the big fat Indian wedding in October of that year. Everyone around her, while they were very happy for her, expressed concern at her leaving a successful career, friends, family behind. It was indeed a big gamble.
But Panchali did not feel insecure or sad about quitting her job because she knew she could look back on her career as a lawyer with a sense of achievement and satisfaction. She felt it was time for a change, to take on new challenges and to explore a whole new world. She admits, though, that she had butterflies in her stomach!
As was meant to be settling into a new way of life in a new country was no cakewalk.
It was a steep learning curve for her getting used to a new culture, language and a completely new way of life. There were these two adults pretty set in their ways who had to learn to get used to sharing space and a lot of other things with each other. The language was the biggest issue. Though they could communicate in English, for both of them, English was the language to be spoken at work, and so there was an element of formality attached to it. At home, both were used to speaking in their mother tongue, which was German for him and Hindi and Bengali for her. They were in the habit of expressing their emotions, their sentiments, their feelings in these languages and not in English. So it was quite a challenge for them to communicate with each other. To get over this, she did a German language course for beginners which helped.
On top of that from being a woman who commanded, who earned her own bucks, she had become someone who had to ask someone for money even if that someone was her husband. It was a huge change and not an easy one.
Soon it had been a year since they had got married, and they decided to start a family. Once the children came Yannis, their son and Anusha, their daughter, Panchali chose to put everything else on hold and be a full-time mother. She took a six-year break from work and just focused on her family. This entire transformation was extremely challenging. She was a mother in a country which was strange, there was no help in the house, and she had to do everything herself. Though Nils was supportive and helpful, he had to go to work. So Panchali was left to do everything in the house from cooking to cleaning to changing diapers, a trying and frustrating experience. From someone who commanded others at home and at work, she had chosen to be commanded by her new life, by her children. It was difficult, it was frustrating, but she stuck it out.
She dabbled in textiles during this time to keep her mind gainfully occupied, but it didn’t work out, and so she gave it up. She realized that she wasn’t passionate about it, so there wasn’t any point in wasting her time and energy on it.
But one thing was certain. She knew that at some point, she would want to regain her financial independence and start working again. But for that, she needed to go back to educating herself. So once the kids had gone into kindergarten, she decided to start the process. By now, Panchali had decided to get into the space of corporate training. Teaching as a profession had always fascinated her, but she had never liked the way it was done in India. She wanted teaching to be a healthy mix of theoretical and practical knowledge with healthy discussions. She felt that by entering into the space of corporate training, she could do this, impart knowledge in an interesting and productive manner.
So at the age of 39, she decided to get back into the world of learning and knowledge. She began by doing a teacher training course [CELTA] for teaching English to adults from Cambridge university. This was followed by several others which included a course on Teaching International Legal English, Intercultural Competence in English, designing materials and courses for English for special purposes, e-moderation (designing and delivering training online), and International Business English training from Trinity College, London, to name a few. It was as though she did not want to leave any stone unturned to get to her goal of being able to work in this new land, now her home. Besides doing professional development courses, she spent four years as Events Coordinator for a non-profit teachers’ association organizing workshops, seminars and courses for trainers.
During this entire journey of learning which stretched from 2009 to 2017, her husband was a huge support who helped her with the children and the house so that she could follow her dream. She feels that whatever she has attained so far would not have been possible if he hadn’t been supportive and encouraging.
All the learning that she did in her late- thirties to late forties once again exhibited her thirst for knowledge and her passion for learning, something that couldn’t be fulfilled in school. Her last course on International Business English Training ended in 2017 when she was 47 years old, and she earned a distinction. She proves that there is no age for learning, and one can be a student all one’s life. She believes that you can be as good as those younger than you if not better. It’s the spirit and the confidence that you need. She enjoyed studying in a classroom filled with international students and the teaching approach as well. She performed well in all the courses she did.
Panchali had set clear milestones in her new professional journey in Germany. Starting out with teaching General English at the State Adult Education Centre in Munich she gradually broadened her scope to include teaching Business English and Legal English, in company and in law firms. In the past few years, she has carved out a niche for herself as a trainer for legal professionals, designing and running programmes in legal writing as well as communication skills in leading international law firms in the Munich area.
All along this journey, “keeping an eye on enhancing her skillset and continuously exploring ways to learn something new” was her mantra to become successful professionally.
Having worked in two countries, she has had varied experiences as a working woman. In India, the challenges she faced were not because she was a woman but because she was someone who had no contacts, financial resources and an opportunity to study abroad. She had to make a place for herself on her own with no backing.
In Germany, the challenge arose because first of all, she was a foreigner, a stranger to everything. So there were a number of cultural challenges that she had to face. She learnt that in Germany, people take time to open up and don’t make friends easily. And there is no culture of mixing personal life with professional life in the country. Then she had to take a long break from work, had even thought about doing something new, starting from scratch. So it wasn’t ever easy.
But one thing that has really helped her is that Nils has always understood her need to work. And the fact that she had left everything behind to be with him. He felt that it would only make their relationship stronger if she were able to start working once again. He is proud of her achievements and has no hang-ups about her scaling heights in her career or surpassing him in her professional achievements. A sure sign of a secure and confident person.
Being a working mother is never easy and more so if you are in a strange land among people who probably don’t or cannot understand you and your sensibilities. It has been a constant struggle for Panchali, the juggling between work, studies, research, kids and household chores. But she believes that one should never give up. It is essential to have a goal in life. Start slow, take small steps towards the goal but be consistent and don’t ever give up. Never think that you can’t start all over again. Never stop growing.
Time management is the key, according to her. Be clear about your priorities in life. So if weekdays are for work, then weekends should be set aside for the family- going out for meals, outings, doing things together.
Panchali feels that the world respects and admires achievers, regardless of the fact whether the achiever is a man or a woman. If you are honest, hard-working, and creative; if you can think outside the box, deliver the goods, and engage with those you work with, then there’s no stopping you. Everyone, both men and women, will be happy and willing to work with you.
Here’s what some of the lawyers who have taken part in her training programmes have to say about her as a trainer that reinforces what Panchali believes about how the world views achievers, men or women.
“With Panchali as our trainer, it was never just “regular training”. Rather, she encouraged us as a team to develop our own solutions on various issues and to always think outside the box. Her diverse and multi-cultural approach combined with her focus on practical use made training worth every single moment”.
- Gunnar Witte, Senior Associate, Corporate Litigation & Arbitration.
“Panchali is an outstanding trainer in the field of legal English with a focus on legal writing and drafting and communication skills. I very much appreciate her passionate and tireless commitment to the analysis of legal English from both the macro and micro perspectives.”
Jörg Käßner, Counsel, Tax
So when you look at her journey, you look at her desire to evolve, to adapt and then the grit and determination with which she has gone about it and continues to do so, it proves beyond doubt that the woman has it in her!!