Saroj Kapadne moved to Ireland to pursue her studies and soon fell in love with the UCC campus and with west Cork. ‘I loved the feeling that no one was judging me, I could just do my own thing.’ Photograph: Andy Gibson.
When Saroj Kapadne completed her undergraduate degree in food technology, the young graduate was almost immediately expected to get married. Despite finding a good job in research and development, Kapadne’s relatives quickly started putting pressure on her father to find his daughter a suitable husband.
“I knew I was not ready for that. I was scared so I told my father I want to do a master’s degree. It was really just to avoid the marriage situation, I did not want to get married.”
Born and brought up in the countryside near Jalgaon, a city in the central Indian state of Maharashtra, Kapadne lived in a traditional community where the birth of a boy was celebrated, but the birth of a girl was often frowned upon.
“Nowadays things are better, they really encourage girl-child education. But growing up, I saw girls being treated this way in my family. There was always that barrier in society. But my parents were different, they were supportive and let us play sports, do anything really.”
Girls who played sport and trained in the evenings were often judged by the local community, says Kapadne. “You were seen as roaming around late at night and that was frowned upon. Even then, I knew that was not the way life should be.”
Unlike most other families, Kapadne’s parents met through a “love match”, not an arranged marriage. “I guess that’s why my father was a bit different. But at the same time he is very caste orientated and believes in his religion.”
When the questions about marriage started after Kapadne graduated from her degree, she began investigating study options abroad. She discussed her plans with her father. “He thought it was just a spur of the moment thing, that I’d get over it. But I went ahead and did the IELTS English language course without telling my family and applied for a masters at UCC in Cork, and in a college in New Zealand. “
Kapadne always dreamed of living in New Zealand but also knew Ireland had a strong dairy industry, which was the area where she wanted to develop her expertise. She was offered places in both universities but only UCC included a scholarship.
At first, when she revealed her plans to her parents, Kapadne’s father refused to sign her loan approval. Eventually he agreed but made his daughter promise she would return to India as soon as she had completed her master’s degree.
Kapdne left her home in September 2019, boarding a flight for the first time in her life. She spent her first few nights in Cork in a shared dormitory in Sheila’s hostel in the city centre. “I’d never shared a room with anyone in my life and suddenly I was sharing with eight total strangers from different countries. And I was the only girl, all the rest were boys. I was excited and scared and awkward.”
After a few days, Kapadne moved into digs with an Irish woman in Glanmire. She immediately fell in love with the UCC campus and enjoyed her studies. “It took me a bit of time to understand the Cork accent,” she admits. “I needed people to repeat what they were saying a second or third time. I was worried they thought I didn’t understand English. But it didn’t matter how many times I asked, people were always friendly and nice.”
In March 2020, Kapadne resigned from her part-time job at McDonald’s in preparation for a placement she had been offered with a large confectionary company in Cork as part of her degree. But then, Covid hit. “I’d left McDonald’s and then the placement was cancelled. That was a really rough time for me. My father told me not to worry and tried to convince me to come home and do the rest of my project online. I was so stressed, I really didn’t know what to do next. Should I just accept my reality and settle into an arranged marriage? But I didn’t want to give up so soon.”
Three months into the pandemic, Kapadne eventually found work in a cafe to fund the final few months of her studies. She knew her parents expected her to return to India in September but didn’t feel ready to leave.
Kapadne’s father, however, disagreed with her decision to stay. “He said I’d reached the age to settle and get married. And I wouldn’t blame him for that, he lives in that society. I said, ‘Let me have three years of my own.’ He was upset but he also understood me.”
After completing her master’s thesis, Kapadne secured a job with Keohane Seafoods company in Bantry and moved to west Cork in November 2020. She immediately fell in love with the town but struggled at first to make friends in such a quiet place. “It was also hard because of Covid and then it was Christmas, there was no one around. But I had a great team in Keohane’s who were all girls – they were amazing to me.”
Kapadne also loved the independence and safety she felt as a woman. “I loved the feeling that no one was judging me, I could just do my own thing.”
Kapadne still lives in Bantry and now works as a product development technician with Glenilen Farm. She loves her job and says west Cork has become her second home. She recently travelled to India for her youngest sister’s wedding and struggled when she had to leave her family and friends.
“I was pretty emotional leaving the house. It was such a long time since I saw my family. I told my mum for a moment I don’t want to go back, I just love you all so much. She was like ok, you don’t need to. But after five minutes I realised I have my life in Ireland and I had to go back.
“To be honest, it made me feel proud. Of course it’s my friends’ choice to go for an arranged marriage and I respect that. But I wouldn’t want to have to ask my husband for money to go shopping, that’s not for me. Now I can spend my own money on whatever I want without asking anyone.”
Kapadne still misses India but would like to stay in Ireland long term. “Whenever I take my car and drive along Crookhaven road and see those houses, I think to myself that will be my retirement house. I’m just going to open my window, see the seashore and enjoy the sunset while having coffee in my bed.
“India is beautiful in its own way, every country has its pros and cons. India prepared me for tough times but Ireland helped me to grow as a human.”