Paromita Bardoloi is an Independent writer and a theater activist. Her writings over the years have been published in many national websites and magazines, including Huffington Post, National Geographic, Women’s Web, YourStory, Bonobology, Femina , The Quint, Complete Wellbeing and so on. Her writings have mostly dealt with women empowerment. She strongly believes it’s not only laws or education that can empower our women. Empowerment is an inner process that includes self love and self esteem. Over the years, many women have benefited from them. And her work continues to create an equal better India. She has also been invited to be part of panel discussions and guest lectures.
This Interview was conducted via email.
A: Thank you so much, Ms Bardoloi, for agreeing to answer some questions that I always wanted to ask since I met you at your storytelling workshop at Wall Street, Ludhiana. Why story telling as a medium of expression?
P:Because it’s so much fun. The thing with verbal story telling is that, it’s the least expensive mode of entertainment. You just need yourself and an audience. And as a storyteller I know, my hero can be a villain in someone else’s story. Human beings are all grey by nature. And stories give me that license to explore those dark shades.
Most importantly, I think story telling liberated me from my own agonies. I realized it a year and half ago, that each time I told my personal stories in front of an audience I gave myself permission to heal and find acceptance. I think when strangers accept your stories; it gives you a new perspective that you are not alone with your human agonies. That acceptance and sharing finally leads you to your freedom. I believe more than I choosing storytelling, storytelling chose me. It happened in a spur of the moment and stayed on.
A: Does your north-east background influence your stories, or do you write stories with emphasis on North India to connect with the audience? Tell us about your growing up years and then your journey to Delhi.
P: I was born and brought up, in Rupai Siding. It is a very small town in Assam close to Arunachal Pradesh. Now sitting in Delhi and doing this interview, my own town seems like a whiff of air which has hardly anything to do with the outer world. It’s so small and so far that it feels like a dream when I walk the realities of life. I was raised in a joint family in this sleepy town. There was nothing exceptional about it. Everyday seems like the other day. There was one English medium school, then. I was sent there. My sisters’ also went there. My cousins too. And every kid we knew went there. The funniest thing was, on the day of my admission, it was mandatory that parents went with the child and there was a small interview. My grandparents went with me. My grandfather had no clue about how to speak English. So, my grandparents took me to school and when the headmistress who was a Nun asked me to say the alphabets I refused to go beyond the alphabet D, because I was feeling bored and wanted to play outside with my cousin. I just did not like the fact that she was questioning me in a closed room, with my grandparents just looking at me, who did not understand a word in English. My grandfather stood up and said in Assamese that I have come to school to learn and not to know everything beforehand, so I should be admitted without too many questions. There was a teacher standing next to me who understood Assamese. She translated it to the headmistress. She laughed and I was admitted to school. Of course those were easier times. The Internet or mobile phones were unknown. Our lives revolved around grandparents, lots and lots of relatives, cousins and incidentally parents were the last in the list. In those days children were raised by the huge family. Not only by parents. Our father had a grey ambassador. And we had a red telephone. The only luxuries we had. Dad came home at 4 pm. Only if he dropped to buy something, it was 5 pm. 10 pm we slept.
And those days, anyone can drop in anytime and live in our house for months. I have very faint memories of people, who would just stay with us. I don’t know, why people stayed, but they did and no one asked them to leave. Any afternoon you can hear, Maa telling our house help to put more water in the dal, because some guest have arrived and we needed to serve him/her lunch. So, there was nothing like family time. You sat for dinner, lunch or chaai there were always faces I did not know much about. That was the way life was. I was not a bright student. I had a tuition teacher. I once beat him up too. Because I was sleepy and he was teaching me Mathematics. I nailed his skin off. My mother was so worried that she thought that I won’t be able to do much in the world. She had a heartbreak that I beat up my teacher because I was sleepy. I still remember after my teacher left, my mother sat me down and said, “Why are you like this Pompi (Pompi is my nickname)? You don’t study. You don’t talk at all. You refuse to reply to any guest. You sleep walk through school. You participate in no activity. All you do is play in the sand with your cousin or stare at the TV (Our house was being extended so, there was a lot of sand around, for years). What do I do with you? I showed no reaction. The moment she looked the other way, I jumped out of the chair and went to play. My mother must have cried post that. But nothing affected me. I was happy throwing sand at my cousin who was 2 years old.
On Sundays I would wake up around 11 am. The whole household would have finished half their day by then. I would just wake up. Switch on the TV and stare at the screen no matter what appeared. Maa would scream so that I brush my teeth. I had a blue toothbrush. I would take it in my hand and sit for an hour without brushing. Dad would come and try to intimidate me and be angry. I would still be unaffected. I would often ask both my parents to just keep quiet because their voices were disturbing the show I was watching. They would leave it there. May be they felt deeply frustrated and also love deeply. Not knowing what to do, because I only reacted to the TV or to my cousins on the play ground, rest I would sleep walk. I would sit on the bed, with my socks until someone belted my shoes. I would be so late that no one would argue but rush me off. But I loved the Sunlight that fell on my face as Dad drove us to school. That was the most beautiful Sunlight I have known. Two best things I remember of my childhood is the smell of my father and the Sun on my face. Both felt warm and I felt safe. And yes! I must have been 8 years old then, we had a fish that died, I organized a long funeral of the fish with my cousins, with flowers and prayers. My parents just watched saying absolutely nothing. As long as I was not sick, and passed from one class to another, there was truce. And behind closed doors everyone thought that I was born with lesser intelligence. I would just stare at people when they asked my name. You can ask me in 100 ways, with chocolates. I will take the chocolate yet refuse to speak a word. My sisters were brilliant. They would dance, talk, recite and sing. Everyone felt proud. I would just sit next to them. But they were protective. They would not let people nudge me too much. They would stand before me and perform in front of guest; I would peacefully eat what was served. That was in nutshell, who I was in another lifetime. And I can go on with many such stories. It was accepted in my house that I had some mental conditions that made me just stand and stare and do nothing much. But that was my gift. No one expected anything out of me. I could see, feel and relate to the world the way I wanted. Without any expectations, my inner world kept evolving without anyone having an ilk of the fact that clusters of stars were bursting and new galaxies were making a way. I had a lot of benefit of everything thinking that I was good for nothing. All that I absorbed in nature, in those long afternoons staring at nowhere or running in the fields nurtured my soul, and now through those memories and nourishment I write/speak now. My readers and listeners always say that my writings are immensely relatable and it feels very healing. The thing is that I still write through the eyes of that little girl who would stare through infinity and run with the wind. My greatest achievement in life is that I never let that girl die and I fiercely protect my inner world. That is where my God stays and nobody is allowed to taint it.
I came to Delhi to do my graduation from Miranda House, University of Delhi. Since then I am here. It’s more than a decade. Delhi was difficult in its own way. It was a difficult lover. But I know her very well now. That I fell in love with her. Delhi in return gave me a lot. Assam nurtured a soul. Delhi gave it a voice. Whatever I am today, I owe it to the amazing opportunity this city offers me each day. I am immensely grateful for everything.
Now as a storyteller, I don’t consciously bring Northeast in my stories, but I think it’s so seeped within me, that no matter where and how I stood, the green fields and the love of my ancestors showed up. This life is such a gift. I am so grateful for it.
A: What do you think is your duty as a female storyteller and as a feminist?
P: The only duty I think as a woman storyteller or as a feminist I have is to tell our truths. For centuries, men wrote about women mainly. We were either worshiped or slut shamed. The eco system thrives on women’s silence. And now that we have a chance at telling our stories, we need to speak our truths. Men and women cruise through life differently. I believe my responsibility as a writer/storyteller is to tell my truth, which becomes the collective truth. For example a man might romanticize stalking a woman as love, which over a period of time has become acceptable. But now as a woman I tell what’s it feels to be that girl being chased. History is often silent about the one who is chased. It’s time the chased tells her story.
To tell my truth as a woman is my primary responsibility.
A: As the feminist movement is gaining momentum in India, what do you think is in store for future female storytellers?
P: The future is female. Mark my words. More and more women storytellers with emerge, especially with the advent of the digital media more and more women will share their truths. The #MeToo movement is an uprising that has come from ordinary women telling their stories. I see a future where a lot more stories from everyday women are coming. The world for the longest time has been dominated, owned and dictated by men. And through telling our stories as women, we are finally trying to tell, that we as women matter and we have our own stories that does not always have to be defined by men. I can only say more and more power to every woman making her voice heard. No matter how small, it all adds to our cumulative history. And that history matters.
A: You have co-founded a street theater group by the name of Aatish. How did the idea come about? What issues does Aatish raise and how is it different from a conventional theater group?
P: Aatish was formed by a few alumni of Miranda House, University of Delhi. They were all part of the Hindi Dramatic society, ‘Anukriti.’ I joined the team and it is five years hence. Of course, the best part about theater activism is that you can reach any part of the world with minimum or no props and talk to the audience through a play. It’s a great way to begin a conversation and spread awareness. So many times, the best response or solution has come from the audience. It is a great way, to bring in new ideas and form a new thought process.
Aatish has performed all over India, from a range of issues, which includes health, sanitation, education, gender equality and social justice.
A: How do you use your writing/storytelling and theater to bring about social change?
P: I started writing because I loved doing it. Over so many years, I realized how things can be changed by my art of either writing or storytelling. I have this simple theory. Doing one thing at a time. I write what disturbs or touches me. I have no agenda. I do it from my heart. And that I think connects with so many.
I also believe that if I consciously think that I am going to make a social change, the burden will be too much. I write my truth. The truth that I know at that given point. And if that brings a change, that’s a byproduct. I have never seen myself as an active change agent. I am an ordinary girl in pursuit of happiness. Everything else is a byproduct of that age old pursuit.
A: What inspired you to venture into feminism and what made you write specifically on issues related to women and their struggles?
P: I lost my granddaddy at 8 and Dad at 11. Post that Maa raised me. I have two elder sisters. So all my growing up years I have seen strong women in the house. Feminism is not what I ventured in; it was something I lived even when I was not aware of the term. I write about women because I know that world. I studied in Miranda House. It was a girl’s college, so I got to know about gender as politics in my course too. I write what I see around. I write about a world I am comfortable in. The women’s world is what I have been exposed very early in life and I write about it. It was never a conscious decision.
I am often asked, why I write or tell the stories that I do. In all honestly, I don’t know. I say what feels natural to me. As Lady Gaga would sing, “Born this way.” I am born with a brain that is wired in a certain way. And I function accordingly. Over the years, I have learnt to love the way I am. I know, I don’t function the way many others do. But I think this difference is what makes me who I am. I am overtly sensitive and thoughtful. I fought that trait for the longest time. But the same traits when I accepted made me who I am. Had it not been for those traits, I would not have been here. The trick is to celebrate yourself, the world joins in.
To every little girl or boy or anyone out there, who feels they don’t belong to any conventions or feels weird, just look into the mirror and say, “I am born this way. I am beautiful.” The miracles begin post that. Trust me on that.
A: Women today have very limited platforms to tell their stories without being judged. How can we improve this situation?
P: Look, no matter which platform you are in, there will be haters. Social media is a two sided sword. Yes, it gives you freedom to tell your stories, but the troll army can make you go crazy. To improve the situation you need to keep telling your truth and support the ones who are telling their’s. We as women are conditioned to seek approval from men. The truth is let’s first support our own gender, men will follow suit. We talk about our truths and support another woman who does the same. That will heal the gaps and mend the broken system.
A: At last, what advice do you have for all the young writers trying to make it big in the world of Art and Literature?
P: Please don’t run after fame. Read, write, read and write more. Become a better writer not a social media influencer. Once you are a good writer, the invites and photos and readers and the compliments follow. Read a lot. Write a lot. There is no short cut to this.