CHENNAI:She has lived the immigrant dream — a journey from a one-room house in Alwarpet and a childhood learning classical dance to becoming a criminal court judge in New York City. The first Indian-origin woman at that.
Chennai-born Raja Rajeswari now hopes to ensure that the multi-ethnic population, the foundation of New York City, is treated fairly, while she also balances her other passion in life — dance.
Having migrated to the US aged 16, Rajeswari, now 43, worked at the Richmond County DA’s Office her entire career before being sworn in as a judge by NYC mayor Bill de Blasio on April 27. Her childhood experiences growing up in Chennai, her career as a prosecutor, her early observations of gender inequality, influences from her mother who was a dancer — Rajeswari believes all these paved the way for her successful career.
“I had a wonderful childhood. We were a low income household, and I was an only child. We did not have a lot of money but our lives were filled with dance and music,” she says, speaking to Express in an e-mail interview. Reminiscing about her mother who was a dance instructor, and her father who was an office clerk, she calls him a ‘gentle soul who resembled Mahatma Gandhi in looks and philosophy’.
Having lost her mother in an accident when she was 18, and her father to cancer in 2013, it was Rajeswari’s promise to her dad during their last conversation that prompted her to become a judge. “My mother bequeathed me her love of dance and the belief that the world can become a better place if there is even one person who cared enough,” she says.
And dance it was, that first brought her to New York.
Rajeswari had started dancing at fundraising events as a toddler, teaching dance at the age of 10, and receiving a government research scholarship at the age of 14. After doing her advanced studies in Kalakshetra for Bharatanatyam and also learning Kuchipudi, she travelled with her mother Padma Ramanathan dance troupe to several countries. In 1988, it was on the last leg of a dance tour she came to the city where she would live her life.
“At 16, I had traversed the planet and realised how the treatment of women made an impact on me. I decided to stay in New York and pursue my education in a country where women got equal opportunities,” she says.
Living The American Dream & How
Her cultural background and multilingualism, is what she believes, greatly helped her career as she dealt with various ethnic backgrounds in domestic violence and sexual abuse cases.
“My personal experience of growing up in a third world country provided me with insight into understanding the social stigma of accusing one’s husband or boyfriend in certain cultures,” she says.
Through her appointment, she hopes to follow in the footsteps of those who brought ethnic diversity to the bench, besides standing by her firm belief that the rights of the defendant are sacrosanct and can never be trespassed.
“I cringe every time I read about another defendant who has been exonerated after spending decades in prison for a crime he did not commit,” she says.
The speed and equal access to justice administered in the US, she says, is something to take note of; though not perfect, it is still much more efficient than the legal system in India.
Speaking about cases like the Delhi gang-rape, she says that unless we deal with ingrained social prejudices and discrimination against women, we will never be able to achieve our potential.
“Unless there is a gruesome death, no one pays attention to the victimisation of women. The woman or children rarely report these crimes because they know they are never going to be taken seriously and would be blamed and shunned by the society.”
Being an immigrant in a bustling city like New York, Rajeswari has worked her way up through several trials and is a firm believer in the American criminal justice system, which she considers the best in the world since it affords every person, regardless of sex, race, colour, sexual orientation and social standing, an opportunity to seek justice.
“As an immigrant you have incredible opportunities in this country but you have to be able and willing to work really hard and constantly prove yourself,” she says.
If a female immigrant from a city in South India can make history by becoming the first South Asian female judge in New York City, Rajeswari believes, there is hope for every female who aspires to higher office in India and abroad.