The word freedom has never fully revealed itself to me. When we were kids, the day off from school, or a my dad having time to take us kids for a round around the city, or my mother looking happy about not having to cook a meal because we were invited elsewhere seemed akin to what might be freedom. Before even all that stories of ‘freedom fighters’ became staple among us via grandma’s tales — among stories of mythology and folklore — and school books that carried solemn titles.
My grandfather was an employee under the Assam Government before even Assam became exclusively India. That was when we were ‘free’, we were told. For three-generation Bengalis in Assam who had seen marriages into a medley of castes and tribes and religions, making the present hybrid, freedom also meant when the Assamese “O mur apunar dex” and the Bengali “O amar desher maati” would equally choke up my father, he who loved his affinity with the Internationale equally, if not more than the Bolshevik marching song “Through the winter’s cold and famine”. Freedom, my father showed us, came as much via books like Ten Days That Shook the World as from Lokayata or Pather Panchali. We just had to let our thoughts roam.
Today I read and write poetry, a ‘profession’ much mystified but not popularized as a practical option. The freedom that poetry renders to a mind therefore remains unexplored. We go in the quest of a job. I take to teaching part time and holding workshops to feel I can become better equipped to show the path to freedom to my students and colleagues. In the process, I lose my freedom to concerns related to life and living (yes, bills and forms). Also, price of poetry books and other books that a bank balance will sufficiently support. Then these are mundane issues!
Since I mentioned poetry, I still want to make it clear that the idea of freedom — which capitalism is hell bent on killing despite book publishing surging ahead in India currently — is what keeps the morale high for a lot of us in these strange dark times.
Publisher and poet Manu Dash harked back to this idea when recently I picked up his book A Brief History of Silence. Remembering Irom Chanu Sharmila, he wrote:
What symbol will this day carry
when the narrative walks barefoot
Sharmila has been, for those of us from the Northeast of India and elsewhere, a staunch symbol of freedom and dissent, almost a part of lore now. She is an era, a living one, as poetry proves.
Kashmir is under siege and even naysayers know how terrible this move is, to confine a whole people, to kettle them, and the deny them of all rights. This is when freedom starts to show its terrible beauty and yearning for the vast. Huzaifa Pandit, a young Kashmiri poet and scholar, probably had the premonition before the clampdown ocurred– I’m told almost all Kashmiris had premonitions — in his translation of Faiz.
Then, the world snatched from you
this chalice, and smashed it on the floor.
I remember once this friend of my father and Communist old guard Prafulla Mishra from Shillong was visiting us in Guwahati. He sat on a cane ‘mudha’ in the morning, meticulously placing a rectangular mirror with a stand on a precarious old wooden table (my brother and I used to play with it, batter it and hammer it), and dipping a frothy brush in soapy water in a small cup our mother provided him, went on to foam up his cheeks before swiping with a razor (the blade had to be inserted and later taken out wiped and stored in a tiny cover for re-use). He was the first person perhaps in my memory to tell us caste-stories, stories of hierarchical discriminations that the Hindu society permits even now. Out of those stories the one that stood out most was the one about a war where new military recruits ride cows to go fight. This is because the opponent wouldn’t risk killing a cow while the soldiers astride them could keep shooting arrows or wield swords at the enemy. After the war, most of these men demanded to be called Brahmins because they have been riding a cow. Strange logic, and even stranger outcome where the new Brahmins pitted themselves socially against the older ones. According to Mishra, himself an Assamese Brahmin, this was one of the small ways Brahminical hegemony was challenged. But nothing significant was changed as the old order continued anyway. Freedom from caste oppression wasn’t spoken about openly in our formative years in Assam although caste was served mixed in subtle social behavior.
This has led me to observe the idea of freedom everywhere possible. The way people ritually wash their hands and feet, the way they touch their own or others’ utensils, they way they drink water at home and outside, they way they stand apart to avoid touch, or even the way they ask: ‘so what do you think of Kashmir’ — it all reverberates like the clang of broken china pieces. And I remember what Sahana Mukherjee writes in her book August Ache:
This city we’re seeking, lalla — at the end of the road?
Porcelain faces there —
drop them and break them.
There’s nothing more
This ties back to the earliest songs in my memory — ki naam di maatim tumak (what name shall I call you) on Guwahati radio station. The seeds of love and longing were being planted right then, with little knowledge that the country we have inherited with many post offices does not always endorse free love and longing. As Sufia Khatoon writes in Death in the Holy Month:
Believe that my skin smells of uprooted longings —
The perception is that India is free, a young nation with volatile mores. But countless girls are lost to longing in this free country as they only know physical violence, rapes, and ignominy. A teeming number becomes official papers and petitions and complaints. They are known as Asifa or Nirbhaya or Suzette Jordan, and then simply as the Unnao girl, or the nameless women of the borderlands we so desperately want to consecrate as “our land” while desecrating the space of female bodies and desires.
Well, uprooted can be freedom too, I’ve learnt as a young student, as a street theater activist, as a writer, and as someone who’s yet to learn how to detach ‘dependence’ from the ‘in’ that forms the grandstanding of that nationalistic word. Slowly I’m feeling myself de-categorized — to questions such as ‘are you Bengali or Assamese’, ‘do you eat beef or pork’, ‘why do you write in English’, and so on and so forth.
Mostly confined to work and my own little space at home, I often look out at the not-so-faraway Maula Ali — the koh-e-Ali — in the southeastern horizon of where I am in Hyderabad. Next to it is the great sky. Great because I’m lucky no developer has come to build a structure in the piece of land that my balcony overlooks. Every mood of the sky, is still relatively free in my canvas. From there I imagine freedom in all languages.
In his Book of Prayers, Dibyajyoti Sarma puts forth a prayer:
My god is a drunk god, who not only
listens but also speaks, not in dead verses
but in slangs picked up from the streets
That is how I let my freedom amble on — in the streets, in the drunken brawls of strangers, in love’s momentary glimpses, in slangs that unhinge language. Freedom is no stone god, freedom is only the human flesh mingling with the nature around her. Freedom must speak. It must speak itself.
Nabina Das is a renowned Indian poet with three collections to her credit, viz Blue Vessel, Into the Migrant City and Sanskarnama.