Getting people to talk about peace and queer rights

Pooja Singh from Mint interviewed me for this article she wrote. With her permission, I reproduce here the original set of questions and answers from our email correspondence. I enjoyed her questions because they were simple and open-ended, giving me an opportunity to express myself on my own terms.

  1. What do you do?

Answer: My work lies at the intersection of peace education, gender equality and queer rights. I live in Mumbai but travel all over. Apart from facilitating workshops with students and teachers, I spend a lot of my time writing for print and online media on issues that matter to me. I am a Shanti Fellow with the Chennai-based Prajnya Trust’s Education for Peace Initiative. My ongoing engagement with them involves creating online resources to sensitize teachers towards the structural violence faced by LGBTQIA+ students in educational institutions, and the steps that can be taken to make these students feel safe, welcome and supported. I also work with the Chennai-based Red Elephant Foundation on their Ahimsa Project to build a collection of resources that educators can rely on when they want to initiate conversations about peace. I also run an initiative called Aao Dosti Karein that focuses on healing the discord between Indians and Pakistanis that has been festering for decades.

2. What/who inspired you to choose the path?

Answer: I draw tremendous inspiration from the poets, mystics and saints of South Asia. Their words speak to me in profound and powerful ways despite the centuries that separate us in chronological terms. I used to work with the Kabir Project at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. That was a transformative period for me. I spent a lot of my time immersed in the poems of Kabir, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Mirabai, Bulleh Shah, Amir Khusrau, Lal Ded, Lalon Fakir, Shah Hussain and many others, who bridge the spiritual and political in a manner that resonated with my heart. They gave me a language to resist narratives of hate. They taught me to focus on inner work instead of assuming that everyone else needs to be fixed. They encouraged me to seek freedom, love and fearlessness.

3. What are your thoughts on Gandhi?

Answer: I like to think of Mohandas Gandhi as a pioneer in civil resistance. His experiments with nonviolence have inspired people all over the world, and that legacy is certainly worth learning from. However, I am not comfortable with the idea of worshipping him. There is a large body of writing by people who find his thoughts on caste, race and gender utterly problematic. I think those critics are worth engaging with.

4. Who are your role models and the reasons behind it?

Answer: I am a bit wary of having role models. When we idolize people, we set ourselves up for disappointment. We want them to be infallible so that we do not have to take responsibility for our own shortcomings. There are people who inspire me but I do not expect them to perform the function of motivating me. If I had to pick just one person, it would be Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha or Shakyamuni. He has a special place in my heart. I think of him as a human being who made some difficult choices, learnt some important lessons, and did his best to help others when he was in a position to. His teachings on suffering and compassion have been extremely beneficial for me, and I feel deeply grateful for having encountered them.

5. Did you face any challenges while starting out in this journey? Did you have to make any sacrifices on this path?

Answer: Everyone faces challenges, and so have I. That is alright. I hold no grudges. There is too much pain in this world, and there is no point in creating more by harping on who said what. When people like myself challenge dominant narratives, there is bound to be pushback. I am happy to have the opportunity to use my skills and talents in ways that are fulfilling for me, and also end up benefiting others. I am reluctant to speak about sacrifices because I do not want to be put on a pedestal. I am a simple person who likes to laugh, travel, hug trees, eat pizza and play antakshari. I am just fortunate to be engaged in work that is an expression of the values that I care about.

Writer, educator and researcher

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