In the world so fragile and irreparably broken, somewhere in the chambers of grief and exhausting silence, the writings of theatre activist, Paromita Bardoloi offer extraordinary compassion. Her work is reflective, decisive and takes one through a broad range of emotions.
Born and raised in a joint family in a sleepy town of Assam called Rupai Siding, Paromita, third of the four siblings, saw life from uncommon corners. Her childhood was far from fancy but well nurtured. “I was not good in studies, my sisters were. I lived in another world, and almost always missed something. Like tying my block laces, or putting the ribbon in my hair to school or taking all books to class. But I don’t know how magically every book appeared in school. My sisters took care of me. Mom used to be worried, Dad said nothing. I passed from one class to another. Walked slow, and stammered a lot. They put me into art school and singing school. I failed in both equally, in fact consistently failed in every effort. I could not read time for the longest time. It was hard for me. I read my first comic book at around 10 years of age. My sisters used to read to me”, she remembers. In the same breath, she confesses, “There was an unsaid acceptance that I was a little slow. My mind did not work like others. So, there were zero expectations from me as long I passed my exams. I don’t remember pain or sadness from that phase. I remember freedom and safety. My father was like a huge oak tree that shaded, sheltered, and nurtured. Nothing could hurt you there. The world outside never existed when you are under that tree.”
Acceptance is a beautiful thing. It has the power to do wonders. Children who feel accepted grow up to become more content, more confident in their own skin. For Paromita, a significant part of that acceptance came from her father, who was a lawyer, a kind man ahead of his time, well read and well-travelled. “He was the Sun around which our lives rotated,” she beams remembering his every essence. Fondly calling him ‘My Oak Tree’, she continues, “He took us to circus, movies, plays, got us amazing books to read. He dreamt about our futures that had us flying high in the skies.” And then, a fleeting unfortunate moment changed everything. “It was November, a Friday. I was 11. We were at home preparing for our class test. Someone ran to our house screaming. Dad had an accident. Maa went. In an hour, Maa came back with Dad’s dead body. He did not survive the accident.”
Abrupt, unceremonious exists are hard to comprehend, let alone make peace with. One chokes and water doesn’t help. Nothing helps actually. “The Sun around which our lives rotated was gone. Our lives were never the same again. We lost our childhood the day our father was put in the pyre. We lost our oak tree. And it’s heartbreaking to live that loss. People talk about how men break women’s heart. But no one tells how Dads break daughters’ hearts. We could not even say a goodbye, to him. After that, life came as a teacher and like an obedient student, I sat through every class.” If you have ever experienced trauma, you would know when it happens something abandons ‘within’ – it could be something as fragile yet solid as trust, or hope. For Paromita, life became difficult after losing her Oak Tree but that also shaped her the woman she is today. She looked in new directions, noticed what otherwise would have simply passed by. She saw her Mother and that was a new beginning.
“After my father’s death, I have seen my mother work very hard to bring everything to the table. And I take inspiration from it, time and again. We were four siblings. At that time, my brother was yet to go to school, and the rest three of us were still in school. The future demanded money. She didn’t mourn, because she had no time. She knew she had to take care of her school going kids. Before the incident, my father had bought a firm. Everyone advised my mother to sell it but she refused even when she had no idea how to run it. Our father had died in a car crash. Everyone told us to dispose the car. But our mother, got the car repainted and started using again. She would go to our firm at 4 am in the morning, come back, send us to school, then go to her workplace and again come back and run the house. Despite our circumstances, she managed to get each one of us the best of education.”
Paromita came from a place of strength. The situations were unfavorable but that taught her to find her way out. Her unparalleled resilience left no space for fear to seep in. “I am not afraid of working, from getting what I want/need. I am not afraid to process.”
A woman like this is beautiful and intimidating, compassionate and bold at the same time. Time flew in its grim pace. She joined Miranda House, Delhi University. A place she owes a lot to. A place that gave her a sense of identity. A pace that gave her, her voice. At present, Paromita runs two wonderful initiatives – ‘Letters from a Stranger’, and ‘Let’s Huddle, India’. She is also the sitting President – Assam: Mentoring & Soft Skills Council for Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (WICCI).
I have been a small part of the ‘Letters from a Stranger’ tribe and so, if I am to describe it from a human point of view – I will call it ‘Balsamic’. And what I also like about this initiative is – it is original in a very old-school way. Paromita, who is a great lover of letter-writing says, “When you sit down to write a letter you put yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s how empathy begins. It makes you gentle. And the one who receives the letter feels heard and finds an ear in someone else. That makes the receiver a little gentler than before. My intent is to leave behind a place that is gentle where someone can lay their head upon in times when everything hurts.” According to her, the initiative truly belongs to the volunteers. Each circle hosts an army of 30 to 40 people working closely, putting in a lot of emotional labor, making sure everyone is heard. She also deeply appreciates and recognizes that all these volunteers work without any expectation, that too for a person they barely know.
Some part of ‘reviving the art of letter writing’ is also derived from how she sees this world which is now far more fragile, vulnerable, polarized, uneven and distant than before. “We have built so many walls around us that, forget about enemies even lovers can’t enter.” She addresses these complexities by saying, “Today, everyone is talking and no one is actually listening. We need world leaders who can hear us and speak empathy. Everyone is so lonely and wants to be heard in an overtly connected world. We are losing our connections with ourselves. And that’s creating too many violent people, ripping the world apart. Nobody wants to be soft and sensitive because we have given it a bad name. Human life demands everything. Let’s relearn to be vulnerable and experience life in its fullness. Otherwise there are just zombies talking to other zombies.”
Letters to Strangers may have transformed several lives, so much that its hard to count how many emotions get addressed and how many people bare their souls in each circle, but when I asked Paromita to share one letter that particularly stayed with her – This is what she sent me:
(Exclusive from Real Life Heroes – By Manvi)