On 20 February this year, the eighth-grade students of East Horizon English Higher Secondary School in Jhapa found their language teacher, Rekha Ma’am, seated amongst them. That day, our team of four weary Word Warriors was taking on her role. After 16 long hours on a night bus from Kathmandu, we decided to throw our regular workshop structure out of the window.
It’s a challenge to break kids out of the routine of spouting the “correct” answers, even in a creative workshop. I often come across evidence of creativity squashed under the regimen of “discipline”. In an exercise listing the things they don’t like, students will often list the “teacher’s cane” and “dusters on the backs of our hands”.
Most of my visits to schools to conduct poetry workshops leave me frustrated with our education system. I am used to teachers using our workshops as an excuse to slink off. Having once worked as a full-time teacher myself, I do not begrudge them their rest. But some encounters remind me to keep trying to make a difference in the ways I know how. Rekha Ma’am was an absolute breath of fresh air! She listened to her students, smiling gently at their responses and providing her own input and encouragement. She was easygoing with her students and they responded to her. I could tell that they adored her.
Malashree Suvedi, Sarju Shrestha, Nawaraj Parajuli and I were in Jhapa representing the Word Warriors, a spoken word poetry group, at the second edition of the Kala-Sahitya Utsav. This art and literature festival was a 3-day affair, and we took the opportunity to also conduct workshops in schools – introducing students to poetry and writing while encouraging creative thinking, empathy and critical thinking.
Later that day, we attended a dinner with all the literary figures who were invited to the Festival and were surprised to walk into a room full of men. Some of them were visibly uneasy at the sight of women in the company of “intelligent” people and looked past us, addressing the men in our team for all linguistic purposes. As the evening progressed, only one other woman, Seema Avas, made it into the room. She almost looked at ease among these men, having made a place for herself in Nepal’s literary world. We involuntarily singled her out, as she probably did as well when she came and introduced herself. During the course of the festival, we came across only one other woman writer, Anbika Giri, who’d been officially invited by the organizers.
The Festival started the next day and we tried to sit in as many of the sessions as we could. The rest of the time, we were busy with our workshops. At the venue, the live painting and art/photo exhibition was a refreshing change from the heated discussions going on inside the hall. The debates surprised me. The few times they were not about progressive politics, they were made political. Some of the moderators asked the panelists repetitive and even unintelligent questions. They adopted tones intent on creating polarities where none had to be present. The panelists, however, replied with all the grace and diplomacy that writers and artists are capable of. I guess I had been spoilt by the environment our own spoken word community is intent on fostering, where criticism comes with a healthy dose of encouragement, sans personal attacks.
During these discussions, Malashree and I were like naughty, fidgety kids in class. As part of a personal project, she had been writing love haikus and leaving them in public places. So we started writing on notes as responses to the talks and sticking them to the chairs in front of us. On a discussion on whether poetry is simply a hobby or has more to do with social issues, Malashree wrote a few words which I arranged into a haiku:
न रहर न त
विचार कविता, मात्र
I only got to sit in for one session featuring the two women writers. In a session on politics in writing, all the questions Seema Avas got asked had “as a woman writer” attached to it. Judging by her articulate responses, it sounded like she had been doing this for a long time. While talking about how women are represented in Nepali literature, she called out male writers who almost always used them as sex objects, and spoke of how women’s sexuality is repressed even in writing. While I enjoyed that session and would have preferred to have attended other sessions with women panelists before making a judgement, the talk left me feeling that if there weren’t gender issues to talk of, even the women who were present would not have been there. Inspired by Seema Avas, I wrote:
Thoughts stolen from minds,
chaotic, behind faces
trained to be passive.
While a discussion on nationalism was going on, Malashree wrote:
नेपाल देश हाम्रो
सुन्दर, शान्त, विशाल छ,
अ, केवल त्यति
Malashree wrote under her pen name, Miss Murakami, and I too found a pen name, 2000 ohms, for myself:
I am resistance,
two thousand ohms worth of God,
not yours, but myself.
Over the course of the next two days, we reached out to students from grades seven to ten from six schools at two venues. We were quite overwhelmed by the sheer number of students at the first of these venues, where miscommunication had resulted in about 40 students pouring in from one school. Not to be outdone, a teacher from the host school then wanted to add students from another grade to our workshop. We ended up ditching our pre-planned structure once again and splitting the students into four slightly uneven groups of 30, each of us leading a workshop on our own.
Learning from this experience, we decided to take a more proactive approach and take some of the load off the already very busy festival organizers. We tried our very best to communicate with schools what we required for a productive and organized workshop. Thankfully, the next workshop was a lot more organized and less stressful. Some of the students from our workshops even came out to cheer for us during our performance at the festival venue. They proved to be our saving grace, faced with a crowd that had to be coaxed into clapping and silenced by going into teacher-mode. We walked off stage to people appreciative of this art form; our performance had had just the right mix of feminism and atheism to tickle our audience of “progressive thinkers”.
One such “progressive thinker” had gone on just before us for a lengthy speech. He took it upon himself to intercept the female members of our team on our way out and recited a poem to us and a crowd of people around us. The gist of the poem, as he himself put it, was to “become a traditional woman”. I was flabbergasted and stunned into silence that this man, who holds an economics degree, is a teacher and has a political legacy, would say something like that. Malashree, however, wasn’t having any of it. She promptly replied, “आखिरमा श्री कृष्ण रहेछन् झूट भनेर मैले कवितामा भनि सके, बाकी आफै बुझ्नुहोला।” (I’ve said in my poem that God is untrue, you can judge the rest for yourself.) If it weren’t for her snarky reply, I would have been beating myself up over not having said anything. But he still saw fit to dictate, at a later meeting, that I should give myself four to five years before I got married, after asking my age.
In that stream of blatant sexism, the lack of female speakers at the Festival echoed throughout our stay in Jhapa. My expectation of female representation in the festival, or anywhere else, is not like the recent surge of “mahila seat” in public transport – representation for the sake of representation. It stems out of my knowledge of the existence of wonderful, intelligent women and marginalized people who are capable of making a huge difference. I am not discounting the organisers of the festival – I saw the hard work and effort they put into bringing the festival together. I only hope to see a wider variety of people the next time I sneak my way into a literature festival.