Friday, 29 February 2008

HOPING WITH COMPASSION

No matter how many shades of life Valerie Mason John portrays through words, her writings “always remain Black.” Her skin colour almost always decides the category of her works, Mason John says. The British playwright, performance poet, journalist and author launched her latest book Broken Voices: Ex ‘Untouchable’ Women Speak Out in India and I had the opportunity to interact with her.

The book deals with the experiences of Dalit women in the Indian State of Maharashtra. Mason John had extensively travelled the State to understand the issues of casteism and untouchability. “I was intrigued by the fact that India has progressed so much in the last 60 years; it’s likely to become a major economic power in the world. Yet, a large section of the Indian population do not have a two square meal; so many people are excluded and discriminated against in the name of caste and religion,” a dismayed Mason John tells me.


The words ‘untouchable’, ‘exclusion’, ‘rejection’, and ‘discrimination’ prompt me to ask her about her own experiences as a Black individual in the UK. “I mostly worked with Black and Leftist media. So, never felt discriminated that way,” Mason John explains. But the tag ‘Black’ has always been there. “You see, in the UK, non-White communities needed their own platforms and avenues to express their works and thoughts. Recognition for Blacks and Asians were not easy. That’s why we had to institute awards for the Blacks and Asians. I often feel, the recognitions I have received, would have been bestowed much earlier had I been a White,” winner of MIND Book of the Year Award and Windrush Achievement Award minces no word.


I ask her about the issues of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘integration’ in her country. She waits for a while before replying. “I support both multiculturalism and integration. It is important for all of us to be aware of each other’s culture. At the same time we must have some commonalities to ensure smooth interaction,” the author elaborates. But she took no time in questioning the concept of ‘integration’. “Why only the non-Whites have to make effort to integrate. Why not the Whites make similar effort to integrate with the Blacks and Asians?” she asks me.


I draw her attention to the violence that often results from the hostility between the communities, whether in the UK or in India or any part of the world. I specifically mention the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the riots of 2001 in northern English towns. Mason John recalls the brutal killings in Khairlanji (India) in 2006. “I was touring Maharashtra at that time and like others, I was also shocked,” she says. But she declines to compare the racial violence in the UK with anti-Dalit violence in India. “In the UK, the Blacks, whenever they feel oppressed, resort to violence and fight it out with the White rioters. I do not support violence but there has to be some resistance to discrimination. In India however, it’s been like a one-sided affair; Dalits are always subjected to humiliation and torture,” Mason John offers her perspective of the issues. “So there are parallels but differences too and the situation in India is unique, much different to the situation that once prevailed in South Africa,” she says.


Like any conscientious person she agrees that the caste-system must go and people, irrespective of their background, must feel emancipated. Mason John found her route to emancipation and peace in Buddhism. “For several years, I was trying to meditate and seek peace. I wanted to change my life. Then I came across Buddhism; travelled to Bodhgaya and other Buddhist centres in India. Finally, I was in Nagpur. It was there about three years back I accepted Buddhism as my path. It was painful to let go my Christianity, but I had realised it was not for me,” the author provides the backgrounder. Buddhism has made her “more compassionate.” She then unravels her immense respect for Babasaheb B R Ambedkar. “I have been greatly influenced by his ideas and his selfless effort to change the lives of oppressed milieu,” Mason John adds.


Nagpur also gave her the opportunity to meet the members of Aryatara Mahila Trust --- an organisation that works to uphold the rights of Dalit women. It was at the request of the Trust, Mason John began documenting the experiences of Dalit women. “In India, women, particularly in the rural sector, have tough life --- they are oppressed in many ways. The sufferings get enhanced in case of Dalit women,” the author shares her impression. She then introduces to me Indu, a Dalit woman, whose painful experiences have been included in Broken Voices. After Indu recounts how often she was humiliated because of her background, Mason John says that she wanted the world to know about the discrimination. “When you tell people about their bad behaviour, there are chances that they will rectify; often communication gap leads to misunderstandings and violence. I always write with an intention and with Broken Voices I hope one day things will change for good,” she says.


I couldn’t help but ask her about the concept of reservation for people belonging to so-called low castes in India. Mason John looks at me and perhaps tries to understand my motive for asking her that question. “For a while reservation is fine because that ensures these oppressed people have access to education. But, as I told you, a day must come when these people will be at par with rest in terms of their education and quality of other faculties; nobody will question the abilities of the oppressed,” she explains.


I ask her to share some anecdotes during her Maharashtra tour. Mason John recalls how she learnt to work in a paddy field at a place near Lonavala and found the importance of rituals in our lives. “I could identify with them all. People in my country of origin --- that is Sierra Leon --- also have similar rituals related to paddy and rice,” she adds.


Based in London, Mason John also works an anger management trainer. The job keeps her occupied for considerable period in a year. Still, she takes out time to write. Being a multifaceted personality, Mason John is often influenced by her many occupations. “My book Detox Your Heart was written based on my experiences as an anger management trainer,” she informs. Similarly, her first book Borrowed Body was mostly based on her own life. The award-winning author then informs about her plans to write a play on the life of Dr Ambedkar. “I hope my works get translated into other Indian languages so that people who do not understand English are not deprived,” she says.


Mason John is well acquainted with the Indian writings in English. She mentions Arundhati Roy as her favourite Indian author. But she also mentions Monica Ali as one of those British writers who are breaking free. “The style of these second generation non-White writers in the UK are different; they give more stress on multiculturalism,” Mason John informs.