“Bol, ye thora waqt bahut hai, Jism o zabaan ki maut se pahle;
Bol, ke sach zinda hai ab tak –Bol, jo kuchh kahna hai kah-le!
(Time enough is this brief hour, Until body and tongue lie dead
Speak, for truth is living yet – Speak whatever must be said!)”
– Faiz Ahmad Faiz
I am no etymologist, yet I understand the critical significance of words, the bravery in the act of speaking and breaking silences. I write for several reasons, one of the most basic being that certain stories must not go unheard. The importance of telling these stories is the crucial fact that decides the collective fate of our humanity. If these stories are not told, it will accelerate us towards that dystopian future which is mechanized and digitized but stripped of empathy and emotion. On the other hand, telling these stories might be dangerous and difficult, yet life-affirming and sustaining, pushing us towards a better world with other possibilities.
The revelation that I enjoy words, value them, revel in them, and feel moved by them, came to me gradually. My love for words evolved over the ages through the different books that I was encouraged to read at home and in school, the poems that I had to learn and the songs that I heard. Particularly, reading the fun looking children’s books and later discovering the joy of Enid Blyton, the folktales from around the world, the wonderful fairy tales, the countless Bengali ghost stories, the adventures of Tintin, the amusement of Shukumar Ray’s ‘Abol Tabol’, the poignancy of Tagore and Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, the pathos of Dickens, and the mystery of Sheldon.
Later, some of the classics that shaped my thoughts and inspired me to write the hard-hitting realities of Manto, and the lyrical Gulzaar, Orwell’s works, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ludhianvi’s revolutionary poetry, and several others that challenged the status quo and made me realize the power of words. Writing is cathartic but it is also revolutionary because it holds up a mirror to the problems around us and prods us to think of a solution and bring about change. Writing, just like reading, is, therefore, a political act because it challenges the status quo and sows the seeds of a new world.
Especially in the face of censorship and surveillance, when we are constantly told that there are topics we can’t speak about, we must question these impositions and speak-up against them. It is important because we live in a world that is dominated by machineries that support and promote the injustice and exploitation of the masses for the benefit of a few. These machineries thrive on cultivating a culture of fearing and detesting words and tries to silence any dissent or questions against them. Such exploitative power structures thrive on ignorance and encourage dulling down of the mind (because a dull mind is easier to rule over). We must resist this and despite the threats, we must keep writing and speaking honestly. We must especially speak the words that must not be spoken, because silence is wrong. It makes us complicit with the injustice and emboldens the oppressors. Those of us who have the privilege to document the current situation, present ideas and challenge the status quo must do so. It is not only a matter of seeking comfort in written words, but it is our responsibility towards the legacy that we want to leave behind for our future generations.
Words are inanimate yet they have a life of their own. Once they are out there, whether in the written or in the spoken form, they have the power to change the world around us forever. They could be positive or negative, they could be passionate, moving and significant, or they could be inflammatory and hateful. They could be used as tools to inspire change or weapons to wage a war. They could be several things, except they can never be unnecessary.
They have the right to exist even if they offend, and yet no words should ever be blurred or censored and people should be able to see or hear them and decide for themselves. Censorship only occurs in a society where the authorities do not believe that people are sane or mature enough to decide for themselves. Censorship is mind-control and it is what the authorities don’t want you to read. Therefore, I try to read anything that was censored and highly recommend the same to everyone.
The works of literature that get censored seem to echo Manto’s comment, “If you cannot bear these stories, then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don’t even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that’s the job of dressmakers.” A few examples of censored works of literature that were banned simply because they were reflecting the reality include Sadat Hasan Manto’s works, Ismat Chugtai’s “Lihaaf”, Anne Frank’s Diary, George Orwell’s works, Taslima Nasreen’s works, among many others. Nasreen’s words were so powerful and caused such fear to the Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh that she had to leave the country and currently resides in exile in India.
However, Nasreen is not alone and threats and silencing of authors or burning/pulping of their books is rather common around the world. Perumal Murugan, a Tamil author was viciously attacked for his work, “One Part Woman”, that made guardians of morality uncomfortable, and he went into a self-imposed silence. Marxist author Pansare, rationalist Dhabolkar and journalist Gauri Lankesh were killed for their critical writings against the ruling establishment and right-wing Hindu fundamentalism in India. In the west, a state in United States banned the book, “To Kill A Mocking Bird” in schools because it raises issues of racism; and Church-run schools in the United Kingdom have banned Harry Potter for its un-Christian themes of witches, wizards and magic!
The common link between all these banned books and the author’s target for writing them are that they challenge the power structures – they are either seditious or they hurt religious sentiments or break norms around morality. If one is still confused as to what side they should be on, they just have to remember that books have never killed anyone, yet they have shaken those in power and made them fearful. They have put ideas out there, and the ideas have been so potent that they have invoked the wrath of the powerful. The moment a book is powerful enough to stir the primal in us, be it negative or positive (depending on which side of the status quo we are on), it has achieved its goal. Because writing is an art, and as Banksy put it, good art must comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
I started writing on YKA in 2015 and my first article was an argument in favour of decriminalizing sex work. Even before that, I won a blog competition, Violence and Women: What Remains Unseen, which was co-organized by CREA and YKA, and my poem, ‘She Breathed Her Last Breath and We Didn’t Even Hear Her Sigh’, was published in September 2013. Initially, it was important for me to write, as at first, it felt natural and organic; gradually it also started feeling like a responsibility (albeit a good one!). It is my way of participating in the world actively, often difficult but always urgent, and YKA provided the perfect platform for it.
I did not have a professional journalistic background and yet I was keen to write about things that I felt were important and post them where they would be read by more people. YKA addressed these for me, and I am sure many others like me, by providing a platform where ordinary people could write and connect with readers. This was important because ordinary voices need to be heard, especially when they become the voices for many others who can’t be on such platforms for various reasons. There is a long way to go, but YKA is a good start at amplifying the voices and shaping public opinion towards a more empathetic understanding of issues, through popularity and vast readership. It is democracy in making and in action!
Write! I will write to have fun, to rage, to dream, to create, to destroy, to challenge, to change, to preserve, to remember, to pay a tribute, to rebuke. I urge you all to write too and hope together we will read and write for all these reasons and more, and take steps towards a better world, a just world, an equal world.