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Poetry Helps Me Find “Life In Darkness” And “Freedom In Anonymity”

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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.

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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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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