I recently had the honour of interviewing Jillian Haslam. She’s an incredible woman whose story of determination in escaping life in the slums of India is about to be featured in a Hollywood film. Entitled Indian.English after her first book, it’s a film about overcoming adversity, of hope and kindness, despite cruel circumstances.
Her second book is entitled The Irrepressible Mind. And irrepressible sums Jill up to perfection. Her humility, global outlook, trust in her intuition and heart-based approach make her the kind of modern leader that others would be wise to learn from.
Jillian and I felt a connection, not just because my heritage meant that I understood her description of life in India, but because we both want to help as many people as possible to thrive in society. Jillian is a philanthropist, giving back on a scale I hope to achieve myself some day.
She’s a true inspiration – a woman whose inner flame has lifted her out of a life of abject poverty into a role where she can make an impact on the lives of countless people.
Here’s her amazing story. I know it will move you as it did me.
Outcasts, non-castes, castaways – Jillian’s family
“Outcasts, non-castes, castaways—whatever you like, we were like ghosts. We were either visible but non-existent, or existent but invisible.”
Jillian, pictured above visiting one of her first homes, was born in India to British parents also born in India, at the time of the British Raj. As she relayed to me, India was all her dad knew. So while his sister left for the UK, he chose to stay in the country where he was born, a country he knew and loved.
However, life took a downward turn. After Independence, many Indian citizens became very nationalistic and the British struggled to get jobs, which were preferentially offered to Indian citizens.
The family became homeless, initially sleeping in people’s verandas, on doorsteps and even under people’s stairs.
They experienced much racial abuse. Jillian’s mother was often beaten by the female owners of the homes under whose stairs they slept. The children were called names like sada chua (white rat), sada goo (white shit), sada tilchate (white cockroach), dasi mughi (foreign chicken), and more.
“Under the steps (our home) was just terrible. With a space no bigger than a narrow four-seat dining table, our new home was dark, full of water from holes in the ground, slime, mildew and crawling with vermin…”
Survival against the odds
With her parents having to take on any odd jobs that they could find, care of her siblings often fell to Jillian, the fifth of eight siblings. Sadly, not all of her siblings survived.
As she told me, it was as if “God took one of us, and left one of us, took one us and left one of us.” Four of them died from extreme poverty and malnutrition, but one of them – Susan – didn’t, and all because of the determination of little Jillian.
Aged seven, Jillian was all but a baby herself when her mother gave birth to Susan. Jillian instantly fell in love with her tiny sister. She was marveling at her tiny fingers and toes when her mother told her not to become attached, because the doctors had only given Susan a couple of days to live.
“Not if I can help it”, thought little Jillian. She racked her brains for how she could help her get nutrients since her mother had given up. Then it clicked! She ran to the local tea shop with a little bowl and asked for some milk to save her baby sister’s life.
Jillian added the homeopathic powder provided by the doctor (no proper medicine for poor people) and persevered ever day with the feeding. And while cow’s milk isn’t recommended for newborns, some nourishment must be better than none, since Susan is now 37 and a mother of two beautiful little ones herself.
“What can I say? It was worse than terrible. Having no money, most often no power at all, and being racially abused all at the same time was just something else. I’m really not sure how we survived it all, but this little room was home to us.”
A downward cycle
The years went by, during which time her parents became more and more despondent, accepting a life of poverty in the slums of Kidderpore, Kolkata. By now, they had a home, but it was just a tiny space within the slums.
Her father suffered a number of cardiac issues due to stress and poor diet. Much of the food that they ate that time was donated by local street vendors, who were desperately poor themselves.
The children were fortunate to be given places at St Thomas’ School, a mixed kindergarten to higher secondary school in Kidderpore. But due to her father’s illness, Jillian often had to look after the children while her mother worked. As a result, she did not graduate.
Her family would often queue in line at Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Missionaries of Charity to receive a bag of food and a bag of clothes.
Jillian’s description of how she and her sisters would proudly run around in oversized granny knickers plucked from the charity bag made me laugh and broke my heart at the same time. She told me that even big knickers were better than no knickers at all!
The Delhi Years
Despite not completing her education, Jillian was able to follow her sister to Delhi at the age of 17. Life in the slums was dangerous, with frequent molestation by boys and men. Delhi felt safer.
Soon after, her father died and her mother became ill with cancer. At this time, Jillian found a job with a German concern. Through her job, she’d been able to access some pay and healthcare support in advance.
But then, her mother died. Once again, Jillian found herself needing to look after the children and had to quit her job. The advances had to be repaid so she took on work in a hotel.
Then she saw an ad for a job at the Bank of America. This is when her life really started to change…
On the day of the first round of interviews, Jillian arrived at the bank, walked into the waiting area. Her heart sank to see around 250 other young women who were competing for that one position. Jillian made one shortlist and then another, getting down to 75 and then down to the final three.
With nothing to lose, she made an impassioned plea to her interviewer, telling him about her dire circumstances and why she needed the job. She told him she would work hard and take on any task with humility.
Two weeks later, the letter arrived. She had got the job! Throughout her career, Jillian’s projects for corporate giving as the Bank of America’s President of Charity and Diversity Network earned her accolades.
Eventually she moved to England in 2000, working for RBS under a British and then a Pakistani boss. The latter would often send her out to buy tasty samosas from Brick Lane, located nearby.
Jillian never ever looked at such jobs as menial. She always saw it as wanting to assist and maintain a ‘can do’ attitude. She knew she had disadvantages but she also had a dream. More than that, she wanted to succeed in order to help others like herself with little or no hope at all.
So she attended training after training, course after course and qualified herself on many fronts, studying and attending programmes almost every weekend whilst holding down her full-time role.
Then, one day, Jillian decided it was time to leave the corporate world, to the surprise of her husband who couldn’t understand why she would want to leave the security of her job.
She joined the speaking circuit, delivering TEDx Talks and speaking at education and corporate conferences around the world. She wrote a book, then another, and then another, the first book being Indian.English.
Jillian also set up the Remedia Trust, a non-profit organisation in India that provides support for street children, old age people, the sick, the disabled, young girls as well as the improvised and the neglected.
Food banks, a centre for women in need, six vocational study centres and five study centre for little kids are running in Kolkata (with more planned) and so far, 300 girls aged between 6 and 22 are also being educated through her centres.
Recognition of the highest order
Remedia is the biggest personal achievement in Jillian’s eyes. To her, its success is even more significant than the success of her books or her pending movie.
Jillian, pictured here today, is dedicated to helping as many people as she possibly can. And last year, she was honoured to return to her former city to receive the Mother Theresa International Award for her services.
So what helped Jillian to achieve all that she has in life so far? She has four simple principles: set clear goals; know when to persevere, and when to give up; when to listen to advice and when to follow your own instinct; and never to be too proud to ask for help.
Using the words of Maya Angelou, Jillian concludes:
“I can be changed by my circumstances but I refuse to be reduced by them.”
Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers. She helps women to speak up: for themselves, for others and for social issues.