When you read the title of Gurmehar Kaur’s book Small Acts Of Freedom, you wouldn’t be able to quite predict what’s in store. Is she telling the story of her father? Or like him, the men who fight for us? Well, it’s a lot more than the title.
Kaur’s memoir is the story of three generations of women —her nani (maternal grandmother) Amarjeet, her mother Raji, and Gurmehar herself.
Gurmehar’s grandmother, whose family had to flee Pakistan after Partition, lost her husband when Raji was just a child and Gurmehar lost her father at the young age of two. It’s the story of their freedom from the tragic memories of losing loved ones when they were least prepared for it. And it’s their story of emerging from it way stronger.
It’s poignant and leaves you with a lump in your throat once in a while. Gurmehar manages to beautifully weave together the stories of mothers, wives and daughters of the men in the armed forces.
Last year, the 20-year-old student of the Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi faced several death and rape threats. This was after violent clashes at Delhi University's Ramjas College when Gurmehar, along with a friend, started a social media campaign against the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).
But soon, Gurmehar started getting trolled for her earlier post where she was seen holding a placard that said “Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him.”
Gurmehar, whose father died fighting militants in Jammu and Kashmir in 1999, finally withdrew from the campaign, and left Delhi.
In the world of Gulgul, her papa is still alive. The 3-year-old struggles to grasp the idea of her father’s death and knows that she will find him. She waits for him to wake up when the officers bring his coffin, she hops on to a wrong bogey to take her to her grandmother’s house because she believes her father is hiding there, she even searches behind wreaths. For a very long time, Gulgul is convinced that she will manage to bring her father back.
“I was told my papa died in a war called Kargil. The death certificate which I once read even states the date, 6 August, but I know that already. Every year, we observe paath at the local gurudwara for which we need to take leave from school. The leave form always says ‘attending father’s death anniversary’. I enjoy school a lot but I always dread this day — the long walk from my desk to the teacher’s table with my diary in hand and in it a handwritten note dripped with sadness despite its curt language. What generally follows is pity on my teacher’s face, a deep sigh of sympathy and a sad pat on the back,” she writes.
In Ajeet Singh and Amarjeet’s story too, you will find the same narrative. Being strong is not just a task for men who fight wars. When Ajeet goes to the border, leaving behind Amarjeet and their two daughters, this is what she keeps telling herself: “At least he would come back every six months. She kept repeating this in her head. It was important to act strong in front of the kids. If she started crying, then they would too and where would a crying woman with two crying daughters go?”
The daughters, too, held back their tears. They knew this day would come and “strong daughters” were told “not to cry”.
And when their father came back, he brought them a wooden camel that blew bubbles and a boat. The toy choices tell a lot how the daughters were brought up — there were no gender stereotypes.
The story revolves around three women — one who changed her name because her husband’s family wanted to, but didn’t lose her feisty nature. A woman worked and brought up her two daughters alone. And now, a young woman who’s standing up for what she believes in. The one thing that strings them together is their indomitable spirit.
After Kaur’s father dies, her mother takes the role of the bread-winner. “She recently learnt how to drive and these days we go out more often than before. ‘Will you drop me every day?’ I ask. ‘Not every day. Mummy has to go to office. In the afternoon you will wait in front of the gate for your old buggy uncle to pick you up, you understand?’ she asks as she fastens my seat belt.”
Her grandmother Amarjeet’s story didn’t end after her husband died. She started giving tuitions to the village children and turned a small room in the house into a tailor shop.
“This seemed like a harmless way of putting food on the table while staying within the security of the four walls of her own house, provided it did not offend the elders or disturb the ‘culture’ of the household. People were much kinder to them now that she was helping their kids pass their exams. Over time, she had also begun to develop something of a friendship with the women in the village. They would have long conversations while the women waited to get their suits stitched, altered or fixed. Small acts of kindness by people made survival a lot less difficult.”
The book, like Kaur’s placard, tells why it isn’t important to hate the ‘enemies’.
While looking for chocolates in her nani’s not-to-be touched cupboard, she finds a passport. A Pakistani passport with her nani’s name on it. “I can sense my blood boiling. I want to tear that thing to pieces. Yet, I don’t want to touch it. My mother has betrayed me. Why would we have the enemy’s belongings inside our own house, locked and kept safe in the cupboard? It should have been burnt.”
“She cannot be my nani, I cannot be her granddaughter. She is a Pakistani. From the same Pakistan that was responsible for the death certificate on the top shelf. I need to get her out. I don’t think I can breathe any more. Rage pours down from my eyes because there is nothing that I can do.”
After an episode of a lot of tears, Gulgul comes to realize that her nani isn’t her enemy. Just like, Pakistan isn’t.
At the end of the book, when a sixteen year old Gulgul goes to Srinagar for her Papa’s unit’s raising day, she shares the car with a man who was there the night her father died. Gulgul has a lot of questions. ‘What did he look like?’ she asks. The man doesn’t say much. Later, she finds out that the man was on the other side of the war, and might have been responsible for what had happened to her father. In Kaur’s words, something shifts within her, but you can tell that it’s never hate.