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A poem that moved a Clinton

Being a poet and an activist are not contrary pursuits for Anasuya Sengupta, whose poem bowled Hillary Clinton over enough to mention it in her bestseller.

Anasuya: no writing without conviction — Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

AN ACTIVIST, in popular perception, is one who is constantly battling the burning issues of the day in a practical and rational way. And a poet, we presume, is one who lives in a fantastic, imaginary land, far from the cares of workaday world.

But Anasuya Sengupta — a poet, an activist, and a social scientist — strikes a different note. Recently in the news for her poem, Silence, figures in Hillary Clinton's memoir, Living History, Anasuya reflects both the passion and courage vital for an activist and the creative energy and vision that mark a poet.

She wrote Silence in 1995 for Hillary when she came visiting Lady Sriram College, New Delhi, during her South Asia visit. The poem, which talks about the condition of women everywhere in the world, has been used ever since in various addresses, anthologies, and it is now the title of a chapter (Silence is Not Spoken Here) in Hillary's memoir. "When I was asked to write the poem, I wondered what I could write that would appeal or be apt to give to Mrs. Clinton... If having someone like Poile Sengupta as a mother has taught me one thing, it is that a writer's integrity lies in writing about what he/she feels strongly about. And so, I wrote about the condition of women, the one issue that I have engaged with for a very long time."

But writing is something that occupies very little of Anasuya's time now, she says with regret. A Rhodes scholar, she has been interested in issues of development and social justice. After an M.Phil. degree in Development Studies at Oxford, she returned to Karnataka, where she started working on several projects with non-governmental organisations.

She is at present working on a Ph.D. dissertation: A political anthropology of the State. Apart from voluntary work for The Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID), an international organisation for policy-making practitioners and academics, as a member of an international advisory committee, her time is devoted — among many other things — to co-ordinating a State-wide UNICEF project that aims at gender sensitisation of policemen and policewomen when dealing with problems of women and children. Having worked on the project for about two years now, Anasuya says that she still feels as excited and challenged as she initially did to find that people are more than willing to change and participate in the process of sustainable development of any kind. She rejects sceptics who believe that "the system" can never be overhauled to create a better and more honest one. "I believe in people and their commitment to change," she says, with earnestness that defies widespread indifference and pessimism.

As web-editor and researcher for Gender At Work (an initiative to create and spread knowledge of the process of institutional change for gender equality), Anasuya is also actively involved in the process of mass communication. However, she cringes at the use of the word "mass", because, as she explains, it creates — like much of the vocabulary used by the educated and the privileged — a perceived division between "us" and "them". "If a participatory and collective effort has to take shape and succeed, one has to consciously evolve a vocabulary and mindset that will support this, not negate it. It is imperative that we don't sound or act patronising," she says.

Anasuya is involved with NGOs that work with HIV/AIDS, groups against communalism and ones that undertake projects in rural Karnataka.

People, at all levels, have to realise that "personal is political" and not refrain from taking a political stance, she says.

"One doesn't need to go out on the streets and launch protest marches, but a mere awareness about issues is a political statement in itself."

Belonging to a family of writers and theatre artistes, it was inevitable that Anasuya blended her creative instinct with an effort to trigger social change.

So much so, it is next to impossible for her to separate her creative writing from her efforts in other fields, because she puts into both the same kind of commitment and discipline. And more importantly, both are extremely personal to her.


Too many women in too many countries
speak the same language of silence.
My grandmother was always silent, always aggrieved
Only her husband had the cosmic right (or so it was said)
to speak and be heard.
They say it is different now.
(After all, I am always vocal and my grandmother
thinks I talk too much)
But sometimes I wonder.
When a woman shares her thoughts, as some women do,
graciously, it is allowed.
When a woman fights for power, as all women would like
to, quietly or loudly, it is questioned.
And yet, there must be freedom — if we are to speak
And yes, there must be power — if we are to be heard.
And when we have both (freedom and power) let us now be
We seek only to give words to those who cannot speak
(too many women in too many countries)
I seek to forget the sorrows of my grandmother's silence.



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