What a better way to learn to break stereotypes from the people who broke it? #ConvergeNow
— Karan Sharma (@DarpokKiller) December 12, 2015
Converge 2015, an event conducted by Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA) and UNICEF on 12th December, saw discussions streaming amongst youngsters on various themes and concerns. From giving goosebumps, to describing how important service to the community was – Converge 2015 will always be remembered for its diversity in reaching out to the youth of today and questioning the stereotypes prevailing in society. The panel brought together distinguished speakers, who not only brought a clearer picture of what they experienced happening around them; but also kept to the particular theme of the event #RaiseYourVoice.
Sofia Ashraf of the “Kodaikanal Won’t” fame gave a performance at the event. Ashraf began the performance by stating that it was very important for her to feel strongly about some issue, that she pushed her artistic abilities to make music by which she could stand by. Performing her raps for the audience, she left them spellbound and energetic—to cheer up Converge 2015 further.
The afternoon began with an opening address by the Founder of Youth Ki Awaaz, Anshul Tewari. He explained how the online portal that raises everyday issues started in the year 2008 from a personal blog where Anshul wrote on the pressing issues of society. He is a well known as a social entrepreneur, who also added that for the last 8 years, YKA has published 30,000-40,000 articles by people around the country—a great way of crowdsourcing. As a team of nearly 20 full-time employees, YKA has excellently stood to its name by pushing the mainstream media to focus on wider issues that it might be overlooking. Having led campaigns, such as the recent campaign brought forward through an open letter, that caught the wider attention of the media with the hashtag #HappyToBleed after Sabarimala board’s comment on installing a machine to scan menstruating women, YKA personifies how big a revolution social media is and can be in the times to come.
Converge 2015 was organized for the second time, the first being organised last year. After the opening remarks, Robin Chaurasiya, who runs NGO Kranti, spoke to the audience. She gave the audience a comprehensive insight into how she did not want to keep mum about her identity. She is a lesbian, and there is nothing to hide or fear from anyone in this regard. Her invincible attitude made her quit the U.S. Air Force, and come to India to work for uplifting the children of sex workers in India.
Farah Shaikh was the next speaker, who is a survivor of female foeticide— she narrated her life story of how—in a brutal desire to have a son, her mother had wanted to abandon her, but was fortunately saved because a nurse in the hospital found her. Robin has helped Farah through her NGO and at the age of 21 Farah teaches 93 children in a Mumbai slum. Farah termed this deed by her mother as the first education given to her by her own family. Another lesson she said she learnt was how, on the basis of religion, people fight in India—having been closely affected by the Gujarat riots, she expressed her concern that discrimination did happen at many places on the basis of religion.
Another lesson Farah received was of how to tackle physical assault, when one of her uncles harassed both her sister and her. She shared with the audience about how she might have many reasons to accept defeat from life when she was not considered as important as a son, but that never deterred her from having strong commandments in life, in her words, Tumhari Kamzori Hi Tumhari Himmat Hai (your weakness is your courage). She had the strength to share her story with over 200 people sitting and watching her. For me, Farah is truly an inspiration for youngsters, to teach them not to accept defeat even when the toughest circumstances test a person.
The next speaker at Converge was filmmaker Abhay Kumar, who shared his first-hand experience of working on his documentary film ‘Placebo’, which has received a resounding response since its release at Film Festivals. A question that Abhay asked the audience at the beginning of his session was, “How many of you have seen someone and wondered about yourself, that why is this person so happy?” Most of the people raised their hands on this, and the ones who did not, were referred to by him as people living in denial. Abhay asked this question as he was speaking about depression. Abhay went on to talk about a story of how the son of his father’s friend committed suicide. Numb, Abhay reached their house to know why the suicide happened. One thing which he could never forget was what was said by the father of a boy who had committed suicide, when he asked him what might have been the reason for his son to take such a step. The father had, without any second thought said, “Beta, koi buri nazar lag gayi hogi use.”
Abhay emphasised to the audience how a logical explanation or enquiry wasn’t necessitated, but merely a superstitious thought was given value as the reason for something as grievous as suicide. After Abhay’s talk, people in attendance got time to introspect about themselves, and I kept thinking over the theme Abhay discussed upon. His talk was moving, and was on something that will trigger discussions in the future as well. During the question and answer session, a lady stood up to say that one should spend time with oneself when in depression, and another came forward to share the information that there is a dire need of more counsellors in India, but the counselling fee is very high, because of which many patients with depression can’t approach them. There is some stigma attached with the word depression, that one can just deal with by simply seeing a psychiatrist or speaking to parents. But parents never freely communicate with children or help them to share their griefs frankly with them, which complicates the problem of depression.
The next talk was by Akkai Padmashali, a proud Karnataka Rajyotsava Awardee—who is a transwoman. She made the audience a part of her cause through her words which really made sense in a nation where equal rights and an identity crisis still remains. She explained her story, her journey to fight for herself, for who she was within, for her peace, how she did not let the laws and rules of societal standards break her, from the time when her family declined her, to the time when her father called her in tears when she won the second highest civilian award of Karnataka. Akkai has seen life closely through harassment, discrimination and wreckage. She is a leader for those who do not have a voice.
Towards the end of her powerful talk, she sang a song written and composed by her—that gave me goosebumps, and no eye could help not witness the power of her persona. Midway through her talk, she started trending on Twitter in India in the top 10 ten trends!Akkai’s voice had made a difference, with people discussing, sharing her lines. Well, is this not how revolutions are framed and the way Youth Ki Awaaz perfects its stand on the issues it feels strongly about? It is, indeed. Some of the tweets sharing her opinions and thoughts can be found below:
“People told me ‘You are third gender’. I asked, ‘Who is first gender?'” – Akkai Padmashali at #ConvergeNow
If u’re a vegetarian, there is a problem, if u’re asexual, its a problem, there is a problem with everything in our society-Akkai Padmashali — Ankita Mukhopadhyay (@muk_ankita) December 12, 2015
— Anshul Tewari (@anshul_tewari) December 12, 2015
The next speakers after the lunch were Sikha and Piyali Mazumdar. Ms. Mazumdar is the Director of Salt Lake City Prayasam, an NGO that provides skills in necessary fields like effective communication, fighting discrimination and bullying—eyeing towards creating a power shift in society, using creative methods. Sikha is an 18-year-old girl who has been working for the past 9 years with the NGO, and is currently the Child Advisor of it. She works with kids in Kolkata who collect health data from the community, to help in rallying information to make vaccines accordingly. She was interviewed by Melinda Gates at TEDx Talks in Seattle and Ms. Gates in her blog post titled “Impatient Optimists” included Sikha’s name in the 8 women from around the world who inspired her in the year 2013.
Sikha, in her talk, referred to how she got inspired from the NGO and she questioned herself—whether she was satisfied with her society? She believed in herself that she could bring about the much-needed change in society. Her father was a rickshaw puller when she was 9 years old, but it did not stop her from following her heart, of serving the society. She said, “do not become the product of the society, instead make society your product.” She expressed how she would keep working towards empowerment of the youth, and service of the community is her only goal. There was a good round of applause for the young girl, who had wisdom in her words.
Next in line was young entrepreneur Ritesh Agarwal, who is building the biggest hotel chain of India, OYO Rooms. At 22, he has been working with a smart team—whose 3 members including himself are college drop-outs. Agarwal wanted to create something different, of his own; and he shared stories of how he made that come alive. But needless to say, it was a long struggle after failures could no longer fail his determination. At 16, he would travel to Delhi to attend startup events where usually the ticket would cost some $100 dollars. It was then that he found a catch, that the people who did not wear the badges were allowed entry, as presumably they were the VIPs. So, he did not have to worry for tickets any longer.
Those in attendance enjoyed Ritesh’s talk thoroughly, and he answered the questions asked for him wholeheartedly. As a lady asked him if she could expect “women only” hotels in all cities in India, so that they could travel all over India “On Your (their) Own”? Ritesh at this point brought fore his witty nature; by saying, that is why OYO name came into existence.
Apart from answering these questions, Ritesh expressed how proud he was of his team. He also said that he was building this business with the next 35 years in his mind—even if one of two years came in between as low periods, those would not affect his confidence in it. He further added that his idea was taken up by 22 new startups around the world, and still counting. He is undoubtedly a youth icon, and I hope he will take OYO to greater heights and make India proud, the path it is on, already.
The last session of the day was a discussion with Film Director Kanu Behl and Abhay Kumar. Abhay this time, came with his funny and not so serious outlook—he was cracking jokes, and the people loved that. Other than the light moments, the discussion was very much insightful, where they discussed about the limitations of Independent Film Making.
Kanu Behl’s recent film “Titli” was released on 250 screens this year, whereas the film which came a week later, a Salman Khan flick, “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo” was released at 5,000 screens. This came even after Kanu’s film was produced by the biggest production house in India, Yash Raj Films. Behl explained that even though Titli released on a smaller scale, the impact on the masses was still huge, as people were aware of the film and could access them at good timings.
Throughout the q&a, many important questions were raised, one of which was asked to Abhay. On being asked why he did not put his film, “Placebo” on Youtube or online platforms for a good reach, he answered that the life of a film reduces if it gets online, killing the investment of all those who put their efforts into it. Kanu, on the other hand, gave tips about screenwriting to the budding writers.
On being asked if it is important for a filmmaker to realise why he/she decided to make films, he replied,”Why did I take this decision in my childhood? It was then, the reality hit me back and I realised that I had lost the plot; also some personal issues back home; but I had to find myself back,” was his reply.
Converge 2015 concluded with this session, leaving the audience engrossed and wanting for more. The speakers were really friendly to everyone who came up to them to have a chat after their talk got over. There were one to one sessions too, and the team of Youth Ki Awaaz took good care of everyone, from bringing creative ideas of having frames with which people could pose and click pictures to organizing the whole event single-handedly. I got a picture too with the Founder of YKA, who was proud of the event that his team had brought forward with him, and UNICEF. He thanked the media partners including, www.quint.com. A chance to be a speaker at the next Converge was given to every participant, who could fill the form with one’s idea to bring about a social change, and the best one would be selected.
Converge 2015 truly came as a blessing to me. I gladly look forward to Converge 2016.