I am staring at the Van Gogh Picture as the dawn breaks in a sleepy little university town called Shantiniketan. After being holed up for months at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic (and immunocompromised family members), I feel like I can breathe again. I experience a rather unfamiliar sound at midnight- the sound of a barking deer. The house I am staying in has a haunted tale of its own. Many years ago, Maloti, an accomplished dancer and academic, died by suicide here. The neighbours attribute it to a lovers' tiff. Out of curiosity, a fifteen year old me delved into research about this mythical and mysterious Maloti. Maloti was as beautiful as she was sophisticated, with razor- sharp wit. She cared very little for social niceties and turned heads, wherever she went. "She was a true artist", said one of her uncles when I met him. " A true artist misunderstood by the world." Those words left quite an impression on me- a young person chasing their own dreams. Unlike Maloti, I wasn't an accomplished artist- but a young person that harboured those dreams. Even daring to articulate those dreams would be met with ridicule, and sneery value judgements. Wanting to prove myself and ultimately being burdened with the weight of other people's expectations, trying to be true to myself and authentic and being cut short by people in positions of power. Wanting to break away and experience freedoms but knowing that fending for myself would involve taking the already trodden path. I had already experienced the disdain that artists were met with. I read of freedoms in books and watched it in movies, but I wondered if a life like that would be possible for me. Sunflowers fascinate me. The reason they do is because wherever the sun moves, the sunflower turns its head to face the sun. In the biting cold, it is hard to think of sunflower fields. The first time I took comfort in looking at bits of a sunflower was when I chanced upon Ai Wei Wei's Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern Art Gallery in London. I was then a 21 year old university student, with barely any money, and big dreams. The art installation was a commentary on the mass production of Chinese goods and how they were subsequently sent to western countries. Each sunflower seed was crafted with porcelain and the feeling evoked by witnessing and experiencing that piece of art was understanding that artists could pour their frustrations and political thoughts into their work. That their art indeed was, political. I realised that my writing and my own art could become a tool through which I could shake off my own oppressions- being a woman, being a person of colour, being a young person whose work and words were not taken seriously, an individual who had no wishes to conform but was forced to do so, being reminded again and again through paperwork and through legislation that if I did not toe the line, if I wanted more for myself than was acceptable by my surroundings and my current context, the situation for me would prove to be dire. I sought my own experiences and my own joys from the world. What books could not teach me, I sought to teach myself. I worked in villages in India with no clean drinking water for months. I slept under the stars on a quiet night sky- the sound of lethal mosquitoes buzzing above my head. I worked with asylum seekers and refugees, which was actually one of the redeeming features of my week. Here is an excerpt of a letter I wrote to a friend, describing that time of my life : "Every day, I see ordinary people -people like you and I-wearing tattered clothes, with paint on their faces and pencils tucked behind their ears, sweating it out. There's this boy I see every day, he's about eighteen and if given a choice, he'd probably want to go to college as well. He often stops me on the street and asks me about what I study and I think he's quite a bright spark- and then I think about all the people back home, who should get an education and are not, it makes me very sad. I hope I don't grow into one of those people who shuts everything out and never does anything constructive by way of ensuring that kids are educated and well looked after. And working with children of refugees actually makes one understand how destitute these kids really are, unsheltered, unprotected, not knowing what tomorrow holds for them. Some children have never known their own homes, being carried from one shelter to another; they come from countries like Ghana, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, The Ivory Coast. Many of their parents have been intellectuals in their own country, they have spoken out against dictatorial regimes, they have condemned massacres, some of them will be executed as soon as they set foot on their home soil again. Most of these people are Asylum Seekers i.e. those who have not even been granted Refugee Status. Some are condemned because of their homosexuality and others, because of their religion." I hope I never stop feeling.
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