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The Pen As Flight Towards Dreams And Liberation

What an exhilarating two days I spent in April! It was hot and sweaty, the traffic of noise and carbon monoxide were exhausting – yet, the two days I spent in a faraway suburb of Bombay city revitalised me. I was planting the seed to a long-held dream: of conducting a creative writing workshop for semi-literate girls, and thereby showing them the power of the pen, the catharsis derived from the ink-filled syringe, the flight to their imagination and dreams. The idea of this workshop – and sowing this seed around the world – has been on my mind since few years, but it wasn't until I was beginning to wonder if I was really pursuing my passions that I set out onto working for it. As it turns out, like most things, the ideas came pouring and before long I knew where to start.

The workshop was conducted with Awaz-E-Niswaan, which means 'Voice of Women' (, an organisation that is run primarily towards supporting Muslim women. I had previously worked with them, in documenting a photography project that was being conducted for Muslim women who were victims of domestic violence. I had seen up close how the camera had transformed the women, in ways I will describe another time. Since then, I had been keen on working with AEN again, bringing my pens and pencils, and showing the women and girls that, truly, this little mesh of plastic and metal and ink can take us to places beyond jannat.

AEN runs the Rehnuma Library in the suburb of Mumbra, which is a township that began to get populated in the aftermath of the 1992 riots in Bombay, when Muslims had to flee for their lives. Rehnuma Library was established with the aim of creating a space for young girls. I had no preconceived notions of what the space or the the participating girls would be like. I was only asked by Yasmin – the coordinator at AEN who was managing the workshop – if I ate non-vegetarian food, and soon I heard biryani being ordered for lunch. That was the only concrete bit about the workshop and I was already happy.

I was given a big room – noisy and airy – and therein sat 30 girls. ALL of them were the participants and I was fine with that number. I had carried along coloured sheets of paper for their exercises; I had studied a writing workshop called 'Ink-arcerated' that was conducted by Dr. Michele Lise Tarter ( for women prison inmates in the US. I had scribbled notes on the possible flow of the two days, but was mentally prepared to alter it. I knew I was catering to an audience whose minimum literacy level was until the eighth grade, and mostly in Urdu language. I was expecting the girls to write in Hindi and/or Urdu, but some of them asked, “Can we write in SMS-language?” I asked them what it was, and learnt that indeed, writing native words in the Roman alphabet like it is done while texting, had come a long way to be deemed a 'language'.

Emerging hour by hour from their shyness, what followed over the next two days blew my mind. The girls – almost all of them had come to the workshop space wearing burqa and later took those off – wrote eloquently about their lives, their imaginations, their perceptions of freedom, and their bodies. They wrote about mangoes flying and scooters swimming. They wrote about their friends (who were also participating in the workshop); they wrote about the beauty of their favourite colours. They wrote about their blessings and their challenges; they spun romantic, sad, mysterious, gripping, funny stories from a prompt that was given to them. They dreamt of their freedoms and they observed their own bodies, and it all spilled out on paper, in their three chosen languages.

There was some reading of Hindi texts on various topics, to initiate discussions on society and its control on our lives. One particular reading was about hands, and how four different women had previously written about their own hands in entirely different ways. These reading exercises helped the participants to think out of the box, and indeed, they brought in the clouds or took their words to the stars.

Towards the end of the first day, Yasmin and I were together convinced that what they girls wrote was powerful to be a book. So we took the idea to them the next day, and told them that this book would perhaps their way of showing to the world – whatever 'world' might be defined as – that they had a voice, and their voice was put down in print and posterity.

A few 17-year-olds were already married; one of them was contemplating running away from home few days before her impending marriage; another came crying the second day when her elder brother beat her for reaching home an hour late (at 6pm) the previous day; yet another felt she had the freedom to do whatever she desired even if her reality was that she was forced into a marriage with a much older man.

We asked the girls, towards the end of day 2, to submit all their write-ups, marking numbers, based on what they felt ranked as their best work. When Yasmin, and few other colleagues at AEN, and I sat down to read these texts, one by one, it had unanimously emerged that the write-ups on their perception of freedom, and the ones on their own body, were the most beautiful and dynamic, and gave a real glimpse into their lives. So that's what has been decided: to publish a book, with an essay by each of the 30 participants, on these two subjects. Some other essays that really shone through would also make it into the book. The essays are being typed in Hindi, and Urdu words are making it in there, while the vocabulary would be explained. We are scouting for a book cover designer, who would understand the essence of this workshop process and the essays being published, and create a cover (in black-and-white) to convey in images about what lies in those pages. I hope that by the end of May I would have the delight of a newly-bound book in my hands – a dream in my hand, the product of my faith in the dreams and aspirations of these girls.

Going forward, I want to create an organisation – modelled on some similar writing projects about which I have been reading – whereby I would take my box of papers and pens and ideas and essays, to women, younger and wiser alike, and give them the power of the pen, their own words, and imagination. Several worries pop up immediately: where should I go next? how would I sustain it? who would bear the cost of printing the books each time? how would I earn my bread-and-butter from this project, since this is indeed the chicken soup for my soul? how do I take this project internationally? how do I navigate through the beautiful chaos of languages and translation, throughout the workshops? will I be able to conduct similar workshops for a parallel audience that is capable of paying, and willing?

Questions abound, yet I am thoroughly excited that this dream has begun to grow its wings. But for now, I feel what can only be best described as a combination of thrill-happiness-peace-sukoon, that perhaps for the first time do I feel that, yes, writing can change someone's world; and I am glad I am engineering it so. I don't know if that girl will be able to resist her violent brother, or if the bride can successfully ditch a life of possible horror. But while reading/editing the texts with Yasmin, I came across the essay of freedom by one of the quietest girls, and towards the end of the page she attempted calligraphy: 'Thank you - Azadi ke baare mein poochne ke liye', which translates to 'thank you for asking me (to write) about freedom'. That brought tears to my eyes, the kind that comes from the joy when your instinct about your conviction about an idea overpowers all doubts.

South and Central Asia
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