July 2018: My artistic manifesto.
I’m half-a-book old (less, if I’m being honest). I started reading for Why Indian Men Rape—a multimedia gender journalism and activism project spanning two books, a documentary and a blog—in 2013, but working on it actively since last year. It’s been a challenge on every front—from the funding for my research, to identifying and going undercover with my subjects, and the writing. Almost every day, particularly after nightmare-filled nights where I cry, blabber and thrash about (if I manage to sleep at all), I lament about why I couldn’t have chosen an easier first book.
So when I had a humbling conversation with someone who works in the gender-violence space a few months ago, I was quite shaken initially. In essence, she said: We know all there is to know about rape; what do you think your books are going to do?
“Well, for one, I wouldn’t presume the limits of our knowledge,” I replied, thinking on my feet. “More importantly, while the conversation about rape may be nuanced and evolved among academics, that’s not the case for most people. Maybe my project will broaden the discourse.” And maybe that’s all my blood, sweat and tears for all these years will amount to—nothing new, just bridging the gap.
Not that that would be a small feat in itself. ‘To make the important interesting’ was legendary Outlook editor Vinod Mehta’s mantra, as it has been mine since I started my non-fiction writing career over 10 years ago. I’d like to make my readers see what they hadn’t, and inspire them to think, examine, question, grow.
Take, for instance, our experience in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light area the other night. My last subject was a regular, and I was eager to visit. My spouse, Sahil, and my friend, Ajay, who is intimately familiar with the place, volunteered to take me. (Before you get ideas, ha, I must clarify that Ajay’s worked there as a doctor of public health.) A bunch of policemen noticed us when we got off the taxi past midnight; as we were preparing to leave an hour later, two of them intercepted us. We were expecting this.
To the boys: Why have you got her here? Who is she to you? Why did you take her to that all-male bar? We just gave the owner a dressing down.
To me: Have you been brought here on the promise of a movie role? It is an unsafe area. What if a drug addict had attacked you? Why couldn’t you come in the daytime? We’ve been following you all along. Go home!
Around us were lakhs of women treated worst than chattel, the worst of human suffering. And yet, here the cops were, protecting me, a (recognisably) high-class woman. Ironic. Or not. Privilege is invisible to those who have it. Do we realise just how many spaces are inaccessible to us women? Was the suffering of other people around me less than mine? Was it because my taxes pay the cops’ salaries? It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
But I’m making a broader point. Even when my writing doesn’t live up to some ambitious ideals (it’s often crap), even if your art has none (and that’s perfectly all right too), it’s your art, your expression. Just do it. Do it for yourself, for your voice from within. People will question it, who-what-when-why-how? They will process it through their own lenses. Find your balance. Be open to feedback, to growth. But stay true, stay convinced. It won’t be easy, and I admit to leaning heavily on my circle of supporters-not-sycophants in the face of trolls. In the words of Margaret Atwood: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don't let the bastards grind you down.”
Because the purpose of art is all the lofty things critics say it should be—to communicate, to elevate, to stimulate. What is often overlooked is the self-actualisation and happiness the act of creation creates in the creator, and the value of such individuals in society. The purpose of your art is personal.
This article appeared on Kalampedia in July 2018.