When she was six-years-old, Sabika Abbas Naqvi argued with a man in his early 40s, about why he only used male pronouns for God. “Because God is male,” he thundered back, forcing the boy-cut wielding Naqvi to run home, tears falling on her little white frock. She climbed to the roof of her house, situated in a mohalla around a mosque in Old Lucknow, and jumped to her neighbour’s house, waiting for her mother to come rescue her.
Life, for the 24-year-old Naqvi, has changed a lot since.
She has a book of poems coming out later this year. She gave a TEDx talk in February on “Challenging The Order of Patriarchy”. She was on a panel on female representation in student politics at the India Today Conclave last year, in addition to the MIA Sheroes Summit, while also performing at Youth Ki Awaaz’s Convergence in 2016. She’s tired of these spaces though, where preaching to the already woke choir doesn’t lead to tangible change.
I’ve been fascinated by the difference in spaces for dialogue, physical or otherwise. How does someone from the Left try to engage with someone from the Right? And vice versa. While most spaces online, on our timelines, are being taken over by woke-pseudoscientists of the screaming persuasion, on a unusually hot Saturday morning in Delhi’s Connaught Place, Naqvi stepped out to engage with actual human people on the streets, talking about women’s rights.
“Aap humaari kavita sunege?” (Will you listen to my poem), she asked excitedly of people assembled outside the Palika Bazar Metro Station before launching into verse.
“Ab tum baitho, nukkad par,
Apne mardangi aur mardparasti ke araamdeh stoolon par,
Thodi der mein wahaan tumhari bro brigade ke members aayeney,
Jo pritsatta ke zakhm pe izzat ka marham lagayengey”
“Even if four people who haven’t engaged with these ideas listen, it’s better than reciting amongst an already gender-educated crowd,” she explained. She doesn’t care for social media, having 352 followers on Twitter, joined Facebook only in 2014, and admittedly, dislikes slam poetry sessions and competitions (which she sometimes judged), where performance is directed to convert the already converted. “ Baatein hoti rehti hai, kaam nahi hota,” (There is only talk, no work).
Born to parents she described as, “Intellectually very fancy, economically, not so much,” Naqvi came to Delhi University's Lady Shri Ram College in 2012 from Lucknow, carrying with her her mother’s belief that, “ Zulm ke khilaaf zo khamosh rehta hai, woh zaalim ka saath hota hai.” (Those who stay quiet against oppression are with the oppressor). She became She performed at Pinjra Tod protests against hostel, library timings for girls.
As she walked around Connaught Place that morning, trying to find places to perform while not disturbing those indulging in “Early morning ashiqui”, she wasn’t put off by the apathy of the crowd. “Kya aap humaari kavita sungenge”, she kept asking, moving from small group to small group, pink dupatta and friend in tow. When finding no takers, she’d launch into a poem anyway. “What would they be thinking, koi pagal aa gayi hai [She must be mad]. But it’s okay,” she chimed in, before continuing.
Humara kya hai,
Hum toh besharam, gunahgaar dayan aurtein hain, jo
Aagey badhtey jaayengey”
“It might sound idealistic but I want to change the language of the street,” she said.
We ended up in Janpath where Naqvi’s 17-year-old cousin came to visit her. “Aap humaari kavita sunenge?” she asked a sikh boy who looked no older than 16. He shook his head and backed away. There must’ve been hundreds of people in the unorganised section of Janpath, bustling with early-afternoon shoppers. Naqvi looked around, and with a face screaming, “fuck it”, performed.
The crowd kept walking past her. A middle-aged man passed by clearing his throat. A white tourist stopped, but only for his friend and walked away. Naqvi used her hands, her fingers to point at those plodding along, smiling, imploring them.
I couldn’t tell if the crowd had grown thinner, pissed by the disturbance to their afternoon.The young boy who had said no earlier though, took two steps towards her, arms now unfolded, seemingly interested in what she had to say.