“You know Rupi Kaur?” 15-year-old Sandeed Farooq asks me. He’s at least two generations away from my withering 29.
“Isn’t she a poet? Something to do with women?” I scratch my head. “She’s so inspiring. Everything I know about feminism, and I don’t claim to know everything, comes from poets like her,” he gushes.
Over the next hour, I learn a lot more from him as I fiddle to clip a mic on his starched collar. Sandeed looks like a young hero of a romantic ballad, his hair a natural henna-dye colour. I ascribe my own gendered norms to him. He’s looking to break some. “Its wrong that women are considered lesser than men. That’s so crazy.”
Sandeed, and his co-founder Sakshi Agarwal, started ‘Flawless Flaws’ together for acid attack survivors in their school. “An acid attack is a constant reminder of what was done to you,” says Sandeed. He’s just returned from Kolkata where his team put on a street play about women who’ve survived vicious acid attacks on their bodies and lived to tell their courageous stories. “Their faces are a constant reminder of their violation,” he says, about his survivor friends and mentors.
My office is swarming with these young heroes. They’re sharing their stories with me to prep for video interviews. Stories of great courage and success, but also of struggle and reflection. I’m dwarfed by their ridiculous passion to change the world. What made them want to anyway?
I ask Sandeed more about Rupi Kaur’s feminism, and his decision to tackle obnoxious hate crimes like acid attacks. Sandeed looks confused. “How can I not care?,” he shoots back, “How can scores be settled by throwing acid?”
Sandeed raises money by organising fairs in his school, and stays in regular touch with his survivor-mentor Ms Sonia. “She’s very happy we’re helping and that we care,” he says, smiling.
Anya, 17, and Rohan, 15, from Gurgaon, bring the same fresh-faced earnestness to their interviews. They’re trying to solve problems in their own backyard, by helping villages around Gurgaon connect with the right corporate social responsibility (CSR) development projects. Rohan doesn’t quote Rupi Kaur. Instead, he uses Tagore’s seminal poem “Where The Mind Is Without Fear” to explain why he spends his afternoons with rural families instead of his tennis buds. “I can choose to be unafraid and change things. This is the freedom everyone should have,” he says.
I hear this word — freedom — used liberally in conversations between these young people.It connects to the ‘why’ behind their actions. “It’s our responsibility to do something,” they say, “with all the freedom, choice and opportunity we have.” Quite the manifesto.
The cheerful pace of discussion takes an unusual dip when the group starts to talk about suicide. Suicide is a sticky topic. Everyone has a heartbreaking story to tell about a friend they lost in school because they couldn’t face the pressure of poor marks, bullying or a broken relationship. They discuss the need for suicide hotlines, easy access to counselling for depressed classmates and dealing with peer pressures exaggerated by social media. They talk about resilience in the face of fear and disappointment.
Akshat,13, has risen to the occasion. He’s developing a website that will connect students anonymously with counsellors online and over the phone. “Kids worry about being singled out if they seek counselling openly. The anonymity makes it easier,” he says. Akshat’s best friend killed himself at 12. Skilled in coding, Akshay turned a personally tragic moment into a crutch for those who want to seek emotional and psychological support, but are too young to ask for it. His face is stoic as he speaks to the camera.
These young people are burning with a need to convert their privilege to positive action. Indeed they may have had the luxury of an environment, of parents and school teachers that made it easier to act. But there are teenagers in this group who didn’t grow up with the same confidence of social comforts. Their barriers to action were much stronger. They had to be resilient to follow their truth.
Rumi Kumari has a quiet smile on her face that makes her look strong. She is strong. She’s stopped five child marriages and helped 12 young women stay in school.
“If you’re not educated, you won’t develop yourself or contribute to society,” she says in her interview. Ever since she was a kid, Rumi’s had to fight for this belief. Trafficked at eight, and placed in a Benaras household as a domestic worker, Rumi showed incredible courage in standing up for herself. Realising that this family wasn’t interested in her well-being or in educating her, she insisted on being taken home. They left her on the side of a lonely road to make her own way back. Rumi survived this and reached home, only to find that a few years in, she was being pulled out of school to get married. She resisted, and lobbied the Block Development Officer, village elders and her parents to let her — and other young women like her — stay in school. She now wants to recruit other young women to protect the rights of all the children in her village, prevent them from getting married off too soon, and keep them in school. “I will never let what happened to me, happen to anyone else,” she declares.
There is strength in the spark. There is even more strength in what continues to burn.
What can I do for young people just like me? This is the thought that jump-started Ashweetha Shetty’s life as a social entrepreneur. She isn’t here in office today or else Rumi could’ve been her next client. Ashweetha’s from an earlier batch of Ashoka’s Youth Venture programme, selected for her attempt to bring career counselling to India’s rural graduates.
The daughter of a humble village family, she started Bodhi Tree Skills right after her own life as graduate seemed to go south. “My friends and I realised we had degrees, but no clear path to the future,” she says in a fundraising video.
The first person in her family to attend college, Ashweetha knew she was stepping into a new kind of life, where the great opportunity of higher education could quickly become a bane if she didn’t know what to do with it. Ashweetha started coaching centres on life-skills and job essentials for people ‘just like her’.
Her video shows classrooms filled with young men and women graduates in rural India, hiding their smiles from the camera. Ashweetha doesn’t look any different from them, except that she’s on a podium up front. She could just as easily be a student at Bodhi Tree. There is no distance between the role model and the aspirant.
She ends the video appeal on a plaintive note, urging us all to help because, “All we have is each other.” There is a deep power in this line. Its an indication of how the fix-it generation plans to spread its wings. If they’ve had the chance to change something about their lives, they want everyone like them to have the same chance. This is their version of equal citizenship in a true democracy.
At 356 million, India has the largest number of young people below 25. There is no doubt that what this generation decides to do with its privilege, or lack thereof, will determine the future of our country.
In my office today are 25 from this huge group who feel compelled to solve the problems they see around them. Their reasons to act may vary but they’re united in the belief that they individually have the power to change things for themselves and others. What would happen if all 356 million believed that too? Now that’s a future worth dreaming of.