Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rules, And How To Break Them

I used to take these creative writing workshops where you would write stories and poems and snippets that the class would collectively critique. Most of my professors would also prescribe exercises, and the best ones were those with limitations, rules and barriers. David Leavitt once asked us to write a complete short story while omitting one vowel throughout the entire piece. I wrote mine without an "i".

The thing about these limitations is they make you write things you would never create if given a blank sheet of paper and complete freedom. With the drop-one-vowel story I wrote about a stalker that the class said made me seem legitimately creepy. Other students, who often defaulted to sci-fi or adaptations of their favorite author, had similar transformations.

When I went back to visit my project site in India two weeks ago, I was reminded of those exercises. Because in that slum community, where the barriers range from subtle to horrifying, from inherited to forced, the effects were just as transformative.

I'm not sure what I expected walking back through those dusty alleys, brushing against a hundred bodies, hearing calls across rooftops and between clotheslines. But what I found that was that, at once, nothing and everything had changed. My kids were older and taller. They appeared from the seams of buildings, and I would hold their hands and remember the time he brought me a complicated square root problem or when her father died or when they wanted to make pasta on a kerosene stove.

Some of them were breathtakingly strong -- like olympians clearing hurdles. Shruti, still in college, still on track, had a local policewoman on speed dial. Together they organized a rally for the Delhi rape victim, marching through the colony with mothers and children and men and signs. Three other students, who had taken part in our leadership workshop, had asked the community for a space in a nearby hall and ran their own dance, music and tutoring sessions for almost 60 kids. Two of our student-teachers were applying for their passports.

The barriers also proved stubborn and suffocating. Dozens of children no longer came to the library -- some forbidden because unchecked teenage romances compromised the reputation of the space. A brilliant student was still stuck in the pathetic government school, though his father had promised me he would apply for his placement elsewhere. A few kids, all under 15, dropped out of school to work and add a few pennies to the family income.

In Indian slums, the limitations are not as simple as dropping a vowel or staying within word count. They can be an unattainable birth certificate needed for admissions, or an elementary school teacher that doesn't teach. The barriers can be fake doctors, with fake medicines, or the danger of taking an auto to tutoring classes at night.

But just like my college classmates and I had discovered stories within the confines of our assignments, the children of the community were producing strong, sustainable ideas. And while the burden of poverty has no silver lining, I left my visit convinced that unspoken rules were no match for the dreams of Bapu Dham's youth. 

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