Nirbhaya tells the true story of a woman in distress, and the power of speaking out.
Write to make sense of things. Write to enlighten. Write for different reasons, but most importantly write to tell your story. Storytelling is an innate human need passed on for generations. The exchange of oral stories is one of the most basic and primal social needs. Some make it a career, while some go out of their way to make it as seldom as possible. Writing has the ability to inspire and crush sentence to sentence. I believe your story and the way you tell it is the most powerful entity you have. Mutual sharing of experiences and being able to reverberate is truly groundbreaking. Anecdotes are uniquely valuable because they connect humans on a level like none other.
Journaling has shown positive psychological affects on the brain. Writing down all of your inner thoughts and straining feelings is extremely effective while experiencing trauma. Thinking back to my past when I was in therapy, I was often told to free flow write. This basically entails writing down every little thought that comes to mind, without second-guessing it. I can attest to the success of this method. Transferring the words from my brain to the paper was what made it fulfilling. After a while of therapy, the doctor prescribed reading the journal entries out loud. Reading my inner monologue with my own voice is the most powerful I’ve ever felt.
To write a piece on storytelling, you need to interview writers. Step one, I found Caroline Gill, an award-winning storyteller (or author). After sifting through her credentials, I realized she would be an excellent aspirant to interview. She would hopefully clarify the art of storytelling in another light. I needed to consult an expert. A recent excerpt from her novel in its infancy, Neither Truth Nor Poetry received the 2015 Penguin Random House Canada Student Award for fiction. She is a graduate from the University of Toronto Creative Writing certificate program. Her advice to me was plentiful, and much valued.
She is an inspiring writer to interview. Her positive to my aspiration to write was comforting and stimulating. Caroline told me that it was never too late to do something you love, especially if you’re facing forward. This resonates with me in my personal writing struggles. She stated that everything she writes about is not monumental. It is just as crucial to touch on the little things, as it is to delve into the colossal things. She passionately categorizes writing as an act of service. This is remarkable because not only is it an act of self-expression, but also a service to others. The angst of writing (which Caroline says has a relationship like PB&J) can contain such beauty. An author is simply offering an amenity to their audience.
Caroline Gill strives to cover heavy content. She mentions the burden and legacy associated with shame and gender issues. She exclaims that art mimics life, with storytelling as no exception. There are heavy parts in life, but also lighter bits. Her literature is a testimony of just that. She believes that all pieces of writing has to have ups and downs, because that’s just what life is. This gave me a newer perspective on my storytelling because prior to this, I usually tried to maintain a single tone.
The quote in the interview with Caroline Gill that resonated with me most prominently: “I write to make sense of things.” This was repeated several times during our conversation. She writes to make sense of the world, and how it works. She writes to make sense of her trials and tribulations. She writes to feel content. Writing fulfills all moods, because it encompasses all moods. The content of the piece is shown in the emotional state of the author. Caroline Gill taught me that I too, write to make sense of things.
Like many other things, every author has his or her own reason for storytelling. For some, it is unfortunately to break the silence. By breaking the silence, I mean uttering words that are typically inhibited. When a person is oppressed, their words are consequently given the same type of treatment. Their words do not matter, as they do not matter. This idea applies to women and sexual violence globally. Sufferers are then kept in this abstain from speech atmosphere, for fear of the unknown. They are banned from telling their story in order to protect those who wronged them. Writing to shatter social norms is totally unlike writing for leisure.
Sexual violence carries an overbearing burden of shame for the victim. Gender-based violence is unfortunately and increasingly common in male-dominated societies. The outcome of this is a lifetime of silence for the casualty, which encourages the offender to remain anonymous and in the realm of silence. Breaking the overbearing quietness is a weighty action. A play called Nirbhaya toured all over the world these past few years. It is based on a girl who was gang raped and suffered wounds deep enough to eventually kill. It shocked the Indian culture and gives note to the significance of telling your story. The play encourages everyone in the audience to break the silence, in the most overwhelming piece of theatre I have ever seen. Women in the show dedicate themselves to Nirbhaya, the victim of the bus. Nirbhaya means fearless in India. Her case caused a ripple effect of women coming forward with their story of violence. This inspired writer and director Yaël Farber to create a theatrical piece. I had the pleasure of seeing it this year at the Harbour Front Centre in Toronto.
Upon writing this piece, I stumble across an article by the CBC, advertising Nirbhaya. This is due to the fact that it was only in Toronto for such a short time.  Yael Farber sits down for an interview with Julian Uzielli. She describes the real Nirbhaya as: “there was something about her courage, something about the way she fought for her life. That stood against her grave medical conditions on holding the men accountable what they had done to her. Her refusal to go down without a fight, her refusal to assume responsibility for what had been done to her. Too often the survivors of sexual violence sit in silence, and this silence generates some kind of shame.” The director herself leaves Nirbhaya as a platform to define the emotion of shame as protecting someone else, and keeping secrets. This sets the tone for Nirhaya the play. Yael Farber’s voice is impactful in this interview, as she is the face of the Nirbhaya. She is advertising the show to Torontonians, and she is the best person for the job.
I should note that each character in the play is telling their own story, as they are not actors. They are playing themselves, revealing their dark precedents. For this reason, I could not stop thinking about the play after I watched it. I felt as though I was witnessing something I wasn’t meant to see, with the constant beating recounts of horrendous sexual and physical violence. It felt invasive. When the Guardian reviewed Nirbhaya, the author Lyn Gardner touched on the idea of a spectator. In the article she said: “We are not just watching, we are bearing witness”  Lyn Gardner is outlining the concept of testimonial theatre. This entails bearing witness to something taboo and kept away from society. Women in the play are testifying against their perpetrator. I found myself thinking about my deepest, darkest secrets and if I would want to share them on a stage. I decided I would prefer to keep some things hidden. The accounts are in unstinting detail, a true act of bravery in my opinion.
Nirbhaya inspired me reflecting on storytelling on every day life. Are anecdotes as hard-hitting and true as they should be? How true are you meant to tell your story. Yael Farber, director of Nirbhaya, reminds her actresses that their best weapon is their truth.  Their truth is what shifts the blame from the victim to the offending party. The onus is now on those who hurt them, and off of their shoulders, they no longer harvest the guilt. Following the death of Nirbhaya, Delhi had a unanimous sense of enough. A review of the play states: “There were protests and calls to action to stop violence against women, social-media campaigns to destigmatize the shame that’s often associated with sexual assault, and demands for accountability: of perpetrators, governments, and judicial systems.”  All audience members were expected to respond accordingly after the house lights had come back on. It is a play of witness.
Poorna Jagannathan is an award-winning actress who has worked extensively in theatre, film, and TV in India and the US. She was also a victim of sexual violence. In the program for Nirbhaya, she states: “I raise my hand because silences are what make us complicit in the violence. So our silence is not ours to keep.” Deconstructed, this means that ending the secrecy associated with gender-based violence only ties the victim to the culprit tighter. They are bound in this limbo of hushed tones together, and speaking out puts the blame on that person. Poorna is the first woman to come forward, and create the movement that is Nirbhaya.
When Yael Farber was constructing Nirbhaya the play, Jagannathan reached out to her via Facebook, and they created the piece from there. “Women are ready to speak here in India in the wake of this rape and death, come here and create work that enables us to break the silence.”  Poorna reportedly told her director that before they created the concept for the play. The birth of Nirbhaya the play happened from there, as many other women were encourage to tell their story on an abnormal platform such as a stage. The show itself has sold out worldwide, maintaining its success through its essential message.
After the show there was a talk back, and I was able to truly interact with the cast. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for any journalist, and I was very blessed. All of the actresses came out, and it was truly remarkable to see them not as actresses, but as people. They lived what they just showed me. I will note that it was uncomfortable enough for me to watch, so I could never imagine in my wildest dreams experiencing it. Each woman has a different story containing sexual violence. Each has a different offending party, from brothers, to husbands, to caregivers, to uncles, to random strangers. I could not believe that these women were brave enough to talk about their family, as that hits close to home. The burden of shame associated with familial rape is colossal. Each woman told her story with dignity and pride, shielding herself from the disgrace and dishonour. I stood in ovation when the women appeared back on stage, opening the floor to questioning.
My burning question throughout the duration of the play was: does it get harder or easier each time these women are on stage, living their shadiest and worst moments? They each answered my question a little differently, but the one who stood out to me the most was the answer provided by Pamela Mala Sinha. According to the program, this actress is Canadian, and has been in shows such as CRASH and Happy Place. Her story was the final one in the play. I sat there thinking that sexual violence only occurs in countries I have never been to, until Pamela spoke.
Sinha had moved to the National Theatre School in Montreal to become an actress. The night of her move-in, someone had broken into her apartment building and raped her. This script does not let Westerners off the hook.  When I asked Sinha if it was difficult to play her darkest moments over and over again each night, her answer was deep. She replied: “I had an issue in the beginning, but now I know it is for the greater good of the people in the audience who can relate to me.” She continued: “I hope to inspire at least one person each night to break their silence, and that makes the pain of re-experiencing monumentally easier. I turn my grief into art, and through expression of method acting I become someone else on stage. This moves me away from Sinha the victim, and closer to Pamela the informant. I do this to inform, and to spread awareness of sexual violence. It gets easier.” Pamela’s response sums up the general idea for most of the actresses, they know it is for a good cause. Contributing to the conversation around stigmatized sexual violence is the motif of these hard-working actresses.
After Sinha performed, I could not stop thinking “what if that was someone I knew, or me?” She bravely demonstrated that this is not just something that occurs in the movies, or in other countries. Sexual violence has no type. She was not afraid to stand up and tell her story in the country it occurred in. This made me uncomfortable, but also evoked a sense of the other in me. I think back to a concept I learned in high school, about the other. In Catholic School, we are always taught about our global responsibility to one another. We are innately responsible for each and every person in the world, regardless of their age, sex, or location. Nirbhaya reminded me that I am closer to humans than I think, and this is something that needs to be stopped. If it isn’t stopped soon, it could be me next time.
When I interviewed Caroline Gill, I asked her how she felt about reading her work in front of an audience. She told me: “putting your work out there is like walking into a room in your bathing suit alone. Everyone is looking at you, you are not quite naked but you are out there.” I believe the women in Nirbhaya were fully naked. Their hard-hitting versions of sexual violence stripped them of the socially constructed shame. They felt guilty for being raped because their male-dominated atmosphere fostered this behaviour.
Caroline also taught me to be exposed as many things as I can, as everything can be a worthy story. Go places, see things. If you want to properly represent an argument between two teenagers, you have to listen to teenagers. Life gives you the best and most applicable writing content. Experiences are as critical to exceptional writing. Having said that, life is also not perfect. Misery does exist. However, it is just as important to tell your dark stories, as it is to tell your lighter ones. They serve a different purpose.
Raising their voices also gives a face to the masses. Statistics are thrown around frequently of daunting numbers. In Canada, out of every 100 incidents of sexual assault, 6 are reported to the police. These staggering figures are the exact reason why victims need to speak out. Society needs to be flipped around, and stop blaming the victims for their abuse cases. It is never the fault of the victim, no matter what the circumstances. Hearing the numbers is not as shocking as hearing a live report by a face. In Nirbhaya, each character put a story to the 6 of 100. Reading a statistic is only a mere number, while hearing the pungent story expresses a far deeper meaning.
In high school, I was a retreat leader in grade eleven and twelve. It was a position I was justly proud of. Our job entailed demonstrating a personified safe haven for younger students to muse. We were encouraged to give witness talks, which is the equivalent of telling your story. I explicitly remember us being instructed to do so because it fosters a safe environment to do so. The option to listen is as profound as the option to speak. In order to create an encouraging environment, you must have peers willing to listen. Telling my personal story in my witness talk opened up the minds of my peers to tell their stories. Once someone stands up and shows that it is acceptable to speak, they break the boundaries of silence.
As a journalism student, I am given a refreshed perspective of storytelling. My obligation to tell my story is reinforced in the society I live in, while others are reprimanded for opening their mouths. Upon seeing Nirbhaya, I am overwhelmed with this freedom. Telling the truth and opening up about taboo subjects is not only extraordinary, it is my responsibility. We all have a right. Storytelling is as essential as love and water. If I was a victim of any type of violence, I could say so without fearing the repercussions. My personal expression of freedom of speech will dictate my life forever. For this reason, I will tell my story whenever and wherever possible. Sharing stories is the most powerful commodity humans have. It’s in us to tell just as the blood in our veins is to give.