Gurmehar Kaur on her memoir, Small Acts of Freedom, and choosing love over hate
'I went from being a hateful child to the person I am today,' says Gurmehar Kaur | #FirstCulture
When Gurmehar Kaur was six years old, she tried to stab a lady in a burqa. For a little girl whose father had been killed in the Kargil War in 1999, all Muslims were Pakistanis, and Pakistan, the enemy. On another occasion, after a fight with her best friend, she went home to fetch a dagger from her father’s trunk. Surrounded by stories of his valour – how she was the brave daughter of a brave soldier – she was convinced that power was about strength, that “strong people hit harder and win.”
Kaur’s mother then intervened, explaining that she couldn’t win people over with authority and dictatorship. “That day I learnt one of the most important lessons of my life: my father’s weapons may have been guns and ammunition, but my weapon had to be peace. Always,” she writes in her memoir, Small Acts of Freedom.
It was a perspective Kaur stood by firmly since, and in February last year, stood up against the violence unleashed by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) goons at Ramjas University in Delhi. After uploading a photo of herself holding a placard stating that she was not afraid of the ABVP, she found herself in the middle of a vitriolic social media storm. An older video she had been a part of, where she held up a silent call for peace between India and Pakistan, surfaced and accusations of being anti-national and unpatriotic were hurled at her.
A 20-year-old first-year college student suddenly became a primetime news talking point, with even prominent celebrities jumping on the bandwagon, questioning her intentions. “Initially, it felt like I had no control over what was happening to me. A couple of months later, I realised that I did have some control. I felt like this is where I can steer the narrative and that was the moment I felt very powerful,” says Kaur, on the sidelines of a recently concluded literature festival in Bengaluru. She began writing Small Acts of Freedom shortly after.
While the book provides an introductory context to the Ramjas college fracas, it doesn’t dwell on the incident. Instead, in a back-and-forth narrative, Kaur strings together the story of her childhood interspersed with chapters narrated in her mother Rajinder and grandmother Amarjeet’s voice, both women who raised strong, resilient daughters after losing their husbands at a young age. We meet a two-year-old Gulgul at home in Jalandhar, peeking into her father’s coffin as she struggles to understand why everyone around her is upset. She conjures up fond memories – rushing to greet him at the gate of her nani’s house as he returns from the Valley, the pockets of his cargo jacket stocked with chocolates; throwing up on her sweater during a road trip to the hills, but sitting quietly in the backseat not wanting to disappoint him.
“I never really had to look for these memories because I’ve thought about them every single day of my life. That’s why they’re so fresh. A lot of the credit goes to my mother because she kept probing me to talk about him when I was little so I don’t forget him, and then it just became a habit. My father was like a puzzle to me, and I kept picking pieces up from everywhere to complete it,” says Kaur.
In a poignant chapter in the book she writes of her first day at school, watching other kids get dropped off by their fathers, mentally rehearsing the words Rajinder has taught her to say if anyone asks about her father – died in war. “I had no idea what they meant. Everyone around me would be taken aback but for me, they were just words that I had to cram. I had to say this at the start of every single year till the sixth standard – standard introductory questions on what your parents do – after which I was homeschooled. It played a part in me leaving school because I was so traumatised. I didn’t want to be this black sheep.”
Kaur took to reading and writing at an early age, seeking solace in words to make up for the inability to socialise. She had trouble making friends in school for she had nothing in common with the other girls – they spoke about play dates and their mothers meeting for tea, something her mother couldn’t do because she had to go to work. “I was always the girl who made conversations awkward because I didn’t understand anything. I would go to the library and read, I became friends with my librarian. She gave me a copy of Little Women on my last day at school.”
She would stay back in school for two hours after it ended, for that’s when her mother could come pick her up after work. “Since I was waiting, my teacher would ask me to write an essay on the school. I would sit there writing about the chipped walls, the door, my teacher, the colour of her dupatta. I’d make up stories in my head,” Kaur recalls.
While she grew up on her father’s glorified stories of bravery she soon started to realise, and acknowledge, all the sacrifices her mother had made for her and her sister, making her aspire to be like her. “I have so much respect for her and nani. Even now when I think of it, I can’t imagine how they did it. The kind of life they provided for me, the education and the comforts. The fact that I grew up the way I did, with opinions and the courage to say them out loud without worrying says so much about them. Now, I want to be that person who can make the world around someone so comfortable that they can say what they want to and feel safe,” she says.
From the shy, awkward child at school, Kaur says that she’s surrounded by, and seeks inspiration, from all the women in her life. “I study in a women’s college so all my closet friends are women, as are my favourite teachers and even my editors. I just gravitate towards strong women.” While she’s often hailed as a free speech warrior and social activist, she doesn’t think too much of the labels. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’m young and I have so many things to achieve.”
The 21-year-old spent sleepless nights writing Small Acts of Freedom, working on drafts through the night while juggling college, assignments and exams. Despite the challenges, this was important for her because the timing felt right – amidst a climate of religious and hate politics, she didn’t want media houses telling her story for her. “We’re living in times when we’re teaching children to hate, instead of teaching them love, compassion and tolerance. I went from being a hateful child to the person I am today. If my story shifts even one percent in somebody reading it, I’ve done my part.”
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