Women I Love: Val Curtis

I have been thinking about starting this series for a while now. I have been privileged enough to have known and loved many wonderful people in my life so far. But I feel especially lucky to have known and loved a number of tall women whose shoulders I stand on to be the person I am today. As our species deals with the unprecedented crises of our times, every day is a reminder of how ephemeral life is. It is also a good reminder of how important it is to not just feel, but verbalize gratitude for the people who have built you up. This series is a thank you and a shout-out to all the amazing women who have built me up.

The inspiration to get this series out of my head and on to paper was Val. Val’s last message to me about an idea I had for a project we could work on together was, “Just a brilliant idea. I was wondering if we could do that someday, although I won’t be around for much longer”.

Val passed away earlier this week.

Dr Valerie Curtis was a global expert in behaviour change. I had the privilege of meeting her during the course of my work with the Swachh Bharat Mission. She called herself the world’s first Disgustologist. And sure enough, as she traveled the world, spreading the messages of Sanitation and Hygiene, she carried a rather realistic and disgusting piece of plastic poop in her handbag. So realistic that, even though we all knew it was plastic, none of us could really eat if it was lying on the table. Val probably knew this and so, naturally, she never forgot to bring it along to the buffet table. 

I first met her at a conference we organized in Raipur for the district collectors of Chhattisgarh. She was the facilitator for the workshop. I saw her at the team breakfast meeting, poop duly placed on the table, putting my gag reflexes to test. Minutes before we began, I was asked to conduct a session at the workshop, and found an unlikely ally in this British Professor who I’d only just met and who was decades senior in experience. I’d watched her TEDx Talk before coming to Raipur and was in complete awe of her. I had come prepared to watch her in action from the comfort of the audience chairs, and not in the least ready to find myself on stage with her. Yet, she somehow made me feel at ease conducting the session, a huge gesture coming from a world-renowned scientist like her to a newbie like me. 

Our next meeting was at Warangal, where we sat next to each other on a bus en route to a village, on the outskirts of Hyderabad. We were gathering for a unique adventure at the village – to empty a toilet pit along with senior officers of the government, to destigmatize the manual handling of toilet waste, especially the caste connotations associated with it in India. We had been up since the break of dawn, and the allegedly 2 hour journey was now taking four hours. The roads were back breaking and we were facing a very real chance of missing our return flight to Delhi. Val’s company, however, made this otherwise exhausting journey feel like a breeze. This time, we spoke not just about sanitation and hygiene, but also about our families, careers, aspirations, and most of all, we swapped notes about our common condition – trying to make it as women in a man’s world.

As a married woman without kids at the time, I had grown accustomed to people giving me unsolicited advice to start making babies, pronto. But Val was probably the first example I came across of “show, don’t tell” when it came to advice about motherhood. I didn’t think it was possible for Val’s eyes to shine brighter than when she talked about behaviour change. But when she spoke about her daughter and son, I saw it happen. She was probably the first woman I had met who was as passionate as could be about her work, yet who advocated motherhood in a way that made you feel inspired, not pressured. One of the strongest feelings that washed over me when I heard the news of her demise was gratitude that she got to see and hold my son the last time we met.

In July this year, she wrote a piece in The Guardian titled “I’m one of the thousands of extra cancer deaths we’ll see this year”. The piece was about the need to ramp up the NHS in UK to prepare better for the Covid crisis. I don’t think I have ever met someone so incorrigibly dedicated to improving the lot of others that they matter-of-factly write about their own impending demise to raise awareness about healthcare in their country. Until, of course, I met Val. 

Val was asking the world to wash hands with soap decades before Covid19 slapped us in the face and asked us to listen to her. Last month, she gave the inaugural lecture at her institute, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She knew that time was limited now so she aptly framed the lecture as her “Marching Orders for the WASH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) sector”. As any good student, I watched the lecture with rapt attention. Every slide was a revelation about the incredible life she had lived, and the rich legacy she was leaving behind – shoes too large to be filled anytime soon. With every slide, she grew visibly tired as her body felt the strain of speaking for so long. But her message grew stronger as she went along, leaving her virtual audience energised to realise her dream of a world where every child, woman and man had access to basic WASH facilities.

As she came to the last slide of her presentation, for the first time her voice cracked. The slide was a list of people she wanted to acknowledge and thank for the work she did with them. She said, “The only sad thing is that I won’t be able to carry on working with you.” As I read through the names to see who all I knew out of them, I realised in silent shock that my name was up there too, alongside all the illustrious Professors, colleagues and friends of Val. I had been but a blip in her career that spanned 40 bright years of changing lives, and she had still remembered me when making that slide. The font on the screen was tiny because she had touched just that many lives. But the real reason I could barely read it were the tears clouding my eyes.

I remember the concluding day of the Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention which we hosted as part of the SBM team in 2018. We had managed a coup by bringing together Ministers from over 70 countries to talk toilets for 4 days straight, and make solid commitments for furthering work in the sector in their respective homelands. After weeks of late nights and working weekends, my teammates and I were sitting in a huddle in the Rashtrapati Bhawan lawn – drained and exhausted and sleep-deprived – too busy feeling sorry for ourselves to feel anything close to joy. Val came up to me, bouncing on the balls of her feet as she so often did, and said, “Cheer up! Look around at what you have accomplished and feel proud of it!” She was almost twice my age and yet, every interaction with her left me feeling like I had just got a booster dose of youthful energy and enthusiasm.

Even as I write this, I can’t believe that I will no longer receive excited texts from Val, asking me for this data or that, for the next article she was writing about our work. Val was a champion, not just in her field of work, but in transforming every life she touched, however briefly. 

And so it is, that in typical Val fashion, she continues to inspire me even after she is gone, as I dedicate this series of gratitude to her. Thank you, Val, for being a mentor, a role model, and most importantly, thank you for being a wonderful friend.

I knew that Val was fighting terminal cancer, but for some reason the news of her passing still hit me like a punch in the gut. We all thought we had more time with her. And as I edited this piece which had been lying in my drafts for a few weeks now, I have had to do the unthinkable – change everything about her from present to past tense. Let this serve as a reminder to whoever needs to hear it today – if you want to thank someone, do it sooner than later.


3 thoughts on “Women I Love: Val Curtis

Add yours

  1. Lovely post Mahima — and it’s never too late to express thoughts & feeling (IMHO).

    I am myself sort of “invested” in the hygiene space too — please drop me a note if you want to find out more!

    😀 Norbert


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