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The Statesman / She is different [ 15 Jun 2003 ]

Affable, funny and refreshingly informed, Lee-Alison Sibley speaks 10 languages, has a Master's in curriculum development and has delighted Kolkata music lovers with a near perfection rendition of Tagore's songs. And incidentally, she is the wife of the US consul general in Kolkata.

Hemchaya De reports

An impregnable fortress that, in effect, is what 5/1 Ho Chi Minh Sarani has turned into. Insurmountable security rings have been penetrated through complicated maneuvers to gain access to it. The intention? A rendezvous with the city's most adorable bideshini- Lee-Alison Sibley, wife of the US Consul General in Kolkata.

If you thought diplomats and their wives were uppity and inaccessible, then you will change your views after meeting Ms. Lee-Alison Sibley who is funny, down- to- earth and refreshingly friendly.

"We Americans are not formal or stiff-upper-lipped like, they say, the British," says Lee. Though she does admit "life has now become a little difficult. Earlier, I used to move around freely. But now, I have to put with security guards tagging along." She sounds almost apologetic as she welcomes me into her sprawling residence, decorated with interesting objects d'art culled from various countries she has visited.

Lee, who can speak 10 languages, has captured many hearts in the city and stunned experts with her near-perfect rendition of Tagore's songs. With a Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music under her belt, she has made quite an awesome musical journey starting from Mexico, where she was a voice teacher and the lead singer for the music group, Allegro, as well as a regular performer in that country's TV and radio shows, through Jordan where she was the head of Performing Arts at the American Baccalaureate School and on to Nepal where she was part of the Himalayan Heartbeats Trio. And all this, without taking into account her solo performances in Indonesia.

Recently, she treated a select audience in Kolkata to her rendition of hit Broadway numbers, handpicked from the golden era of musicals. Shedding the formal trappings of his official image as Consul General, George Sibley delighted the audience by joining his wife in a duet. Impulsive gesture of habit? After all, that's how he met his wife- while performing together in a musical in Mexico. Having traveled extensively across the world from childhood, this "born New Yorker" considers herself "a global citizen. And I owe it to my parents for their liberal upbringing. They taught me that appreciation of other cultures is part of education....To my mother, Bapuji was the greatest man of 20th century," declares Lee, who did her Master's in curriculum development.

Before coming to Kolkata, Lee accompanied her husband to Indonesia, Nepal and Jordan where she had some unique experiences. At the conservative Amman school, for example, she was requested to conceal the fact that she was a Jew, "There were 400 Arabs in that institution and I was the only Jew there. But, somehow, people came to know about it. And it proved good for both my students and me....It served to bring home the point that there could be a fruitful exchange between two cultures only if all barriers were broken. Children shouldn't learn to hate."

As an American, how would she compare Arab and Indian cultures? "They are very similar. Even their legends resemble each other's. I taught the Mahabharata in Jordan."

And as a teacher what does she think is the difference between an average American's knowledge of India and an average Indian's knowledge of the USA. "You know, in so far as the USA is concerned, ideas differ from place to place. Some parts have a bigger population of Indians than others. But I must tell you Monsoon Wedding was a huge hit in my country, says Lee whose affair with Indian culture began about 30 years ago when a friend presented her with a volume of Tagore's works. "I read his poems in translation and I interpreted those as celebrating the relationship between man and woman. And I thought I could read these poems to my husband to express my love for him. I think you can have the liberty to understand Tagore in your own way," explains Lee. It is amazing how she manages to squeeze singing practice sessions into her busy schedule. "I have learnt six Tagore songs from Pramita (Mullick) and Phooley phooley dhole dhole is my favorite, because I can sing it in my natural voice," Lee admits with enthusiasm.

Does her husband love Rabindrasangeet too? "Well, he has to! I'm always singing the songs," replies Lee with a twinkle in her eyes. A proud mother of two sons, Lee is still madly in love with her husband. "I married the man of my life. What else could I possibly want?"

Has she ever felt that people are unduly differential towards her because she is a diplomat's wife? "No, I've never felt that way. Why should I? I am not better than anybody else."

How does she cope with life when there are political tensions? "Its very difficult. I have to cope with various restrictions. But I am all for peace," replies Lee who's completely in love with Indian culture.

And will her affair with India end when she leaves the country? "No way!" retorts Lee who's writing her memoirs. "I've made some wonderful friends in Kolkata. And I intend to stay in touch with them. I feel at home here."