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Lavanya Bahuguna


Poet Afreen Akhtar Opens Intimate Chapters Of Her Life On Abuse, Healing, And Selfhood

  • IWB Post
  •  July 13, 2019


Uth meri jaan mere saath chalna hai tujhe
Goshe goshe mein sulagti hai chita tere liye
Farz ka bhes badalti hai qazaa tere liye
Qahar hai teri har narm adaa tere liye
Zehar hi zehar hai duniya ki hawa tere liye
Rut badal daal agar phoolna phalna hai tujhe
Uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe.

by Kaifi Azmi

Arise, my love, you have to walk with me
A pyre burns for you  in every corner
Death disguises itself as a duty for you
Your gentle style is punishment for you
The world has only poison for you
Change the world if you want to blossom
Arise, my love, you have to walk with me

In the world of ephemeral prompt poems floating all over social media, the absence of Hindi & Urdu sonnets manifests in a glaring cultural gap. Talking specifically about Urdu poetry, up until a few years ago, the ship of this genre was sailed through rough waters of politics and culture blended in a storm of the intimate musings by a handful of well-read and well-bred Shayars, who enjoyed the gathering and applaud of passionate listeners.

Fortunately, the magic of these odes has been able to touch quite a few young minds of this generation, who are now keen on writing & reading in Urdu. Their novice work has slowly begun to gain attention, making the internet a melting pot of their creative words weaved in rhythmical lines. One such twenteen is Afreen Akhtar, a young girl from Delhi, who’s is expressing her sensitive world in aesthetically rich videos and thought-driven Urdu poems.

*SOMETHING IMPORTANT! So, ummm. After giving it a thousand thoughts, I have decided to change my surname from ‘Khan’ i.e. my father’s surname to ‘Akhtar’ i.e. my grandmother’s surname which I think she bestowed on herself. I think! When I was born, my parents named me ‘Afreen Suhail’, ‘Suhail’ being my father’s first name. I was in 4th standard when my parents separated and for some god damned reason she legally changed it to ‘Afreen Khan’, ‘Khan’ being my father’s surname. It was literally the same thing with a tint of sharpness or vigour maybe. What I know is that it didn’t suit me. Not that I’m shy or not strong or fearless but it’s just not my vibe, man! Plus there’s this woman with breasts of a giant on YouTube and each time you search my name, she pops up. I hate it! I’ve never really liked my surname and now I have all the reasons to go ahead and change it. It’s empowering, beautiful and goes with my vibe. My nannu gave it to herself or maybe her mother did and now it’s my turn. Damn, this feels amazing. So next time you try and search me, type ‘Afreen Akhtar’ instead :) . . . Photographed by- @the.visualpoet (an amazing and aesthetic man) . . . . . . . . . . . #kolkata #nameyourself #trams #kolkatatram #afreenakhtar #igcalcutta #igindia #igkolkata #calcuttadiaries #calcutta_igers #saris #writersonig #vintageindia #vintagephotography #godwhatallyouhavetodo #inordertogetlikes

1,565 Likes, 52 Comments – Afreen Akhtar (@perpetually_alahada) on Instagram: “*SOMETHING IMPORTANT! So, ummm. After giving it a thousand thoughts, I have decided to change my…”

Her bold and honest take on women’s sexuality and its perception in our culture is something you cannot ignore. In a soft voice, she calls herself a storyteller in a conversation with IWB.

Excerpts below:

Introduce yourself to our readers.

My name is Afreen Akhtar, and I’m a storyteller. I hail from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, but it’s been almost 10 years, i.e. half my life, that I have been staying away from my home town. I have had my education from a boarding school in Dehradun and then I shifted to Delhi for my higher studies. My family is my mother and some of my close friends. There’s a history of reclusiveness in my maternal side, be it my grandmother, mother or my very self. We have liked living alone, on our own terms, and letting a very few people in, constantly shattering the stereotypes that come with being a middle-class Muslim woman. My father never supported us financially or emotionally, nor did my stepfather.

At school, it wasn’t an easy journey. Being a topper, I was forced to lent notes to every new admission. I got bullied, hated boys, had almost no friends, had a terrible fashion sense, was brown and not conventionally pretty. Things in my life worsened when my parents got divorced (for good) when I was in the fourth standard. However, my nightmare began when my Amma married my stepfather. In 8th standard, I was put into a boarding school in Dehradun. That place taught me that you’ve got to take a stand for yourself.

Would you like to speak about your relationship with your stepfather?

Amma remarried in hope for things to get better, assuming she had found love, finally. I, too, thought I had found a father. But it was only after a couple of months that he started sexually abusing me. He would change my clothes, massage me, and touch me inappropriately when  Amma was in her office. He didn’t stop there, he would do other things like tell me about sexual activities, talk suggestively, and crack dirty jokes. Meanwhile, I learned at school that this wasn’t a fatherly behavior; and one night when Amma was out for work, he tried to rape me. I managed to kick him, ran to the other room, and locked it.

Such memories are not easy to overcome, even with passage of time. 

It still affects m in many ways. I had a boyfriend back in college and intimacy was an issue in this relationship. I started having my nightmares again, in which strange men would try to undress me, rape me; I could here their laughter. My then-boyfriend, like many other Indian men, was brought up in a deaf bubble and didn’t understand why a girl would cry and beg him to stop. “How big a deal could it be,” he would question. My health started to deteriorate even more and my asthma attacks became frequent. A few months later, I listened to my counselor’s advice, “Broaden your spectrum, Afreen,” which made me end this relationship and focus more on self-care.

After this, I started researching about child sexual abuse. You see, for a kid, who is sexually abused, the struggles through his or her youth are endless. It’s like willing to be a writer but fearing the library. But once you start accepting things and find your own way of salvation, things become a little easier. For me, I think I wanted to explore myself sexually, unlearn what my abuser had put into my head and learn about love, sex, and intimacy anew. I wanted to learn to think about sex as a healthy thing. I still have a lot of issues, but each day I try to overcome them and be a stronger individual for myself and the people around me.

When did you start writing to express yourself? Do you remember the first poem you wrote?

As a student, I used to spend quite a lot of time in libraries. It was only in college that I began writing for myself. The major influence in my life was, however, my Nani, who was a shayra (poetess), with hundreds of mureeds waiting for her every week to recite her Urdu poetry.

Surprisingly, as a kid, I was never really fond of Urdu. But in college, I was surrounded by Kashmiri guys, who would make me listen to Ghazals. I once came across poetry by Farida Khanum and in no time fell in love with everything Urdu. It was a language I already knew, a language I was bred into. I had only lost touch with it and all it took were a few more ghazals to get me started. I read, listened, researched, met people to improve my Urdu, which I still do.

Talking of the first ever story that I’d written and performed was called ‘The One With The Bathroom’. It was an autobiographical incident of my CSA experience where the protagonist was scared of bathrooms because she’d once caught her stepfather lurking in while she was taking shower.

Do you pursue storytelling professionally or is it something that’s very personal to you?

Storytelling is basically the only thing I’ve been pursuing since the beginning of this year. Although I have a Bachelors Degree in Pharmacy, I could never carve a career in that field. Over a period of time, I realized I’m way better at writing/making films. Sadly, it’s a struggle to be a storyteller in India. It’s even financially depressing at times, but I’m managing because it’s worth it. I would love to direct a film someday and publish a collection of Urdu short stories under my name.

As an artist, how do you keep yourself financially independent?

I have very recently started my YouTube channel where I experiment with different art forms that are both visually and acoustically appealing. The videos have categories; some talk of a personal story, while others revolve around a societal issue in a poetic manner. For our previous video, my team and I collaborated with an organic clothing brand, Dhuri by Madhurima Singh.

Link’s in bio 🍂 Our collaboration with @dhuri_ : Dhuri means the ‘Axil’, the point from where a new leaf stalk grows on a stem. The very thought was put to action by Madhurima Singh, a fashion graduate from NIFT Mumbai. Dhuri blends Science with Heritage. The brand is a metaphor of classic fabrics, ranging from Handloom to the latest organics like Ingeo (corn fibre), Tencel (Eucalyptus Fibre), Soya protein fibre, Bamboo fibre and banana fibre. Dhuri is continuously poised experimenting with eco and organic dyes, i.e. extracting pigment from flowers, fruits, vegetables, seeds etc. To sum up, Dhuri is simple, humble, yet very well detailed clothing. I feel Dhuri is one of those brilliantly sustainable brands that is both fashionable and comfortable. I’d say you guys should totally check their website out. . Shot by @sahilalijohar . . . . . . . #dhuri #sahirludhianvi #urdupoetry #urduposts #urdurecitation #afreenakhtar #filmmaking #filmmakersworld #filmmakers #instafilm #urdupoetryworld #poetsofinstagram #filmmakersofinstagram

382 Likes, 13 Comments – Afreen Akhtar (@perpetually_alahada) on Instagram: “Link’s in bio 🍂 Our collaboration with @dhuri_ : Dhuri means the ‘Axil’, the point from where a…”

Apart from this, I’m also planning on taking up a part-time writing job, so I don’t have to depend solely on my YouTube channel to feed me. My mother thinks I’m hitting a dead end but tries to be as supportive as she can.

We honestly have very few millennial Poets who write in Urdu.  

I have friends, who keep telling me to write more in English than Urdu, considering the readership. I believe this is a good time to bring well-read Urdu poets into the limelight. Luckily, for me, it wasn’t too hard a job to amuse people with my Urdu (beginners level) because I come from a household where Urdu is your zuban (tongue).

Urdu is becoming a new cool, trust me! Until then, we only have, what I like to call, the cringe Urdu poetry to enjoy. If anyone is interested in learning Urdu, they can check out the various pocket-friendly government programs that teach this beautiful language.

How have people received your performance at social events so far?

I think people love me when I’m narrating (personal) stories. I see them smile, cry, nod, raise hands, stand up, and clap. Especially with my YouTube channel, they are all likes and positive comments. But then again when I release something with a sharp social focus, something with ‘feminist’ thoughts, I get a lot of hate on the Internet. It’s sweet to see the nice ones come to my rescue. I still remember this one time when I was performing in Lucknow and a guy named Faizan came all the way from the area around Nepal border to listen to me. He said he didn’t have enough money but he somehow managed and that one day he’s going to get into a nice college, study hard and do something that would bring a change, the way I do. God, that is a nice memory.

It’s such a touching moment. On this note, recall your first ‘moment of fame’.

This hustle began when I recited spoken-word poetry named ‘Kya Yaad Hai Aapko’ at Tape A Tale in October 2017. It was about my personal CSA experience and it left people stunned. The video got viral and has over 2M views to this date. Two weeks into release of that video – and I was a famous face. I had all these newspapers willing to interview me and other online media portals giving out articles on the same. It was surreal and scary but exciting. I would go to college and people would come to me asking if I was who they thought me to be. I will be honest, I enjoyed that phase.

Link for the full video in bio🌻 Also, try sharing this post and the video as much as you can people. I would really appreciate it. Farz Karo by Ibn e Insha is a nazm that delights me every time I read it out loud. It is coquettish and profound at the same time. The idea is to make a series of covers of iconic poems as a separate section in my YouTube channel and this video is first of its kind. I feel that when you recite a poem out loud, you feel closer to the heart of the poem and you also enjoy it a little more. A poem is something you can hold on to but spring on the other hand is gone before you know it. Spring in Delhi is so lovely with its bouquets of bougainvillea coloring the walls of the city pink and plump palash flowers dropping from the clear blue skies. At the same time yellow leaves fall and give character to the streets of Delhi, announcing the arrival of the long dry season. It’s almost sad! So this time I wanted to capture spring in our video so we can hold on to it a little longer. Plus Ibn e Insha is love. Music – Suite Bergamasque: Clair De Lune by Peter Schmalfuss Shot and edited by- @aquibxsid . . . . . @pulpkey #farzkaro #ibneinsha #urdupoetry #shortfilm #spring #bouganvillea #bougenville #palash #autumn #leaves #yellowleaves #delhi #lodhigarden #filmmaking #poetry #afreenkhan #urdupoem #urdurecitation #rekhta #urdu #bluesky #anouk #pulpkeyxyou

688 Likes, 50 Comments – Afreen Akhtar (@perpetually_alahada) on Instagram: “Link for the full video in bio🌻 Also, try sharing this post and the video as much as you can…”

Lastly, tell us what concerns you as a 21-year-old young woman who is extensively talking about patriarchy and feminism on public platforms?

I’ve been brought up by strong, independent women and they had taught me how to stand for myself and what’s right, no matter what. I believe that the young generation is capable of so many things, we’re just not trying enough. Social Media brings awareness, and along with it comes anxiety and all sorts of rubbish that corrupts the whole point of being aware. I, for one, learned to filter my way through and stay aware of all the possibilities that lie ahead of me. Awareness is a bliss. It inspires me to write more.

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