She is a woman of immense potential and possibilities. Like each finger is different from the other, so are her areas of interests (which are also her areas of excellence), yet she has been able to strike a balance with all her fingers dipped in different puddings. She wears different cloaks; of a writer, philanthropist, sociologist and social entrepreneur. We’re talking about Vinita Bakshi, who is an amalgamation of creativity, humility and unparalleled determination. This alumnus of prestigious Delhi School of Economics, is an acclaimed sociologist and social entrepreneur, in addition to being a popular writer. Her novel, 31 Miles, published by Rupa Publications, has grabbed a lot of attention. Recently, she had visited Guwahati for a book reading session at the North East Writers’ Forum. Not just she discussed the nitty-gritties of her book, but also inspired many writers, including the budding writers.
She has founded Aambra, and heads the National Institute of Jewellery as the director. She has, literally, set an exemplary example of a woman’s potential and her determination. What a woman can do when she wants to scale heights; then she becomes unstoppable. Team Saturday Fare had the great opportunity for a one-to-one exclusive rendezvous with her. Get to know more about her through this exclusive interaction.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I have two younger brothers. I have had a normal, healthy & happy life. I had a working mother & a very doting father. We all lived together along with my grandparents, and aunts as a big family.
Share some inspiring moments of your life, something that was really striking?
I think, I always knew that there is a book in me, but I didn’t know of that definite moment when that would happen. Then, once there was a very disturbing clip that I saw on facebook, which was about both the parents being busy on their Whatsapp, and a newborn lying between them, wailing for attention. That led to the creation of the subplot of 31 Miles.
How has your journey been as you have worked for “31 miles”?
I think that each and every moment was so challenging that one is busy creating so many characters. The power the pen gives you is very strong. You can erect a character and kill a character. You can make a character romance, dance or do just about anything. You feel like a god while writing a book. You can do anything and everything in this world. It’s a great feeling to write.
How do you create your male characters?
Not all that difficult. I just know what I do. Supposedly, if I were to create a character in a book and it has to be a driver, then I try to imagine my driver. Maybe I will tweak a little bit here or there, like giving a habit of always scratching his ear; maybe my driver is hard of hearing or maybe my driver has a tendency to limp. So all these descriptions will be there, which are there in the real people. I have to keep in mind some real driver be it my driver, my cousin’s, my friend’s driver, or some driver. I have to describe him exactly hundred percent like that, with one major characteristic or habit, so that when the reader reads about him, he or she will remember. Otherwise, in page number fifteen if the reader has read about a driver and suddenly you talk about the driver at page number eighty-five, by then the reader would have forgotten the character if your character doesn’t stand out.
Even if a character has a three minute appearance in a two hundred and fifty page novel, that three minute appearance, or three episodes with that driver, you have to take the driver with you through the narrator. You have to walk two hundred and fifty pages with the driver. If the reader forgets how the driver was like in page number 5, then there is another kind of driver in page number 80, the reader is going to get very confused. Even if you create ten characters in your book or twelve or eight or five, they have to be so distinct that you begin the journey with them from page one and till the end of journey say 240 pages, your reader knows them separately and takes them along with the flow.
In this book, who is your favorite character or anyone you liked writing about?
I think there is this young girl I have created in the book called Shonali. Shonali represents the character of a real Indian girl or a girl in any part of the world. I think most of the girls are like Shonali, and most of the mothers are like Mansas, always so insecure about their daughters.
Who has been major literary influences in your life?
There have been many, Roald Dahl, Tagore, Leo Tolstoy, Amitav Ghosh, Premchand, Rumi. I have read most of the books by Amitav Ghosh. He was my professor from college.
We have come to know that you’ve founded a non-profit organization called as “Aambra”. Please share with us about its objectives and types of works.
The Aambra foundation was instituted in 2012. Its major vision is skill development. We were also working on consumer aspects and the general issues that affect the day-to-day life of the people. But as my interest started shifting towards women’s issues and my writing began, we incepted a festival in 2014 called as “Aambrotsave”. We actively take up women and gender related issues. We have had a very successful seminar series called “She Speaks”. We organized it to discuss the current issues that affect the day-to-day life of women. Many times, women maintain silence about different issues and prefer not to speak up. The cultural factor play in their psyche and they are always thinking whether to share or not share; and whether to speak out or not. All those issues, which are just lying suppressed under the carpet, we try to raise and resolve them. We try to speak to women, and the policy makers and the media, and make a panel. Every time our panel consists of policy makers, academicians and activists. Hence, a panel is meticulously planned.
How has it elevated the women empowerment quotient?
It is very difficult to quantify the impact, because this is an advocacy platform. We are trying to educate people on gender issues. And, we are also stepping into the non-formal education. We have more than 30 children with us. The project is called “Aarohan”. The Free of cost center is based in central Delhi. All the skill development workshops, festivals, etc. so far have been free of cost, and organized in different parts of Delhi.
Does “She Speaks” come under the Aambra Foundation?
Yes, it is a part of Aambra Foundation. We have three major projects- “Ambrotsave”, which is a cultural festival; while “She Speaks” is a gender sensitization project; and the third one is a non-formal Education project namely, “Aarohan”.
Your “She Speak” Series has been a real inspiration to the students. Can you speak a bit about it?
“She Speaks” is, in a way, (I don’t want to use the term, “feminist platform”) I would say, it is an interactive platform for people because women can’t talk only to women if they have to actually resolve the problems. I think it has to be a dialogue between men & women. She Speaks is a two-way-communication platform. We have women and men from different walks of life, possessing different experience. A dialogue happens between them through this platform. Hence, it is not just a women-only platform; it’s a people-centric platform.
Does it help in eliminating the communication barrier between men & women?
It does, to a greater extent, because “She Speaks” is a dialogue with men and if we do not include men in the dialogue, then what are we talking about. Ours is an Indian platform. Women have problems all over the world. There are some issues, which are very specific in nature. They are addressed.
Gender issues are actually issues in all parts of the world, that sprout in different ways. I won’t say only Indian women are victimized or only those women fall prey, who are living in Los Angeles, Silicone Valley or New York or Australia. I think gender divisions (& ideologies) are common all over the world. There are some problems which are quite common, which every single woman faces. Each of us have faced them for sure, a hundred percent sure. I am yet to find a girl, who has turned 14 or 15 and not faced any of such issues.
Tell us a bit about “Aambrotsave”?
“Aambrotsave” is a festival where we try to incorporate all aspects of culture. It is a celebration of Indian, art, craft, culture, cuisine and literature – is an annual project of the Aambra Foundation. We not only celebrate our legacy, but help revive waning craftsmanship & weaves.
The dates for 2018 Ambrotsave are 3rd & 4th November, in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi.
What is the workforce composition of Aambra?
Right now, we do not have any stable source of funding. Therefore, we are relying on Delhi University volunteers, and we have been supported by enthusiastic Delhi University students who are very active. We could not have pulled the festival off without them. A big thanks to them.
Where do you see yourself with Aambra five years down the lane?
I want to curate a festival, which would try to make the society a happier place. The only major objective of the project would be to raise contemporary issues that has relevance for everyone, and the second would be to make the world a happier place. I think craft, art and music are much needed.
We have also come to know that you are the director of the National Institute of Jewellery, Delhi. Can you explain a bit about your role there?
The National Institute of Jewellery is a project of Delhi State Industrial & Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd. (DSIIDC).
The main objective is to promote skill development. The students come from different backgrounds and we train them to become jewellery professionals.
Any new projects you have in hand, other than the sequel for “31 Miles”?
I just finished the voice-over for the movie, “Paharganj”. I have finished one Hindi manuscript as well. It is the story of a 14-year-old trafficked- girl who is brought to Delhi, how she deals with her life and what happens to her, what kind of people she meets. She reaches there from a small village and where she doesn’t know anybody.
What really inspires you to do so much?
I think students, as they have been my strength throughout. Honestly speaking, without students no She Speaks event would have happened; no festival would have happened, because we did not have funds or sponsors to pay salaries or to pay money to the consultants and proposal makers. In the last few She Speaks episodes, we have been lucky enough to get sponsors but prior to that the foundation only was funding them.
Your remarks on getting labels?
It is a very difficult question. I also often ask myself this question. But I have to read a lot and as such can’t pass any judgment. My personal belief is that we are all human beings first. Male-female, all these labels sometimes, if a person has not evolved to a certain level of intelligence, then these labels interfere with our growth and our evolution as thinking human beings. In the beginning all the lessons of morality are taught to the children through the mythology. So indirectly, in that way, it plays a very positive and good role too.
But the moment we start being “Oh, I am a man, I must behave like this or I am a woman, I must behave like this. I am a Hindu or so and so religion, and I must behave like this”, then the problem starts. Then you are no longer a human being or individual. Then you are reduced to just being the role that society has assigned to you. Who tells us, I am a male or a female? Who tells us what religion to follow? Who? Every baby is born the same way on the planet and later on, we start wearing all these hats. It complicates things. At least sometimes, we should have one-to-one dialogue with our own selves. These days, with the bombardment of communication tools and news channels running twenty-four seven, there is little chance or occasion to communicate with your own self. There are so many forces that are playing on us all the time: do this, do that, this is right, this is wrong. There are advertisements and ideologies; there is so much all the time. Time to break the glass ceiling.
If you ever had a chance to use a time-machine, where would you like to go?
The past. The past intrigues me. The journey intrigues me. I think everybody will want to look into their own past. They will not be so much intrigued by what Cleopatra did; what Jhansi ki Rani did; or whoever did something. I think everybody for themselves are their own Jhansi ki Rani. They are their own Cleopatras. Like me, they will want to look into their own lives.
Any favourite quote?
Yes, my favorite quote is created by my own self. Its the quote from my own book:
“The beginning and the end are the two sides of the same coin. In a circle there is no beginning and no end.” I think life is like that.
Share a few motivational words for the women who want to chase their dreams?
Firstly, I think we are all born individuals in this world. Later on, down the lane, we learn whether we are a male or a female. Then slightly later, we also realize whatever religion is. More and more roles get ingrained in us; I am a male, I would do this or I am a Hindu, I will do this or I am a Muslim, I will do this. I think all these things should come into your life much later.
In the beginning, we are only born as individuals. And, we should try to be as good a human beings as possible. It doesn’t matter which part of the world I am born in or what religion I follow or what my personal practices and beliefs are. We are all human beings first.