4 reasons why Diksha Bijlani slams injustice with words
The spoken word poet and activist intends to shake up your worldview. Read and be roused
- Published 21.11.18, 12:31 PM
- Updated 21.11.18, 3:31 AM
- 6 mins read
You know how we keep hearing necessity is the mother of invention, yet so many necessities in our life go unabated, un-rescued by a transformational invention? Life originating in a Tier II city can get exactly like that: so many necessities, and nobody ‘inventing’ their way out of it.
My story, though yet in motion, yet clutching at experiences to mould its way, strived to carve out an invention just like that through its existence. I was born and brought up in the city of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, in a lower middle-class patriarchal family. Necessity showed itself in many ways, and at the intersection of those ways came the invention of my story. I try to list some of them here.
The First Necessity: Lack of Agency
I was schooled in an all-girls Convent for all of thirteen years, which boasted of a sense of discipline that was actually bigotry. It is commonplace knowledge that schools in India shame girls for school dresses that are ‘too revealing’, make judgements of their character when girls are found with nail color or eye liner on. Our school went a step ahead to also morally police the choice of high school girls who go to coaching centers (because they had boys) and suspended them. There was a ban on girls driving to school, which extended to installing cameras in a 1 km radius of the school for culprits who parked elsewhere. Teachers patrolled outside gates after school ended, and reported girls leaving ‘suspiciously’ (My brother was assumed to be my boyfriend when he came to pick me up).
But this isn’t a rant about school culture, we are all aware of how that plays out. The culture of character judgement, and most importantly curbing the liberty of teenage girls old enough to make their decisions, suffocated my ambitions. It took away my agency and imbibed in me a sense of shame for talking to a boy anywhere near school premises. A bright student, top at my grades, yet a boy-scare was all I was eventually thinking about. Nuns would monitor us every moment at an interschool fest, lest we interact with boys. My school life created a necessity to build a genderless space, where roles were not defined, where acts of self-expression were not maligned, where girls had as much agency as everyone else, where knowledge and talent was valued much more than avoiding a romantic engagement between consenting individuals.
The Second Necessity: Homophobia
I sometimes joke that having only girls around you will eventually make you fall in love with one. I have been in love with women, dated them too, but my process of coming out as a bisexual was not a natural one at all.
One would think an all-girls institution would be used to strong female friendships, to girls clinging on to each other and sharing hugs in public. But my coming out was made a 10th grade staff teacher’s meeting subject, when one day after school ended, a teacher illegitimately confiscated a letter I had written to my best friend on her birthday. Sure, the letter had number of ‘I love you’s, shared between friends who deeply cared for each other, but the next day in school we were interrogated for all “acts of secret intimacy” we had been involved in. We were monitored everyday in recess, reproached for holding hands, and never allowed to sit together again. Soon I became a bigoted Indian school administration’s token lesbian to assert their homophobia. The worst part is: I was so passionate about defeating that allegation, so sincere about ridding myself of the tag of a homosexual back then, that when later in life I actually fell in love with a woman it made me feel only shame. Homophobia from a school administration is the only coming out story I have, and this shame became my second necessity- to build a space where love was the only test to pass; not boy, not girl, just love.
The Third Necessity: A Political Silence
I went to University of Delhi for Bachelors, at a college which was unaffiliated to Delhi University Students Union (DUSU). This meant no campaigning on our campus, no political rallies, no ABVP or NSUI presence. This was great for student life, but fared very poorly for our political environment. It was 2014, and educational institutions around us were being invaded for liberty. The student community decried the establishment, but our college was a cocoon. Once, after a ‘political’ streetplay on the issue of JNU, the administration had to come out and declare that we are ‘politically unaffiliated’.
My college was a beautiful place, a truly meaningful academic experience, but we were creating a cohort out of political silence. Not finding the mobilization to assert my political self created the third necessity: To build a space that could help people rage, deliberate and discuss their political self-expression. Because silence is a politically motivated act too.
The Fourth Necessity: Barbie Doll Syndrome
I moved to Delhi for college to escape a narrow-mindedness in my hometown, to regain my agency and re-assert my liberty in a genderless fashion. But waiting, at this juncture of life for me, was puberty. And with it, came what I call the Barbie Doll Syndrome.
The theory is that a woman will be both objectified and censored. It is perhaps the biggest irony to a woman’s life, that her short dress will never be seen as just a short dress. On one side are the women in her family telling her to cover up, limit skin-show, ‘safeguard’ character. But once she fights that to assert her liberty of, in fact, wearing that short dress, the other side awaits her with the “nice butt”, “what’s your size” comments. This is the side that talks of her body as the only representation of her. And when the woman finally learns that her short dress was, in fact, a prop for both these sides to pull her strings, she feels like a Barbie doll: Dressed to please others, no matter what she wears.
This constant tussle between censorship and objectification is how I arrived at the fourth necessity: A space that looks through my dress to look at me. Where I do not let Victoria keep it my secret anymore.
All of the necessities in my life demanded action, but more than that they demanded a safe space for self-expression. It is a curious thing, but perhaps self-expression validates our need for action. It makes the urgency to act much stronger, by publicly calling out the problem in our lives. It makes us want to be stronger for an audience that respected our story by giving their ears to it.
I first heard about Spoken Word Poetry in 2014, and started practicing it at a college fest in September of 2015. My first poem was about dismissing labels, presenting myself as a woman of many contradictions. With time, I learned how to be more and more vulnerable to an audience. I learned that telling people your story is often an act of doing them a service- it is a way of saying they are not alone.
My poems touched the contours of mental health through a poem called High Functioning Depression. From the necessity of fighting objectification came my second poem: In Which I Resurrect Wonder Woman. To fight my institution’s political silence on the ABVP attack on Ramjas College as well as student protests in general, I wrote the poem Songs of Dissent. I wrote about dehumanization in public organizations through a poem called In The Government. I called out sexism in K-serials through my poem Dear Ekta Kapoor.
I have always believed that the first step to ending oppression is to make your oppressors listen to you. That is what spoken word poetry does for me: It makes my oppressors take a seat, and listen to me. In the countless performances I have had the honour of doing, there is always an audience member who believes differently from me, and an audience member who never knew what spoken word poetry was. Each time I speak directly to both these audience members, I try to create what I call a metanoia point. Metanoia refers to a spiritual change in the way one views life; a poem has the power to be a metanoia point for someone.
Through my work, I speak to oppressors and victims alike. I try to combat the lack of agency, by encouraging victims to take the mic and speak up. I try to combat homophobia through unapologetic poems about my queerness, kicking the closet shut. I combat political silence, by performing political poetry at events of ‘politically unaffiliated’ spaces. I combat the Barbie Doll syndrome by letting words speak louder than my dress.
Perhaps it is remarkable that an art form I did not know existed until four years ago has today transformed not only me but those around me. Over the years, I have seen my poems help students rage, help people talk about their own high functioning depression, provide young women the language to fight for their agency over their bodies. And while spoken word poetry may not be the invention to the necessities of everyone’s life, it will always offer them a safe space to live with those necessities unsatiated. It will offer them language to understand their necessities.
If you remember that the personal is political, that your story has the power to ignite a fire, you will never feel the loneliness oppression can bring with it. There are other ways to silently battle oppression, but none as powerful as giving a language to others who will be faced with the same fight. Because if my story has any moral at all, it is that with a little courage, a little creativity, and lots of words, you have the power to change countless lives- starting with your own.
Diksha Bijlani is a former Legislative Assistant to Member of Parliament (LAMP) Fellow, a graduate in Applied Psychology from Gargi College, Delhi University, and a student of Masters in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.