‘Just by being this person very loudly, I am breaking down hierarchies’: Gurmehar Kaur

An interview with the writer-activist about ‘Small Acts of Freedom’ and why her next book will actually be what people were expecting from the first.

Gurmehar Kaur didn’t choose to become a household name, the subject of prime-time TV debates, or a punch line. In response to Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad violence against Delhi University students, she wrote a simple message on a placard, took a photo of herself holding it, and uploaded it. All manner of hell broke loose. One year later, she is still studying English Literature in college. She has written a book titled Small Acts of Freedom, and it’s not what anyone expected. Gurmehar’s book is less about the hate she encountered, and more about the love and resilience her family built over generations.

One clue to why that is so is revealed at the end of the TED talk she delivered in December on the power of words. In it she asks, “Will you use that power for love or hate? I leave that up to you.” In the talk, she also asks if the value of one political opinion is greater than a person’s life. In Small Acts of Freedom, she sets out to argue in the form of familial history that the sum of a life is far greater than one part – even if that part is the most visible and infamous. Kaur talked to about the radical act of being one’s self, writing the first chapter of this book when she was twelve, and what it takes to write in the eye of the storm. Excerpts from the interview:

In Small Acts of Freedom, you mention writing a tentative chapter of this book in school. How long was it? Could you talk to us a little about what writing and expressing yourself meant to you as a child?
In class, I was told I had a really bad memory. The teacher said, “Gurmehar, I just taught you something. And you don’t remember it at all.” I came back home, and really pondered whether I did have a bad memory. What if I lost the memories of my father? So, I wrote them down. For me, it was an existential problem. At twelve, I thought it was the end of the world when my teacher said that.

The chapter wasn’t the same as it is now. I wrote it the way a twelve-year-old would. I showed it to my mom, “look, mamma, see what I wrote.” And my mom replied saying that she hoped one day I would write the whole book because it was so important. My mother always thought I would become a writer. When she read the chapter, she told me it was one of the best things I had written, and she wanted me to write a book on it.

It’s been about a year since the controversy and the ensuing online abuse you suffered. What’s changed in the way you feel about your own small act of freedom?
Life has completely changed and yet it is almost the same. I don’t know how to explain it, I feel like a different person and yet I’ve never felt more like myself. There is nothing that has changed in the way I feel about my small acts of freedom, I’m not as aware of changes in my life as people around me must be. I mean it’s still my life, I still have to live it.

When you work on a book following a very public controversy, what are some of the concerns you must navigate as a writer?
I’m not someone who believes in mincing words or overthinking. When I try to do that, I completely lose myself as a writer. I can only write when I’m being completely honest, the words flow out of me and I will never be able to self-censor.

Talk to us a little about your publishing journey. How did you and your editor go about putting together the book? When did you first begin to think of writing a book about your experience and where your beliefs come from?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer and I’ve always wanted to write the book. I’m so fortunate to have found Manasi [Subramaniam, her editor at Penguin India], who gave me the freedom to write about things that I felt most strongly about in the book and never asked me to change anything or add something that I might be uncomfortable with.

You’re placed (for lack of a better term) at the intersection of young, female and political. Have you found that the combination of those three identities is what brings more scrutiny to your words?
I think criticism and scrutiny come because I am all those things. I own these identities and I wear them as armour – I’m young, I’m a woman and I’m political. Just by being myself, I feel like I’m damaging hierarchies – of power structures we grew up believing in and existing patriarchal structures. I think that is the most beautiful part – that just by owning up to who you are, you can rattle and shake things up where it matters most. Just by being this person, and being this person very loudly, I am breaking down hierarchies. I think women need to be themselves and to own those identities. It can be so damaging to exist within hierarchies such as those of age, power, gender.

The character of your mother is really what centres the book. She’s a consistent advocate for peace and for not giving in to hate. Was it hard to tell the story of someone so close to you?
It was the most difficult because while I grew up listening to these stories, having a conscious conversation about things that mattered most to us was tough. It was emotionally exhausting.

Did you re-ignite some of those conversations while writing the book?
These are stories we’ve always spoken about. You know how memories are – sometimes when people are sitting down and talking, they’ll discuss how life was, how life is, what my family was like, what my dad was like. I’ve grown up around these stories, but when I had to actually write these chapters I had to make sure I was factually correct. I had to get a wider picture. I spoke to my entire family – my mom, my masi, my chachu, my grandfather.

Who do you hope is reading the book?
I hope everyone is reading the book but most importantly young women. I hope this book, in one way or another, inspires them. And if not inspires, then comforts and makes them feel something.

Will you write another book? What will it be about?
It will be about everything people expected my first book to be about.

You’re clearly subverting expectations with the book. Is that one way of taking some of your power back?
I think what writing does is give you the power to create your own narrative. It wasn’t so much about taking power back. I wanted to write this book. This book lays the foundation for my life, for my writing career, it will be what I build my ideologies on. Taking power back was an effect of that. This had to be my first book. The second book will be about my experiences – college, student activism. It will be fiction set in Delhi. I’ve started working on it. It may be a coming-of-age novel. Let’s see.

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