A Narrative Conference: Where Sparkling Hopes Dance in Every Corner

It was 4th February, 2016. I came to be emotionally involved with a beautiful concept. But I had skepticism about its existence as in my experiential world I have witnessed mostly the opposite. It was the concept of rizomatic community. I was introduced to it in a class of ‘Feminism & related issues’.

What is it? The rizomatic community? It is a horizontal network rather than a vertical hierarchy; existence of proliferating connections without clear boundaries dividing inside and outside; there is no single centre, multiple centers with nodes grow together for periods of time and then dissolve and form new roots and tubers; it envisions no leaders invested with authority but only facilitators. I was fascinated by the idea of absence of authoritarian power.

The immediate metaphor came in my mind was the great banyan tree in the Sibpur botanical garden at Kolkata! I have been there for countless times; with friends; with family; with loved ones; with someone special in my life! The Ganga is visible! The big tree and my favorite river with the memories of so many moments are alive in me! I remember one expression of my mother! It was in my college days probably! I like to introduce my mother as a person who finds surprise in almost everything around us! She was saying with her natural expression of being amazed ‘It’s so extraordinary! One cannot find out which one is the main trunk!’

It looks like a big dense forest rather than a single tree.

‘Its main trunk became diseased after it was struck by two cyclones, so in 1925 the main trunk of the tree was amputated to keep the remainder healthy; this has left it as a clonal colony, rather than a single tree. A 330-metre-long (1,080 ft) road was built around its circumference, but the tree continues to spread beyond it…..’ from Wikipedia.

Now from the feminist point of view I love the concept from my heart! To me it is making of the other trunks visible against patriarchy, hegemony of patriarchal power & authority! It is a manifestation of diversity. It brings an imagery of many people standing together embracing one another.

But I have witnessed differently in our life; in the society! The authoritarian power is dominant in the culture! I tried to become conscious about it in my personal life; tried to work on it, which I have gained from my privileges! And I landed up saying to myself ‘it’s difficult! It is so difficult!’ Patriarchal power, gender-based hierarchy is so deep rooted in our culture! They are silently embedded in us!

But is it really possible to witness these principles in a community? In a conference? I found ‘it is’; ‘it can be!’ When I heard the word ‘rhizome’ in Jehan’s keynote address it almost shook me! It brought me the picture back in my mind and I found it to be resonated in the nuances of the conference!

There are so many things! So many moments! So many gestures of spontaneous care! So many eyes full of love and genuine curiosity! I felt my heart in others; my pain in the tears of others! Such an enriching experience! Isn’t the example of a rizomatic community? I was wondering! We cried together; laughed together and hoped together with various known and unknown faces! Got drenched in the feeling of solidarity! Yes! It was weaving of hopes (Jeh! I take your word)! We were exactly as ‘we are’! There was no pressure of being judged! Everyone was welcome; comfortable to be sad or happy! I found how we people are relational in our sense of self! A safe space!

I wonder! Is it the idea of an alternative conference?

Even conferences organized to celebrate Simon de Beauvoir’s book on second sex suffered from criticisms! I like to quote something from Audre Lorde…

‘Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill /it is a learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.

Lorde condemned the conference for its limited range of speakers, its substance, its very structure! She examined the ramification of failing to include others as equal! The same tool, the politics of patriarchy was applied there too; she felt!

These examples are common in the mainstream; even there where conferences are made outside mainstream, even to spread the idea of feminism!

But how did we feel in weavingourvoices?

The Ummeed Mental Health Team at their keynote address at the Conference; left to right: Jill Sanghvi, Raviraj Shetty, Daisy Daruwalla, Shamin Mehrotra and Jehanzeb Baldiwala

Jehanzeb concluded her keynote address with a quote: “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” — Arundhati Roy

To love and to be loved

It was in our tears when we felt love in us; in tenderness when we felt to be loved. Each & every person felt significant! Yes!

Ryan at his keynote address at the Conference

Ohh! Ryan! I love you! I would love to be a subscriber of your show! Will you take me?

To never forget your own insignificance

We felt significant! Everyone felt significant!

I was thrilled how local vernaculars got equal importance in the conference and in workshops! There was no dominance of any language! What a heart-touching idea to interview families on the stage in their own language! We found resource persons in the workshops are continuously checking whether it is being translated!

We were witnessing how narrative is being used in different contexts; different disciplines; different ways! I quote again “survival is not an academic skill……. to seek a world in which we can all flourish.” I was rejuvenated with a message! There is a community which holds people who want to work for the marginalized with the principle of narratives in their own way! The term marginalization appears to me as being present in near & far, in micro (individual) and macro (broader culture) levels; starting from a mother-child chronicle to de-colonising narratives! Such a holding! All are so significant!

‘Mentors are always available for any help’ came in a presentation too!

We found ourselves absorbed in the speeches by Darshana and Sanket!

We found Dodo and Kabir (people from ASD) felt themselves so comfortable and significant! People in the auditorium were spontaneous to accept diversity! Dodo (my son) reported back to his counselor “it was an awesome experience!” He talked about the inclusiveness of the place; softness and care of people!

To seek joy in the saddest places.

We witnessed how people seek joy in the saddest places; in the children and families experiencing developmental disabilities; with the women in prison…. There was joy enmeshed everywhere; in every narratives; in all presentations! Love is the magic which makes ‘joy’ visible in saddest places! The magic of Narratives principles were pervasive! It was a narrative conference!

The pre conference workshop of Trauma by Maggie Carey & Gabriela Jauregui made us feel that stories are more than biology!  There are always preferred stories! When a trauma-stuck person feels numb how ‘absent but implicit’ map can lead the person straight to the principles, commitments, values, hope, beliefs, dreams of that person and ultimately to the preferred stories! It’s a direct gateway from a micro picture to a bigger horizon! I can still remember how Maggie Carey was standing on the chair to see the bigger picture! How amusement can bring a glimpse of relief in teaching too! It helped us to understand things so easily!  I remember some words like ‘connection & resonance’; ‘knowledge of wisdom’; ‘our job is to make some cracks’! I felt that a narrative therapist is one who gets drenched in the feeling of solidarity with the person who is refusing to accept what has happened with that person! We came to know about the Neuroplasticity of the brain and how preferred stories can help a person to build a new path!

from left to right: Gabriela Jauregui and Maggie Carey

It was wonderful to witness a ‘jugalbandi’ (concert of togetherness) of Maggie Carey and Gabriela! Gabriela was talking about an exercise! It’s to be done in three parts! Bringing together ‘small details of five senses from any daily activity’; ‘big ideas relating to that activity’ and ‘sharing the experience with a friend/partner/sibling’! What an amazing and creative way to reach to a big picture from some physical/sensory thing!

Gabriela was also exploring the philosophical base of ‘absent but implicit’ map; how Derrida questioned the assumptions of western culture; how he talked about singularity of text which is always in relation to otherness; careful & ethical way to read a text; act of disruption of dominant discourse; deconstruction; always something is left, cannot be appropriated totally; to look for hidden meaning; alternative meaning; something is implied but absent; the liminal space; hidden in the corners; space of possibility! It was really beautiful to relate all those concepts with the map!

I missed a mini workshop taken by Gabriela where people used their creativity (Gabriela is a poet too) to rename the DSM categorization of disorders into simple day-to-day term!  What a beautiful idea to come out of the dominant understanding of disorders! Those categories act as labels which also create stigma!

To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you.

To respect strength, never power

The Women of Dadra & Nagar Haveli at their keynote address at the Conference

The voice of unspeakable were heard with dignity in the keynote of community; performance of people from Dadra Nagar Haveli! I found myself too fortunate to be there to witness those! The tune is still in my ear ‘ohh oh hum adivasiii’!

‘I have hope; I have dream!; I have fear!’— America Bracho way saying in her keynote address.

America Bracho at the keynote address at the Conference.

America was pointing out how we find the problems in the community work –’Ohh! My God! This is horrible! What is going to happen? The corruption!’ The amusement in her body language was making things visible to us but we all were laughing!  At the same time it was making out privileges visible too! She was saying ‘Is there a different way to say this?…..look at the women! Look what they do! And what works! What does not work! Let’s grow!’

I attended the workshop on community by America Bracho and Rakesh Ghone! They start the workshop by talking about how all trainings are co-trainings! We fail to understand it as it is not always visible to us! This is enormously important in case of community work! I was witnessing the magic of making the chair of a teacher vanished! We need to unlearn many things!

reflect; reflect and reflect!

‘What I am going to do?’

‘How do I know about myself with respect to the community?’

‘Continuously reflect that I do not know the other people’s context!’

It is important to value the difference not similarities!

There was a small exercise in the first day! A case of a sixth standard boy Ram was mentioned. Father of Ram takes alchohol; becomes aggressive; mother & grandmother of Ram had no voice; it was an issue of anger management of Ram. He was disturbing other children in school; becoming aggressive….

The questions were

Who is responsible? (3 min)

Who can help? (3 min)

Which services they need? (3 min)

What would you do? (3 min)

We were divided into groups having same mother tongue! A note keeper, a time keeper and a straw giver are to be fixed in each group! Whenever one speaks the person would receive a straw! At the end of the exercise we found that some had no straw in their hands and some had many straws!  Such a wonderful exercise to reflect the fact that in our life too, some people are privileged to have many straws! The system very often makes someone feel that ‘I do not know! Others know better than me!’ People like Ram’s mother & dadi are kept mum by the patriarchy; they are deprived by the system to exercise their agencies! In a community work distribution of straw to everyone is to be kept in mind!

Time & pace are important factors to consider! If you are in a rush that you have to finish immediately, it might not work in community!

Rakesh was showing us a picture and asking “what do you see?” We everyone missed his fingers which were also visible!

We also came to realize how playfulness can be incorporated (“PUM PUM”) to make everyone relaxed and focused! In the workshop we came to realize that you are prepared for community work when you are ready to date the community! Relating through ‘heart’ is so important!

To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple.

‘Shor’ at their keynote address at the Conference.

Things can be so simple! To love people and care everyone from the heart! This simplicity was being reflected in all presentations! I could not attend all presentations! It is the power of narrative which can makes us simple in our heart as we gain our confidence from sparkling moments of our lived experiences! When I feel ‘it was there with me; in my own lived time; in my own stories’ I feel rejuvenated! It is simple! But there are things in our environment which is not at all simple! The dominant discourses, the patriarchal value embedded in the structure, the politics of memory in the mainstream to make any oppression and violence normalized! Narrative addresses these things in a different way! It also finds and makes cracks in the existing structure of oppression by deconstructing the reality besides rescuing stories of strength from our lived experience! I felt that any art form can beautifully do it when I witnessed ‘SHOR’ to perform; ‘JUGAAD’ group to advocate about mental health! I was fortunate to have a ‘JUGAAD’ book with me and it was so beautiful!

The power of narrative can be spread to decolonize our identities – we witnessed in the keynote address by Travis Heath! The conversation of Madhi (as his grandfather) & the therapist reminded me the story of my grandfather too! I felt that the story of his knowing ‘kirtan'( a local genre of music and the word means ‘describing, narrating or telling something/stories’) was a subjugated story in their family; unheard in the dominant western culture! Yes! We carry the accumulated knowledge from our ancestors. It also reminded me some other stories!

In a draught-stricken area how an old man pointed out about the proper place to dig a tube well; he did it by just knocking his stick on the ground (there were no remote sensing in those days)… it is about his relationship with the ground; with the nature; we are born in stories; grow up in stories; it is our relationship with the time!

Alfonso Diaz in his keynote address at the conference.

Sometimes presentation looks like poems! Alfonso Diaz’s presentation on collective construction of knowledge came to me like a poem! Stories as being; stories of stories; stories of time. I had a feeling that one can transcend time; the dominant way of depicting it by western culture! I was visualizing a big canvas of different people from different times; the stories of people; stories of flora & fauna; stories of relationship between people and mountains; people and forest; people and fountain, rivers! I thought of the movements of resistance against killing rivers! It reminds me a line of Tagore’s song (সেথা যে বহে নদী নিরবধি সে ভোলে নি; the river which flows there did’t forget)! The mainstream civilisation has forgotton the age-old relationship among species; the connection with nature!

When I was coming back from the conference I felt that I am carrying a blue sky with me which is full of beautiful kites (I am a kite too!)! They have smiles in their faces; eyes full of love; we are each other’s strength; we can cry together! After a day when I was thinking about the imagery I remember the stories of Mexican women ‘we don’t want to be footballs; we prefer to be kites’.

I even do not know how it has become my story too!

Found this quote from C.G. Jung.

“Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away—an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.” I have scribbled an image in the computer and made a picture… sending the community…

(This piece is a reflection by Arpita on the Second International Narrative Ideas Conference – Weaving our Voices held in Feb, 1 – 2 of 2020.)

About the Author:

Born in 1963, Arpita spent early childhood in the Himalayan Terrains of Doors region of West Bengal. She received school level education in different district towns and finally came to Kolkata in 1981 for studies in college and University. As a professional, Arpita has a varied experience which includes teaching economics in a college, imparting IT education and developing software, building maps, charts & teaching aids for schools, and running GIS institute and making GIS maps etc. From the very childhood in her lived experience she has discovered different types of discriminations of which the most widespread is gender. The vast exposure in the professional life helped Arpita to understand the unwritten structural disparities prevailing in the job market as well as in the society too. At the same time, in her journey, she recognizes the fact that the real strength of people goes unnoticed in the mainstream culture. Her fascination for psychology and social psychology drew her close to the world of mental health and since 2009, she pursued relevant studies like MA in psychology from IGNOU, Counselling course from JU, Post PG Diploma in school counseling from CU etc. Currently she is doing her Ph D on Stigma and marginalization in mental health, from psychology department of Calcutta University. She is attached to a Kolkata based private hospital as a counsellor and also works in the SPU unit of Applied Psychology, CU. She has a special interest in feminism and related issues. The idea of Narrative Practices has brought new meaning in her work, and life.

Contact : epitome.arpita@gmail.com

A portrait of Arpita

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