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Opinion | Daring to respond with love

Stories must be told even if we find ourselves unable to package them into shiny narratives

We need empathy and openness to connect to the stories of victims beyond the tragedy that has befallen them. Photo: Natasha Badhwar
We need empathy and openness to connect to the stories of victims beyond the tragedy that has befallen them. Photo: Natasha Badhwar

I lost my voice as soon as I went up on the stage to introduce the book, Reconciliation—Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey Of Solidarity Through A Wounded India. It was the day of its formal launch at the Indian Social Institute in Delhi last week and as one of the co-editors, it was my role to compere the event. As I spoke, I cleared my throat repeatedly, but I continued to sound raspy. Two people interrupted to offer me water. I kept speaking, hoping that my usual stage voice would return. It didn’t. It got worse.

Thankfully, I had written down everything I wanted to say in full sentences. Perhaps I had anticipated that I would need the support of a printout to read from as I spoke about a year-long journey that I have been part of and the book that documented the stories of the people we had met.

As I stood on stage, I felt that my voice had stayed back on the seat in the corner of the front row. I went out and had a cup of tea to try to revive my voice. I even stepped out of the building to speak loudly and see if I could coax my voice to make a comeback. A few days later, it occurred to me that perhaps it was pent-up tears that had come in the way. Or untold stories.

As a volunteer with the Karwan e Mohabbat for the past year, I have been travelling across India with a group of people led by Harsh Mander to meet families who have been victims of hate violence. We have heard and documented stories of gruesome violence and of unthinkable brutality targeted towards members of marginalized and minority communities. Because the needs of the survivors for livelihood and legal aid are so urgent, all the energies of our group are most often concentrated on trying to provide immediate relief.

The journey now continues into its next year. Many of these stories have become part of a book now. Yet there are many parallel moments and anecdotes of connections that got left out too.

In a home in Mangaluru, Karnataka, we sat in a drawing room entirely decorated with trophies won by the sons of the family in various cricket tournaments. We had gone to their home to mourn the death of their father and help them pursue justice. Yet it was also a home of infants and toddlers. I took photos of the sports trophies, as the brothers looked anew at these symbols of a phase in their life that they hadn’t thought about for a while. The air hung heavy with loss and bewilderment, but when we spoke of cricket, there was also relief and pride. Life sneaks back in through the shafts and crevices.

We visited a home twice in a village near Shamli, Uttar Pradesh, to support them with legal aid. The family’s young son had died in police custody, his body exhumed to conduct a second autopsy and yet the family had not even received a copy of the postmortem report.

The daughters-in-law of the family took me to a room that can safely be called the dowry room. Two of the walls had brand new utensils and dinner sets on shelves from the floor to ceiling. There were new beds, a refrigerator and trunks full of handmade blankets, bedsheets and table covers. Two of the beds had extraordinary geometric patterns woven from coloured nylon strings. The women offered me tea and giggled when I said it was too sweet and too milky.

“Never mind," they said, “now we have made it. You have travelled from far. It is good for you."

As I stared at the droplets of butter on the surface of the tea, one of the women asked me what I had done to stop having children. I gulped and tried to act nonchalant. “Nothing," I said, hoping the awkward moment would pass.

“Come on," she said. “Tell us, did you get an operation done? What do you use to not get pregnant? I’m really scared of getting a procedure."

I have made films on maternal health strategies and conducted workshops on communications about contraception and reproductive health. Yet here I was, tongue-tied and blushing.

“Why don’t you wear any jewellery? Does your husband not earn enough money? Do you have any cattle at home? Do you have your own kheti, your own piece of land to farm on?" they asked, wanting to know what my life was like. I had walked into their personal space and they were walking into mine. We were not separate from each other for a while.

I have made the same journeys from my city to scenes of massacres, riots and crimes as a video-journalist before. Our job was to bring back footage and stories that had to be packaged into neat news formats. We were trained to stay detached. Only feel enough to make our voice-overs seem authentic. The boundaries between our professional and personal selves were supposed to be sharp. No need for empathy or even kindness. We were answerable only to those who paid us salaries.

Yet, when Mander had asked in his crowdfunding appeal—“How culpable are we when our brothers and sisters are burned and lynched and we stand by?"—the question had resonated deeply. I knew that I wanted to go beyond online outrage and armchair resistance, even if it raised more questions immediately and demanded tenacity to find the answers.

“I’m not neutral. I’m a bad journalist." John Dayal, a veteran journalist and a member of the Karwan e Mohabbat, often repeats this line to express his solidarity towards those who have been victimized.

Unlike Dayal, I don’t have the confidence to make this bitter joke. I am certain though, that I need to step out of my own personal boundaries and challenge the self-imposed limits on my own power as a person.

Can I build the emotional stamina to stay with the tragedy and its aftermath on the family on whom it befalls? Do I have the commitment to feel someone else’s pain? Do I dare to respond to the world with my whole self, taking the risk to uncover my own incapabilities?

For now, I do know that the journey of the Karwan will continue to empower those isolated by hatred and exclusion. As the book launch event progressed, I stopped feeling embarrassed about the loss of my voice. Surely the lesson was that the stories must be told even if we find ourselves unable to package them into shiny narratives. When dreams are shattered and reality is fractured, it might be necessary for the voice to break.

Natasha Badhwar is the author of the book My Daughters’ Mum, and co-editor of Reconciliation—Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey Of Solidarity Through A Wounded India.

She tweets at @natashabadhwar

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