Monday, January 9, 2017

The fire within

Paromita Bardoloi
Paromita Bardoloi is an independent writer and a theatre activist. Her writings over the years have been published in many national websites and magazines, including the Huffington Post, National Geographic, Women’s Web, YourStory, Bonobology, Femina, The Quint and so on. Paromita's writings have mostly dealt with women's empowerment, and she is a firm believer that it is not only the laws or education that can empower our women, but that empowerment is an inner process that includes self love and self esteem. Over the years, many women have benefitted from them. Here is Paromita's story.

Could you talk a bit about your childhood, your growing years and your education work journey to the extent you're comfortable?

I was born and brought up in a very simple middle class Assamese family. It is a very small and sleepy town, I belong to. And it still is. My father was a lawyer and my mother a lecturer in the local college. It was a modest upbringing. Our father had a grey Ambassador car. He took us to circus, plays and drives. Though it is a very small sleepy town, it had so much of art, culture that went around. Our parents made sure we went to singing and art classes. I was bad in both. My sisters learnt dance too. There would be poetry, essay and art competitions and we really participated. I won quite a few prizes there. I was a very average student. Infact I never liked classroom studies.

I was a dreamer in love with the sky and the rain; I hated what they taught in Maths and Science classes. My parents let me be if I passed from one class to another which I diligently did. I grew a deep love for poetry and the written word. I published my first story when I was in standard 7th. Now when I look back, writing has been my first love and one thing that lived with me through out. It saved me many a bad days. My love for reading and writing stayed throughout without fail. In school, no one was actually involved in reading. There was always an ache to find people who read what I did. I read the whole of Readers Digest cover to cover. I wanted someone to discuss those stories to. My school did not offer me that. Though I had a great time with friends, but the ache to find my own tribe stayed on.

My home, where I was born and brought up.

I was sent to Miranda House to do my graduation. I did English Honors. It was when I felt I could talk my heart out. My stories were heard and understood. People were better read than I was. There was so much to learn each day. I read insanely in my college years. The college library offered a solace. I was introduced to finest of world literature. I got very close to Khalil Gibran, Neruda, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Miranda House gave me my voice. I owe a lot to my alma mater. Not to forget, it gave me friends for a lifetime.

I started my career as a copywriter in a small advertising firm and then shifted to content writing. Life was going on well. But I had a deep urge to tell stories. There was so much more than the office cubicle. But I did not know how to tell and was apprehensive, if anyone would listen. That need to tell a story became an ache. Almost like unrequited love.

One day I fell sick. That was 2012 January and I went home. I think that was the turning point. No, the illness was nothing serious, it was fatigue and bad food, but it was a wakeup call for me. If you look for me before 2012, you won’t find anything substantial about me, on the Internet. But when I was home, I started to write and in April 2012, and my first piece appeared at Women’s Web. I think that was when destiny knocked at my door. I was very heartbroken then, but now I realize through my heartbreaks I was actually walking home. It was from 2013 onwards, I took writing very seriously. And life was never the same again.

Since then there had been so many co-incidences, that I think I was destined to write. The Universe cannot be so wrong! And to that let me add there had been a lot of hard work and focus. People think that it’s so beautiful to sit and write your heart out and get paid for it. But I assure you, its lot of hard work and discipline. You are on it almost every waking hour.

The journey itself fascinates me. And I am deeply grateful.

Your work is informed by and informs the core theme of women's empowerment. Could you talk about how that journey began?

My father expired in a car accident when I was 11 years old. Since then my mother brought me up. I have two elder sisters and a brother who is almost 8 years my junior. So, my growing up was amidst some very strong women. Even lot of women came home to meet Mom. So, I am closer to the women’s world. It’s only after college I made some fantastic male friends and I am grateful for the love and support I receive from them. But of course the women’s world has left a strong impression on me.

Coming from Assam, or may be from the family I come I had a gender neutral upbringing. But I remember when I was in 10th standard, one of my friend’s sister got married. She was hardly 20. And that was the first time, I thought about gender deeply. What if she was a man? I could not do much about it. I wrote a poem about it.

When I came to Delhi, I saw gender in a new perspective. In my hostel life I saw why girls who worked so hard, because they had a limited time to do all that they wanted. Miranda House opened up the layers how gender works as an identity.

In India, your genitals are supposed to decide your destiny not your capabilities. But if you dig deeper, do you think Patriarchy has done good to men? In India every 9 minutes a married man commits suicide. Men carry the burden of being a man and that has corroded them too. Socially we teach girls to keep away from men and a man’s manhood is validated with the number of women he can have by his side. That is our narrative. We don’t even teach how man and woman can be partners. Its time our social and cultural narrative changes.

I write about women empowerment because I know, in places where women have equal spaces and where women are heard as per men, violence goes down and a sense of security and balance takes over. 

Your definition of women's emancipation is so beautiful - that only laws or       education that can empower our women. Empowerment is an inner process that includes self love and self esteem. This is so, so powerful and beautiful. Could you share how your experiences, or what specific influences shaped this ideal?

Post 90s, we see a sea change in India’s workforce. A lot of women joined in. So technically, it’s like we are the first generation who has access to finances what was supposed to be a male domain. Woman for sure worked earlier too, but it’s a huge workforce today. Something India cannot deny. But has the gender rules changed with economic power? A woman’s salary is still treated as an add on. Women hardly owe property. The wage gap is way too much between genders in India. So, the question is why education and laws not making a sea change.

Here is the answer. A society is governed by its own culture and dictates. Education and laws are extremely important. But the first rules are set by the society and a society conditions an individual.

Indian culture is built on the narrative of good woman who does not ask for more. The good woman gives. The good woman is mostly non vocal. And we celebrate that woman. Here is the problem. We have not ever said that a woman is an individual, who has her own needs. She can ask for more and build her boundaries. And she can displease and offend people. Culturally we want our daughters to be pleasing so that when she is married to another family, she pleases everyone and does not ruffle a feather. That has what worked for the society. But it created generation and generation of women who were corroded from within. And one generation transferred it to another. Little girls learnt it from their mothers.

Now though we are getting all the opportunities as per men, we are still in that process of evolution where we are learning to ask for what we deserve and not accept what we are getting. We have not created a generation of women where they have deep self esteem, where they say no and ask for more.

I am a well educated woman, well read, exposed to the world and earning my own bucks. But I have realized over time that I am getting so less than I deserved. It was not only at work but in personal relationships too I was getting less. It was making me angry. That was when I realized why I was asking less, because I have not seen women asking. And you only accept what you think you deserve. Your deservingness comes from self esteem, self love and I learnt that meeting your own needs first is the highest form of self care. A woman who is fulfilled creates a happy fulfilled society. We try to fulfill others to feel fulfilled. The secret is that it is other way round. An empty cup cannot fill anyone. It has to be overflowing.

This is why my writings or in my public lectures, I emphasize on self esteem, self care and self love. It is a life changing mantra I learnt, and one day I hope will change the society.

Today, you are a writer, and a theatre activist. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

I am part of a theatre group ‘Aatish’ which is basically run by my two long standing friends Ankita Anand and Saumya Baijal. Whether it is street theatre or my writings, it is my individual effort to tell a story that will stir a conversation. The day I turned 30, I asked myself what is that I will leave back to this world. From then, I have become conscious of my work more than ever. As a writer I write what has affected me in the hope that it might leave a trail to a better life for someone. At Aatish, our plays leave behind questions and begin a new conversation.

I firmly believe that a conversation is the beginning to a new thought and life. That is what I do, in my writing or street plays, bring in a new way to an old pattern. The audience can choose to hear or ignore. But I tell my story. And most of the time, the responses overwhelm me. There is nothing like young women trying to see life from a new lens. It is a difficult life. Writing as we all know does not make us rich (at least not me) and street theatre pays me nothing as of now. But the urge to tell a story each morning keeps me going. That I touched someone’s life, is something that makes me go through deep moments of self doubt. Yes, as confident and radiant I see from outside, there had been dark days, crying nights, but I wake up each morning and go to work.

I have learnt that it takes immense courage to tell your story each day. And I have moments of fear, but I tell myself each day, “Courage dear heart.” I add, “Just this day, show courage. Just today, wake up. Just today, shine.” And years go by this way.

It’s been an enriching journey!

In your work so far, you would have undoubtedly made some observations as to why so many women are not empowered. Could you share a few observations from your work so far?
In one word, it is conditioning. In India we do not bring up daughters with visions. We tell them to work hard, get a job but then you become what your husband or the notion of happy family allows you. We want our daughters to be pleasing and not to touch the hornet’s nest. We don’t give girls time or freedom to self explore. We condition them as an adage to a man. We have still not recognized that as a woman can have an individual life. We still club her personal life with success. We celebrate woman who give up everything. But do we question, if the woman really want to give it up all.

Our men are confused. They are conditioned to be the bread earner, the provider. They are yet to see many women in power. Power sharing is something our boys are yet to learn from their partners. The society laughs at a man who will quit his job to look after his children. Not each time a man might want to be the bread earner or a woman to be a child bearer. Our culture hardly allows any other narrative.

Unless the narrative changes, women empowerment will be a farfetched dream, because we become the stories we see, hear and finally tell ourselves about.

Would you believe that even as many women can and do make the earnest effort to work on their internal devices of self love and self esteem, extrinsic influences can be disparaging and antithetical to their interests? How does a woman work with her own goals, dreams and empowerment needs while coping with these constant messages that tell her she's not worthy of being an equal?

As I have earlier said we become the narratives. Women are judged on their characters. And the measures are ridiculous. We are shamed for almost everything. The constant message we get is that we are not good enough. It begins with looks, than our bodies (girls learn to hate their bodies too soon), character, relationships, work etc. Shame is our constant companion and not many women have seen powerful women in their families to become like them. Children see, children become. So, inspite of trying so hard, it becomes difficult to truly believe in self love or self esteem. It’s difficult to be healthy where everyone is running sick.

The only way is to keep at it. I still fight the demons of body images. But I believe, three generations makes one. I might not die as a completely self loving person, but I can start and teach that to my daughter and she to hers. Atleast I will be that bridge if not the final destination. One woman needs to change the narration, rest will catch. It always begins with one. One woman in the society, workplace or family needs to begin. Rest always catch up. Keep marching and one day you will realize you carried a generation in your shoulders. That’s how powerful you are.

By doing it each day, we shall overcome. This I know for sure!