By Himel Sarkar:
Editor’s note: Over 92% of women in India experience some form of harassment, yet, we hesitate to speak up. To help create safe spaces for conversations around these experiences, Youth Ki Awaaz and Breakthrough India have come together to encourage more individuals to speak out and support one another. The piece below is a part of this collaboration. We ask people everywhere to come, #StandWithMe.
One day, as a young boy out of an industrial city, I saw that the sun didn’t set far away in the hills. One day, my apartment couldn’t see forever. One day, the day didn’t end with jackals howling in the dark distance lending its eerie music to the night. One day, the city stretched forever and never stopped to breathe.
When my train chugged into the New Delhi railway station, I was a boy full of hope. I was going away, venturing out into the world, and trying to find myself in the Republic and in its fabled democracy.
I soon found that the city is unforgiving. It is dark and brutal. It takes more than it gives and leaves you weak in the knees. So I came into myself in dark hallways and quiet parties. I came into myself among people who found life in darkness and freedom in anonymity.
To them who refuse to live in walled confines of dying spirits,
To them who refuse to lurk in lecherous shadows of defeat.
As a poet, and especially as a part of a queer poetry movement, I met people who challenged the normative black and white we’ve always been told to perceive life in. People who have realised and have inspired me to believe that black and white is too narrow a perspective to define yourself in.
For the first time, I could talk about depression, I could talk about the dark thoughts that didn’t let me sleep or let me get out of bed. In this movement, I didn’t have to be a stereotype. I could be who I chose to be, who I wanted to be. I could cultivate emotionally stimulating relationships and be vulnerable. And in a strange way, poetry linked me to this city.
As a non-normative cis male, I have always sought to hide myself in a shroud of anonymity. I liked that people didn’t talk to or keep tabs on their neighbors here. I liked that with a little effort you could disappear in the crowd, a humble pixel in the massive portrait of urban chatter.
Behind closed doors and anonymous holds,
unknown to all but those nameless faces
that I see and smile and wave
never having said a word of truth,
having never touched their soul.
Speaking only in soundless whispers,
walking only in heeded steps
breathing only their second hand smoke.
But that brought with itself, its own tribulations and trials. Disappearing in the crowd is lonely. It is debilitating in its own way. Poetry helps us fix that. Poetry can get back the dignity and the identity that the city leeches out of you everyday. Poetry allows you a moment’s break from hiding and let’s you stand in the sun and feel its majesty on your unshrouded face.
I was confused about this. So I called a friend. He was sleeping. “Why do you write poetry?” is the first thing I said to him when he answered. He took a while to wake up.
“What you think, you become, thoughts turn into actions, actions turn into habits, habits turn into identity. Thoughts is poetry. Creative process is poetry. What I write is my identity.”
“But dude, don’t we also seek anonymity?”
“Yeah. And in hiding in plain sight from the world around us, we end up forming a fragmented reality. Poetry helps us coalesce that. Poetry helps me stand tall even in anonymity. In poetry, who I am meets who I long to be.”
Yes, the night is dark and the lights are dim.
Yes, the vagrant sleep under deceitful skies,
Yes, there are sermons yet to challenge.
Yes, there are laws to yet defy.
But the night is old and the sky is red
to the lovers and fuckers and poets
who wake in defiance in ungodly hours
and tell the story of where we stood.
To those who had their identities invalidated by conventional social norms, poetry offered a respite, a way out, a choice, a power unfounded in any other platform. In poetry, we were free. We boiled on simmer in the dark underbelly of Delhi’s cultural circuit.
In a world that was binary, we were not. In a world that was shameful, we were not. In a world that was fearful, we were not. In a world that was silent, we were not. Of course it felt good. Of course it was liberating.
We had people come to our shows and feel comfortable being themselves. We had men come to our shows in sneakers and then change into stilettos. We had people dress the way they wanted and say what they want and be who they wanted to without fear.
Here we stood in love and hate,
in wakeful highs in burnt out rooms,
carrying defiance in our back pockets,
and revolution in our bones.
Of course, we have to remember that all of this was only within the confines of those poetic spaces. And I don’t imply that our space was free from the kind of power dynamics and hegemony that grips the larger society as a whole. But even so, for a brief second, you could be alive in poetry. You could be alive in rhyme. You could share in the powerful enigma of the moment.
We’re the godless freaks that escaped your trials.
The deviants on stakes that refused to burn.
We’ll blaspheme against your most sacred lies.
Your power, cut right down to size.
We’re the runt of the litter that you long disowned
We’re the hushed up truths and words unsaid.
We’re Lazarus of Nazareth. Summoned from the dead.
Come back to tell you of heav’nly void.
Come back to tell the truth of hell.
If you’d like to share your own experiences – from dealing with everyday sexism and gender stereotyping, to period shaming, harassment and abuse, do share your stories using #StandWithMe, and help take this important conversation forward.