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From London to India: The Journey of Loya Agarwala

From London to India: The Journey of Loya Agarwala

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Loya Agarwala

Meet Loya Agarwala, a student counselor and personality development consultant, who made a bold move from London to India for love. Learn about her background, upbringing, and her journey in empowering individuals through counseling and soft skills training. Discover her book, “A School Counselor’s Diary,” which showcases real-life examples and offers valuable insights for parents and educators.

When I first heard about this lady who, in her early twenties had followed her heart, flown across 5000 miles with bag and baggage, from her home in London to her roots in India, to settle down with the man she had given her heart to, being the first among the Assamese settled in the United Kingdom to make a ‘reverse commute’, I was considerably intrigued and I was keen to know more about Loya Agarwal.

As I am currently in Lancaster, England, visiting my son, I got in touch through WhatsApp and fixed an appropriate time to speak to her over a WhatsApp call.

A few minutes into the conversation which started off on a brilliant note, I realised that this diligent daughter of the lady who had soared across Assam’s sky as the First Lady Pilot of the state, nurtured in her heart, passion, and purpose that even the sky could not limit.

Switching over to a video call that spanned well over an hour, we talked at length about her life in London, her move to India, the discovery of her true calling, and her journey thereafter.

Meet LOYA AGARWALA, Student Counsellor and Personality Development Consultant with almost two decades of experience, Founder and Managing Partner of UCan Centre, and author of a highly acclaimed paperback published by the reputed national publisher Westland Ltd.

Loya was born in London to a pair of illustrious parents; her father Kamal Hazarika, besides being a noted lyricist, composer, and singer had worked in the Indian Embassy in London until his retirement while her mother Dhira Chaliha Hazarika, had made history as the first lady pilot of Assam.

Loya with her Parents Kamal Hazarika and Dhira Chaliha Hazarika and her brother Loona
Loya with her Parents Kamal Hazarika and Dhira Chaliha Hazarika and her brother Loona

I set the ball rolling by asking, “Tell me Loya, how did your parents come to live in London?”

“Well… having set sail from India for pursuing higher studies in Welfare Management, my father had disembarked at the Tilbury Docks, London in 1957, with the vision of returning to the lap of lush green Assam and dedicating his services in Assam’s tea industry. But Destiny certainly had other plans for him.

My mother moved to London as his bride in 1963 and they ended up making London their “home” She smiled. Speaking about her father Mr. Kamal Hazarika, Loya said that he had a strong inclination towards music right from his boyhood, and by the 1940s, he was an established A’ Class Artiste for All India Radio in Calcutta.

I gasped in sheer surprise when Loya quite casually mentioned that “Senai Moi Jaao Dei” one of the top Assamese songs of the twentieth century, recorded by HMV, and sung by Deepali Barthakur, which most certainly happens to be one of my all-time favourites, was written and composed by none other than her ‘daddy’ in the year 1954, a few years prior to leaving for London. Wow !! Some revelation that was !!!

“So, how was it growing up in London ?”, I asked.

“I grew up in our home in south-west London.”

I could perceive that her mother had painstakingly created an ambiance of Assam in London as she took me on a virtual tour of her home and lovingly spoke about the sofa backs made from hand-woven fabrics bearing typical Assamese motifs, the famous Sarthebari bell metal Xoraai and Botaa that are the traditional symbols of Assam placed at conspicuous spots and the huge green and red Jaapi, the quintessentially Assamese conical hat made from tightly woven bamboo cane and tokou paat that adorned the wall. I could almost visualise it all, so vivid was her description.

When asked about her school, she said, “I went to Rowan High School for Girls. At school, I spoke English like all the other children but the moment I reached home I would spontaneously switch over to speaking in Assamese. Our parents ensured that we learnt to speak in our mother tongue well before we picked up English and they insisted that conversations at home should always be in Assamese.

Little Loya and her brother Loona around 1975
Little Loya and her brother Loona around 1975

Interestingly, as a child, I thought Assamese was a ‘private’ language spoken just by our family; so, when I visited Assam at the age of five, I was pleasantly surprised to find everyone speaking our ‘private’ language. She laughed heartily and admitted, “Our fluency in Assamese has definitely enabled closer friendships in Assam even while living in England. I am very grateful to my parents for this great gift of language”

“That’s so beautifully said, Loya.

Did you ever see your parents being nostalgic or feeling ‘homesick’?”

“Daddy often recalled that he had to deal with bouts of homesickness during the initial years. He spoke fondly about the kindhearted Polish landlady who tried her best to allay his worries and anxieties during the 1962 China-India War when the Chinese army had invaded northern Assam.”

Taking a poignant pause, Loya shared that although her father grew up in Shillong, he had always remained deeply rooted in his ancestral home in Kaliabor, Assam, by the banks of the River Kolong where he would invariably spend his long winter vacations. His love for the wide expanses of fields with a rich growth of golden paddy and yellow mustard flowers was so deep that he carried back a mix of brown earth and fine dust in a small glass bottle with an airtight rubber lid which bore the label ‘SOIL FROM ASSAM’ in capitals for emphasis.

“The bottle containing what was to my father nothing short of Hallowed Earth was kept in a cabinet in our sitting room. Every morning, the fragrance of incense sticks would fill our house as Daddy would light them at the small altar, our thaaponaa, where he would offer his prayers.

Often after a hard day’s work, my father would find solace in singing his favourite songs playing the harmonium, smiling, and tapping his feet to the rhythm. In front of him would be a fading, hardbound exercise book filled with handwritten lyrics and poems. I can’t say for sure whether he was homesick, but I can definitely say that his love and affection for Assam was ‘contagious’ as it surely got passed on to us, his children.”

I could totally empathise with the pride with which Loya spoke about her parents. I have always basked in the glory of my parents who have been great achievers. My parents too had gone to Great Britain in the sixties for their higher education. My father had done his Ph.D. in Pathology from the University of Sheffield while my mother had done her master’s from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, London. However, since they had left me as a toddler in the care of two sets of grandparents and a host of uncles and aunts, they chose to return at the earliest opportunity. After several years of devoted service to their Alma Mater, the Assam Medical College, Dibrugarh, they retired as heads of their respective departments. Of course, I grew up hearing about the many beautiful anecdotes and experiences from their stay in England, which is why although I was almost fifty when I first visited the country, I wasn’t surprised that it felt like I had been there before.

Both me and Loya had a good laugh assuming that our fathers who would have been contemporaries may have met during the many get-togethers held, as there were very few people from Assam in Great Britain during those days.

Coming back to her life in London, Loya added “While my parents were instrumental in ingraining the best of Indian values in me, at the same time they taught me to be independent and to have a mind of my own. “I used to earn my own pocket money even while I was studying in school.”Of course, I thought… it is the common practice here.

I asked, “How often did you visit Assam?”

“Oh, we would visit every three years. We had many visitors from Assam. My parents loved playing hosts and our three-bedroom house would be filled with guests from Assam, especially during the summers. It was great fun showing them around London, taking them to all the touristy places.”

Young Loya from her modelling days
Young Loya from her modelling days

Loya fondly remembered the very special guest who had come to stay with them when she was eight years old. He was none other than her daddy’s childhood friend Bhupen Hazarika. Her father’s cultural organisation, Pragjyoti Kalaparishad which brought artists from Assam to the UK, had organised a series of concerts for him in Scotland, Birmingham, at London’s Mahatma Gandhi Hall, and the BBC TV studios. Loya recounted, “It was only when he performed at Trafalgar Square did I realise how immense Bhupen Uncle was. I was gobsmacked to see Assamese songs giving such pleasure to 30,000 people in the central square in London. All of this was possible because of the untiring efforts of the man behind the scene, who else but my father!”

Loya went on to add, “In fact, thanks to the social skills of my parents, our house in the middle of Thirsk Road in the borough of Merton, was like a de facto Assamese embassy in London.” She laughs happily.

A proud daughter indeed, of a son of Assam who left no stone unturned in bringing music from back home to England, promoting and popularising it.

I decided that it was about time I popped the question that had been at the back of my mind all along. “So tell me Loya, how did you come up with the decision to make a reverse commute?”

“Hahahaha… Well, I had just graduated with an honours degree in Applied Chemistry from Brunel University London, when I lost my heart to a charming young man from across seven seas. The situation was such that since he lived in India, either he or I would have to relocate. Amit lived with his family in Shillong, aptly called ‘Scotland of the East’. He was into tea and owned tea estates in Assam. Hence, the logical decision was for me to move to India and live with him and his family in Shillong.”

Loya's Graduation photograph, Brunel University, 1991
Loya’s Graduation photograph, Brunel University, 1991

“And you were ok with it?”, I asked. My heart warmed up to her adorable reply, “You know how it is when it comes to matters of the heart, don’t you? I was willing to go to the end of the world if it meant I could spend the rest of my life with him.”

“And…???” I nudged on.

“Packing my belongings into ten suitcases and leaving the home where I had lived for all of my twenty-three years was by no means an easy task but I took the Leap of Faith. Amit and I got married on the 18th of February 1992 and we have completed three decades of happy married life.”

“Touch wood!” I said.

“Any hiccoughs, I mean, in the initial years while settling down?” I asked.

“I was blissfully happy as far as my marriage was concerned and thankfully my husband’s family was warm, loving, and understanding. However, having had a Western upbringing, certain traits of English culture were ingrained in me. For instance, although I spoke Assamese fluently when it came to speaking in English, I spoke with the typical Cockney accent of a Londoner, which I eventually had to filter out considerably in order to make myself understood. My husband often teases me that even now, when I sleep talk, which I apparently do, or suddenly switch to English during a heightened emotional moment, my Cockney accent involuntarily comes back.” Laughs shyly.

“To be honest, I willingly mellowed down some parts of my identity to get to the version which I felt fitted better. Fortunately, I was married into a family that made little of my initial awkwardness and loved me despite my weirdness.”

She went on to share an interesting anecdote. “We had guests over and I was serving Maas’or Petu, the Assamese delicacy made by frying petu that is fish gut. But hear me out… Instead of Petu, I said Pelu which means in Assamese, ‘worms’. Obviously, it made the guests cringe momentarily, but then they literally split their sides laughing. You can imagine my embarrassment, which of course, I covered up by laughing too.”

Her narration was so funny, that I laughed out loud, but deep down I couldn’t help thinking how commendably sporting she was.

She added, “In fact, I had shared this incident in one of the magazines way back then.”

My inquisitiveness got the better of me and I asked, “And which magazine was it?”

Hold your horses, Loya’s transition story titled ‘An Indian Now In India’ had made it to the pages of the irrefutably popular FEMINA, the oldest women’s English magazine in India.

Having been a regular subscriber to the magazine, I am sure I had read her story.

With a question hidden in the statement, I said, “The transition couldn’t have been easy.”

She was quick to catch it, and replied, “Looking back, now after three decades of living happily in Assam, I can say that my transition was easier because I was raised by my parents with the clarity of who I was and where I came from. The cultural awareness that they had instilled in me before and the support they had gaven me after my relocation were both immensely helpful. I must add that my husband has been unstinting in his love and support throughout.” A happy smile lit up her face.

“What next?” I asked.

“My new chapter, that of motherhood began with the arrival of my wonderful children, Arnav and Aakriti.” She pauses and smiles. “We moved to Dibrugarh and lived in the beautiful bungalow of our Tea Estate. The children had the luxury of spending their early years in the midst of nature, enjoying endless hours of outdoor activities, running around, and even climbing trees. Meanwhile, I got completely absorbed in being a homemaker and my life revolved around my two school-going kids.”

Taking a pause, and before I could ask my next question, she adds, “Life was going good and it was gratifying to win the first prizes for my Victorian Sponge Cake year after year at the Planters Club, with the passage of time, I realised that there was much more that I wanted to do with my life.”

Having spent three decades of my life in Dibrugarh and sharing close proximity with family and friends in the tea industry, it didn’t take any effort to envisage what she was talking about.

“And….” I prompted, coming out of my reverie.

“Well, suffice it to say that somewhere down the line, I had found my calling. The desire to do something meaningful that had always been lying dormant deep within gradually surfaced. I knew that I wanted to take up counseling as my career, which of course, meant that I would need to back it up with knowledge and academic qualification.”

“And how did you go about it, Loya?”

“I did my Masters in Psychology from VMU, Tamil Nadu, and Post Graduate Diploma in Counselling from Indian Institute of Counselling, New Delhi. I opted for distance learning as it enabled me to be a stay-at-home mum while simultaneously pursuing my studies. When the children were a little older we shifted to Guwahati. By then I was ready to convert my passion into purpose.” She smiled sweetly.

I nudged her on, “I am all ears to to know about your journey, Loya”

Taking a deep breath, she replied, “I started off as a Visiting Student Counsellor and Personality Development Consultant in the Year 2004. I visited a number of educational institutions on different designated days.”

“Was it easy to connect with the students? Were they comfortable sharing their problems, perhaps secrets”

“Aaaaahhh…!!! I must admit that I have a rather ‘chilled-out’ attitude and I am quite ‘youthful’ in my approach; I mean, in my mind I am younger than my actual age, which is why the kids have always felt comfortable opening up to me. I believe, that being nonjudgmental and not conforming to the stereotypical line of thoughts, helped me connect more easily and bond better with the kids, the millennials, so to say.”

“What were your observations and challenges?” I probed.

“My interactions with the children made me aware of a variety of issues, mainly miscommunication, and conflicts that were in maximum situations, the results of disagreements, differences of opinions, and general disconnect between millennials and their parents. The two generations seemed to be at loggerheads because most parents were stuck to the old-school ways of parenting which did not go well with the ‘digital’ kids of the present times of internet and social media.”

She went on to add, “My primary challenge was to bridge that gap between the children and their parents and my focus was to uplift and empower the kids so that they would be able to handle the hurdles that come their way.”

She shared that the suicide rate among adolescents is alarmingly high in India, and attributed the cause to the wide generation gap.

“I realised that if I could narrow down the gap between the parents and their kids, it would solve half the problems.”

As a Counsellor at the Faculty Higher Secondary School, (Amingaon), apart from regular counseling, she pioneered, constructed, and implemented the longest-running Personality Development programme in the Northeast for students and organised a number of workshops and training programmes to improve parent-teacher relationships, facilitated drug and solvent abuse prevention programs, raised awareness on sexual abuse, and imparted modern teaching and positive disciplining strategies.

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“That sounds like a lot of work. How did you manage all of this?”

She explained, “Being a consultant meant that I had the liberty of hopping around. I worked as Visiting Student Counsellor at Sanskriti the Gurukul (Ahomgaon), Assam Don Bosco University (Azara), and Royal Global School (Betkuchi). My mobility helped me reach out to a lot more people and provided me with an opportunity to branch out to ancillary fields and thereby broaden the horizon of my work.

“Wow! So, your counselling was restricted to students only?”

“When people got to know about my work and my purpose, they started to reach out to me. I got associated with the Assam State Women’s Commission, where apart from the counselling sessions, I delivered motivational talks.

As a Member of the Legal Advisory Committee, I helped women in distress by listening to them, advising and providing relief through counselling.”

“Wow! That’s truly commendable.

Do tell me a little more about the Personality Development programmes and their importance.”

She took a deep breath and said, “To be honest, be it Assam or the rest of the country, the people are mostly academically focused. They are not much inclined towards developing communicative skills. There is a dearth of training institutes/programmes/workshops which impart soft skills. I have come across highly qualified and extremely knowledgeable people who falter while expressing or explaining what they have in mind or wish to say because of poor communicative skills. Therefore, through the Personality Development Programmes, I aim at boosting the confidence level and improving the ability to convey and share feelings, ideas, and opinions in a convincing manner and thereby create a good and lasting impression.”

“Loya, you are the Founder and Managing Partner of Ucan Centre. Where did the idea come from?”

“When I saw that the school children were definitely benefiting from the personality development programmes, it motivated me to do more. I have already mentioned that we do not have enough formal training centres for developing soft skills. I wanted to open one. I was equipped with twenty years of experience and armed with a database of thousands of people; both of which were a huge help. Thus, Ucan was born.”

Loya with her junior UCan students at the Christmas party, 2022
Loya with her junior UCan students at the Christmas party, 2022

UCan Centre is a premier institute in Guwahati, Assam, that focuses on Soft Skills Development. Through courses that are specifically designed to suit students right from the foundation level to the post-graduate level, and also for professionals, UCan aims to uplift and empower individuals.

“Do throw some light on this brainchild of yours”, I urged.

“We started with a counselling unit. By the way, I also practice Hypnotherapy. I have done a course in Hypnotherapy from the Hypnotherapy School of India, New Delhi.

We then introduced high-quality training programmes in soft skills and personality development. The programmes are tailored specially for our target groups. UCan Centre happens to be the only exclusive institute that teaches the 10 Core Life Skills laid down by the World Health Organisation which are at the heart of skills-based initiatives for the promotion of health and well-being of children, adolescents and adults alike.”

“That’s profound! I said with all honesty. “What services do you provide? Do you categorise them?” I enquired.

She elaborated, “Our services at Ucan include ‘One-to-One Counselling Services’, where we address clients of all ages at a personalised level through prior appointments. I make it a point not to have more than four appointments per day so that I can give adequate time to each of my clients.

We have a ‘Total Personality Development Programme’, which is our flagship Sunday-School programme for school students, designed with the aim of uplifting the necessary life skills & discipline. Then, we have ‘University-level Course & Programme’. It is a career development programme with specialised training for confidence building which is imperative to cope in today’s competitive world. We have introduced a ‘Spoken English Course’ for improving communication and confidence building, where the clients are coached to speak with fluency and without grammatical and pronunciation errors. Our school tie-ups through our ‘School Programmes’ have so far helped thousands of students by monitoring their emotional well-being, boosting their confidence, and motivating them to aim for higher academic performance.”

After a pause, she said, “People from different professions like, banking, hospitality, modelling, and teaching, attend our soft skills and personality development programmes and workshops which we customise for them.”

I was totally impressed.

“You know, in Medicine, we document some of our works as case studies, with a detailed examination of a particular case or cases. Am I correct in assuming that your first book ‘A School Counsellor’s Diary’, is something along that line.”

“Yes, exactly, Monideepa.

You see, during the sessions, I would be sitting across the counselling table, aware of the big communication gap between the kids that were coming to me for counselling and their parents. I had the huge responsibility of bridging the gap between the two different worlds or at least narrowing it down. Although I have published many articles on a regular basis in local and national newspapers and magazines and have been a columnist with The Sentinel Melange, I always wanted to write a book because, at the end of the day, a book remains in the shelf much longer than a newspaper or magazine, which are more of one-time reads.”

“Although I had the material and the mood, it kept getting pushed it back because of paucity of time.” She confided.

I know for a fact that penning down something, be it a poem, a story, or an article requires the culmination of several factors; material, mood, time, etc. Loya said that when her son who was doing his A-levels in London asked her to come over and help him at home, she jumped at the opportunity. Her daughter was only too happy to stay back with her dad.

I could feel her excitement when she said, “Within a span of three months I wrote 125000 words comprising 34 cases in 10 chapters.”

Wanting to know more, I urged “Please elaborate, Loya”.

“Well… My motive was to base my writing on real-life examples. Without sounding as though I was preaching I wanted to show by examples that there is no set template for raising a child. Every child has individual traits; siblings or even twins are different from each other in their mental makeup. Hence, while bringing up each child, parents have to be prepared to embark on a personalised journey that must be customised to suit that particular child. Through my book, if I could convince the parents to understand their child’s thoughts, and modify their own thoughts so as to bring about an acceptance, there would be much happiness at both ends.

Titled ‘A School Counsellor’s Diary’, she sent it to the national publisher Westland Ltd. in 2013. It was voted a ‘Must-Read’ book for School Leaders by Eduexcellence.

From what I could gather from our conversation over video call, Loya has judiciously converted her passion into her profession and she is driven by an insatiable desire to help people through her work.

What appealed the most about Loya apart from her uninhibited hearty laugh was her innate modesty. In today’s times, when most people like to blow their trumpet, here I had to probe and fish to get her talking.

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