‘Hum kaagaz nahi dikhayengay, lekin yeh wale kagaaz zaroor dikhayengay.’
As I approached some women sitting at Shaheen Bagh, a group of young men at the protest site stopped me. They wanted to know about the papers in my hand.
“Yeh saare kaagaz kis cheez ke hai, madam (What are these papers in your hand, madam)?” one asked.
“Yeh kaagaz khat hai jo kuch logo ne saare Shaheen Bagh ke logo ke liye bheje hai, mujhe yeh unhe dena hai (these are letters sent by people for the protestors of Shaheen Bagh, I want to give it to them),” I said.
They started reading the letters, wary of the lies about the protest being peddled in the name of news. They simply wanted to understand what I wanted to share. After reading what was written, they smiled and asked me to go right in and share the letters.
It was the 37th day of the protest.
On a cold winter evening, hundreds of women and their children were sitting on the road while men guarded them all around. There were kids with the Indian flag painted on their faces, and men holding large placards in their hands.
As I was trying to find my way in, I received a text from some of my friends asking if I could share what the situation there was like. It was very easy for me to share some photos and videos to describe the protest. But I wondered if there was a way for those who cannot be there in person, to share their love and gratitude with the women at Shaheen Bagh. At a time when communication shutdowns have taken precedence over law, was there a way I could bring messages to Shaheen Bagh from across the world?
I asked some of my friends to text me something that they would like to share and I decided to pen it down on a piece of paper with their name and city. I put up a story about this on my social media accounts.
Soon after, I started receiving messages on both WhatsApp and Instagram. Messages in different languages (English, Hindi and Kannada) from places across the world (Nantes, Netherlands, Canada, Savannah, Mumbai and more).
“Dear people of Shaheen Bagh, thank you for fighting for those of us who are far from home. Our hearts and thoughts are with you everyday. If there ever is a new India, it will stand on your efforts. Eternal love,” wrote Jordanna Coutinho from Savannah.
“Mere Shaheen Bagh ke log, aap kaun hai, kaha rehti hai, aapka kya naam hai, main ye nahi jaanti, lekin itna jaanti hoon ke aapke hausle se mujhe hausla milta hai, aapke jazbe se ko mera salam, Mohabbat Zindabad, Inquilab Zindabad (to my people of Shaheen Bagh, I might not know who you are, where you live or what your name is. But what I do know is that it is because of your courage that I have courage in me. I salute your spirit. Long live love, long live revolution), aapki beti (your daughter), Bhawna Jaimini, Mumbai.”
As these messages filled my inbox, I began looking for a chart paper to write them down. I borrowed one from a fellow protestor and hence began my journey as a mail woman at Shaheen Bagh. At a time when sharing stories is only a click away, walking around with handwritten letters opened up a new possibility.
But I didn’t know where to begin. Some women were chatting, some women were playing with their children and others were either distributing food and water or talking to the media. And then there were some who were just sitting there quietly. I couldn’t guess if they were thinking about something, were worried, tired or all of the above.
So I walked toward them.
“Dadiji, iss kaagaz mein aapke liye ek khat aya hai Bangalore se. Woh aapka shukriya karna chahte hai our kehna chahte hai ki apki himmat pure Hindustan ko himmat deti hai (Grandma, someone from Bangalore has sent a letter for you, thanking you for giving strength to the whole nation),” I said to one woman.
“Bangalore se?”, she asked. “Wahan sab theek toh hai na? Usse kehna thank you, yeh toh bas shuruaat hai, hum tumahre saath hai. (Is everything ok there? Please thank them. This is just the beginning, we are all in this together).”
She took the letter and started reading. I asked her if I could take a photo of her. She agreed and asked if I could take one from her phone as well so that she could post it on Facebook.
“Auntyji, France se mera ek dost aapse kuch kehna chahta hai, yeh padhiye (A friend of mine has sent a letter for you from France),” I said to another woman at the protest.
“Itni door se? Yahan toh humari baccho se bhi theek se baat nahi ho pa rahi. Bohot accha laga ke koi France mein bhi humein yaad kar raha hai (From France? That is so far away. Here we are barely able to speak to our own children. It feels nice to be remembered by people in France),” she replied.
She passed it on to other people sitting around saying: “France se ek khat aaya hai.”
At a time when hostility and violence have become the government’s greatest suite, passing these heartfelt words to the women filled me with compassion. At a time when Varun Grover’s poem ‘Kaagaz nahi dikhayenge’ (we won’t show you our papers) has become a revolutionary slogan, this same kagaz (paper) helped me share stories and connect the people who have never met or known each other.
The last letter
After I shared the last letter, a woman came to me and asked if there was any letter for her. I could only see her eyes as she was wearing a burqa. I didn’t have any and hence decided to write one for her.
As I took out a pen and paper to write, she asked me to look at her palm and elbow. She told me that’s where her kids were beaten with lathis. Two of her kids study in Aligarh Muslim University and one in Jamia. The incident, she said, made the women start the sit-in protest. She was one of the first few to come.
She fed me an eclair chocolate with her own hands and said, “Tum toh meri beti jaisi ho (you are like my daughter).” I could only see her teary eyes and hear her heavy voice when I handed her the letter I wrote.
“Meri pyaari Shaheen Bagh ki dadi,
Aapne humein dikhaya hai ke ek Hindustani hona kya hota hai, aapne humein samjhaya hai ke apne haq ke liye ladna kya hota hai, aur ek aap hi jisnein humein sikhaya hai ke insaniyat ka matlab kya hota hai. (My dearest grandma of Shaheen Bagh, you have shown us what it truly means to be Indian, you have made us understand what it means to fight for our rights, and it is you who has taught us the true meaning of humanity).
Bohot saara pyaar (with love),
24-01-2020, Shaheen Bagh, Delhi”
Natasha Sharma is an artist creating socially engaged art/design and community driven interventions in built environments. She can reached on Instagram at @urban.poetics or her website.
All photos have been provided by the author.