It’s late November, but we don’t need our sweaters when we board the bus for a two hour ride to the village (Hardauli) in Uttar Pradesh to conduct our theatre session. Driving past green fields fenced in by dry broken branches and a thick mesh of cobwebs, the bus drops us at the highway. From there we walk half an hour to the village under a scorching noon sun. We wait outside our workshop space and hope at least some girls will show up. Slowly girls trickle in. 10 -12 girls have showed up and we don’t expect more will come.
We start with warm up games but everyone’s imagination is consumed by the festivities of weddings. Even those who don’t have to attend a gathering are restless with the ambient excitement. One facilitator brings this excitement into the session. She suggests that everyone break into pairs and describe to each other one time they went for a wedding, and the outfit they wore on this occasion. Their favourite outfit. The time they enjoyed getting dressed the most.
The facilitator then asks them share each other’s story with the wider group. We hear about outfits of all colours, shapes and styles, bought from the town nearby (Banda) all the way to Bombay, and hairstyles to accompany. Each outfit holds within it a story – of separation, migration, travel, aspiration, desire, flirtation! They tell us about the compliments they received, the intimacies built with other girls when dressing up.
Then, one girl shares how her father doesn’t encourage her wearing clothes that are too revealing, something sleeveless for instance. She speaks about her struggle to wear what she wishes, and her desire to wear jeans. “My father says jeans won’t suit you”, she says. “But I fought with my father and bought a pair of jeans. I wore them once”, she adds, gleaming!
“Would you wear jeans to a wedding?”, one facilitator inquires. The girls respond with a resounding “no!”.
“Well, because Ghaghras are pretty! And we’ll feel so left out if we’re not wearing such pretty things”
Then one girl says “At least its good for us, we can wear both, boys can’t wear Ghagras”
“Why not? Maybe they feel like it? Just like we want to wear what they’re wearing?”, one of us asks.
“No it shouldn’t happen… We have enough rules on us, so this one they can deal with”. The girls are indignant!
There’s giggles breaking out here and there, and then one girl bursts out “We have a boy in our area, who wears Ghaghras”
All the girls seem to know or at least know of this person, so one after the other they add snippets of information, building up an image in our minds.
“He recently started wearing ghaghras”
“He changed his name too”
“He’s our age”
“He lives by himself, and this other boy has recently moved in with him”
“He dances at weddings”
“He’s actually really nice, this one time when we met on the street, he called out to me and started talking to me… its really difficult to be awkward around him because he talks so nicely”
“He’s a friend of my mom’s”
The fact that one of the elders is accepting of the boy strikes some girls as unusual. They expect elders, the custodians of tradition, to be opposed to this act of transgression.
“He talks to my mother”, the girl continues.
“My mother is nice to him too. She says he’s a human being like all of us. He comes and hangs out at my house often. He even dances with us. I have videos.”
Phrased this way, the rule-breaker as a human being, all other girls get on board. The initial disgust and giggle-fest subsides as if they have tacitly started being okay with him. “He’s nice” they collectively agree.
One of the facilitator asks, “What if we were to include him in this theatre group?” Maybe she was trying to test this new found acceptance.
“Yes! That’s a great idea!” A lot of the girls are game.
Another facilitator teases this out more. “Are you sure?”, she says, “I mean, just a minute ago we were playing games where we were literally on top of each other and touching each other in many ways, will you be comfortable doing that with him?”
This question has context. The community does not allow this group to include boys in their activities. It being an all girls group is the foundational agreement upon which they make this space possible.
“It’ll be weird at first but eventually we’ll get used to it”, one girl said confidently
“And what about parents, will they allow?”, a facilitator asks.
“No they won’t, if we told them. So we just won’t tell them”, another girl replies.
Just like that, the excitement around this topic fizzles out and we’re back to elaborate descriptions about Anarkali suits and evening gowns.
As facilitators we were stunned by what we had witnessed. How did a random conversation lead up to such a moment and quite casually back to random conversation? It felt like a kind of rupture in the status quo articulation of the group around this ‘gender queer’ person. It’s possible that the same conversation could have happened in the same set of girls if they met somewhere else, but that it happened in an NGO space and in front of akaryakarta felt significant. The ease of the conversation, uninterrupted by jargon, stood out for us. The girls rather than the facilitators set and owned the language and terms of the conversation.
Source : ‘Between spaces and conversation: a book of stories’, Nirantar Trust.