During my college days, I started developing a deep interest in poetry recitation. I loved reflecting on the imagination of the great poets and felt joy at finding the process of understanding poetry and the process of understanding the self to be so intertwined. I excitedly looked forward to participating in every poetry recitation competition -- to get the opportunity of narrating the beautiful words of poets from different ages of history!
A poem by Jhaverchand Meghani (who Gandhiji called "the national poet") was somehow becoming a personal favorite. Not only does it make for a great poem for recitation requiring modulation of voice and emotions at a dramatic pace, it is also a story of courage. This poem "Charankanya" (literally meaning: a girl from the Charan tribe) tells a true tale from a small village in Saurashtra. The poem starts with narrating the might and awe of a lion, the king of the jungle! Describing in minute detail the fearful effects the lion had on different creatures, the poem goes on to narrate the extensive preparations the villagers make to guard themselves against the lion. With this backdrop, the poet introduces Charankanya, a young 14-year-old innocent Charan girl, playful and full of life.
Suddenly we are confronted with the situation of Charankanya coming face to face with the lion! We see the girl transforming into a fiery fighter. The rhythm of the poetry picks up pace. Something unbelievable happens -- the girl sees the lion eye-to-eye and then runs behind him with a stick, screaming out loud. Seeing her, the lion gets afraid and runs away! The 14-year-old Charankanya is a force to reckon with, the sheer manifestation of power -- the energy to which one either surrendered or rose to the full potential. Indeed, such a gorgeous representation of the power of a woman!
I was participating in a recitation competition where I was reciting "Charankanya". I was pitted against a strong contender, Chitra, from a rival college. Throughout the qualifier round, the audience and other participants made us both feel that the real competition was between the two of us and the one who outperformed out of us two, would bag the title!
On the day of the competition, I was anxiously preparing myself to give my best shot. When the competition was about to begin, I looked around for Chitra. She was nowhere to be seen. I asked another participant about her whereabouts. I was told that Chitra was not to participate in the competition anymore. It was because her parents were uncomfortable with their daughter entering such events and getting all the attention. They were eager to get her married soon and bring an end to her liking for such extracurricular activities.
The reply shocked me. Chitra was not only one of the better poetry reciters I knew but also an intelligent person full of potential. How could she be stopped from shining out? How could she be deliberately kept away from the opportunities she deserved? Perhaps it was because she was a woman, her talents did not matter. All she had to do was to fit into a specific role that the society expected of her as soon as possible. Hope and pray that she would find a remotely understanding life-partner who would not find pleasure in boosting his ego by putting her down.
The poem which magnificently depicted the power of a woman, ironically became a reason for me to wake up to certain realities of our society.
I felt conflicted and honestly, shattered. On one hand I was preparing myself to read "Charankanya", the poem depicting power and strength of a woman and on the other hand, in front of my eyes, the dreams of a young girl were coming to an end and her potential was being sealed into a box -- never to bloom again.
How I wished Chitra could somehow transform as the girl in the poem -- confronting the lions around her with fearless attitude and self-belief!
Afterall, even the poem "Charankanya" is based on a true story. A 14-year-old village girl did outpower the lion, the magnificent beast, who ran away just at her sight -- a demeanor full of confidence and fearlessness. The girl who was raised in the harsh conditions of nature, in an environment where only the fittest survives, had such power of self-belief that she did not even flinch an eyelid before coming heads-on with danger.
Our society has become so adept at creating Chitras -- filling their minds with fears and insecurities making them under confident, so afraid about what might life have in store for them lest they take the less trodden path. Any semblance of courage left to break out is snubbed so strong that it forgets its own existence.
How I wish Chitra would come alive one day as Charankanya -- courageously standing up for herself. In every Chitra, there is a Charankanya, so fierce, so unafraid rearing to confront and outpower any kind of lion that life may put her way. All it takes is someone who believes in her, offering a helping hand. And, sometimes that someone can be she herself!
Perhaps, a Chitra is somewhere near you -- either as your sister, mother, wife, friend or even as your own self! Next time you meet a Chitra, ask yourself this one simple question: "How many Charankanyas have you made come alive?"