The Poetics of Protest

Deepa Bohara performing ‘Five Days’ at GIZ’s MenstruAction Event. 

 

I’ve always thought of poetry as an artform that verbalizes my feelings. Protest has had little to do with it. I thought I had never been able to tackle the political with my extremely personal poems, because I’ve never been able to write about the country or the system. When I applied to the ‘Poetics of Protest’ workshop run by poet and editor Itisha Giri last month, I thought we were going to write poems about our nationality and our politicians.

I was wrong. We started the four-day workshop, spanning four weeks, off with ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso projected across a wall at Quixote’s Cove. The painting is itself a protest against war, rendering the city of Guernica in chaos and suffering after its 1937 bombardment by fascist invaders. We personified each aspect of the painting: a window that screamed, blood from torn limbs soaking the floor, a woman lamenting the darkness of the world. Our poems gave the window, the blood, the woman, lives and personalities. By humanizing even a broken window, we told stories of the families destroyed by war.

I learned that exploring personal stories and naming the violence done to us is also a form of protest. One of the poems we read together was ‘Some People’ by Rita Ann Higgins. “Some people know what it’s like,” Higgins writes, and lists extremely personal ordeals of being short of money and dignity, being ‘walked-on’ and ‘second-class’, implying that these ordeals are common to a certain group of people in society. Imitating the structure of ‘Some People’, we listed our personal struggles with living in our society, living with our families, and even living with ourselves. This drove home the message that what is personal to us is also societal, also political.

We moved onto overtly political protests as well. We used Bhupi Serchan’s ‘Galat Lagcha Malai Mero Desh Ko Itihaas,’ to reflect on the ‘Bartamaan’ of Nepal. Our poems explored issues exacerbated by our destructive social climate, touching on poverty, crime, and corruption. But even these issues were made real with intimate experiences of the people in our lives. 

After four days of workshops, I realized that my poems about my emotions and struggles have always been political. ‘Five Days’ is a poem I wrote in 2017 about the hurt and rejection I faced in Surkhet during my period. I wrote ‘Five Days’ in an outpour of emotions, and the poem doesn’t stray from my own story. Yet my experience evokes many other stories in Nepal, and is a political issue. I know of many girls suffering as I have in communities like my own, and in many other parts of Nepal. Some experiences are even worse than mine. Girls spend 7 and even 13 days in ‘Chhau Goths‘, banished to these cold, dingy sheds for the duration of their period. Girls are raped, suffer snake bites and die from hypothermia while practicing this unfair tradition. 

I hope that other girls will find the words to name this violence and protest against ‘Chaupadi’ like I did with ‘Five Days’. I hope they will be able to speak up for their safety and protection, simply by sharing their personal stories.

 

Five Days 

There is no such rule in the Nepali constitution that says that a mother and a child need to be separated from each other after she held that child inside of her womb for nine months.

So how come I have to believe that just menstruation, a natural process, must separate a mother from her daughter and a daughter from her mother once every month for at least five days?

Mom, you know, your left hand is my pillow
your right hand is my summer blanket.
You know, I’m cold without you at my side.
When I’m awake in the middle of the night,
answering nature’s call, you’re awake too –
my warm company. I’m inside your womb again,
Safe and dreaming.

These nights, I wake from cruel dreams of
howling and hard-ground; you leave me aside
brandishing a cruel tradition.

Dogs and Foxes, wild at night,
hunt my ears with scuffles and growls.
I shake hard, I want to hug you tight, Mom!
I have nothing to hold on to – no pillow,
no summer-blanket – and the light is
beyond my reach. I spend the night
with rough rags across the floor
and roughness in my ears.

These five days, you know I suffer
I overflow blood, my back stiffens and throbs,
my stomach a sore, cramping jumble,
Back, waist, stomach, long for your
gentle mustard-oil massage.
I long for you to feed me.
I long for a place in your arms.

Instead of a soft bed by your side
you show me the dark mud of a hard ground.
You give me a separate plate, a separate cup.
I clutch them, in my place behind our kitchen door
“Don’t cross the line,” You say – a knife to my heart:
I hurt.

Yes, you are my real mother,
you gave me a place in your womb for nine months
you fed me off your breasts
but you banish me from your kitchen now, from your bed
every month for these five days.

I was 12 when I started hating these five days.
I’m turning 20, and I still hate these five days.
It’s January, and I dread these five days.
It’s December, and I still dread these five days.

In solitude, I think,
I realize: changing the world is the light
beyond my reach. I am yet to change my mom.
A natural process will banish a child
again and again, every month.
Question marks hang before my eyes,
not just one, but so many????

 

Deepa Bohara is a spoken-word poet and instructor. She is a Language and Arts instructor at Book Bus. 

 

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