During the pandemic, we all saw how we have been struck by loss and grief. Is is not easy to handle events that are traumatic, but many show the way with how they have battled the grim realities of life even though they went through shattering events. Author NEELAM KUMAR in her book, I am Invincible, Thirteen true tales of Courage, Grit and Survival, published by Fingerprint Publishing has interviewed some real-life adversity fighters which include a gang rape survivor, a double amputee and a Heart-Kidney transplant hero. If these warriors of life can come out of such huge adversities smiling, so can we. Here is one excerpt:
Sapna Moti Bhavnani
Survivor, Gang Rape
ER parents named her Sapna (dream). Perhaps that is why, to me, she appears other-worldly.
I have always felt Sapna does not inhabit our world. In fact, she inhabits none. She lives in her own mind. It is the only place she can enjoy pure, unfettered freedom. Without being judged by the chains of human society.
Her thoughts are radical enough to shake you out of your carefully constructed comfort zone.
And so are her actions. If you don’t approve of her ‘short skirts and red lipstick’ look, do you think she cares? Nah!
Despite living all over the world, she belongs nowhere. She has no home . . . for her own body is her home. The elaborately inked images decorating her arms, neck, and body is the offering she has made exclusively to herself. If there was ever a free-spirited, rootless, ageless, and yet ever-evolving girl, that is she.
Her bold statements may shock you; her activist work might impress you; her bohemian persona may startle you, but to me she is simply ‘Alice.’ By her own admission, she talks to six imaginary friends, all of whom are named Alice! I look beyond her celebrity status and discover the rebel girl behind that dimpled smile—the child-like Alice in her, looking for answers this world cannot provide. The Alice who is in Wonderland, just happening to pass by our world. And takes off on gossamer wings the moment she feels like.
Sapna is the living Nirbhaya, who suffered it all and lived to tell the tale. She wanted none of that judgment: “Aah, she was drunk!” “But she was wearing a short skirt!” “Well, she asked for it!”
Refusing to be crucified on our society keepers’ rigid holier-than-thou opinions of the logic behind why a girl gets raped, she chose to keep her lips sealed for twenty long years.
But finally, she spoke. In fact, she wrote. A message in ‘Humans of Bombay’ —part of which reads:
“. . . We live in a world where everyone stresses the importance of voicing yourself or walking out of tough situations, but I just want to say this—no one wants to be beaten up, get raped, or sell their bodies. It took me twenty years to voice my incident, but for me a woman keeping it all within her because she has no other choice isn’t a sign of weakness—it’s a mark of strength and something we need to start respecting.”
This post went viral. And how! It got as many as over 64,000 likes and 5,000 shares.
That was twenty years back. I admire people who rise up from their adversity and rebuild life with a vengeance. Today, this waif of a woman is the powerful Sapna Moti Bhavnani. Maybe I should recount some of her achievements since that horrific night. She has indeed risen like a phoenix and worked very hard to become who she is.
Notoriously spanning the spectrum of media, hair, fashion, writing, photography, music, entertainment, and reality television, Sapna Moti Bhavnani is a public voice and personality to reckon with. As a pioneer entrepreneur, she founded the funky celebrity hair salon ‘Mad-O-Wot’ twelve years ago in Mumbai.
She has donned versatile avatars such as her outspoken appearance on the reality TV show Bigg Boss; writing a bitingly intimate weekly column for Mumbai Mirror and Mid Day; authoring a self-help book for teenage girls Style O Wot and launching the avant-garde clothing line ‘SoFake.’ Sapna has naturally assumed poster-child status as a powerful female figure. She traverses mainstream success with just as much ease as she skirts the underground youth art and culture movement.
Ageless, fearless and forever metamorphosing in her endeavours, Sapna has recently begun giving her celebrity-hood the voice of an activist. She produced ‘One Billion Rising’ at Carter Road (2013); acted in the award-winning play ‘Nirbhaya’; was one of the eight women documented in ‘Scattered Windows, Connected Doors,’ which won the ‘Audience Choice Award’ at the Mumbai Women’s International Film Festival, won the best documentary award at the Vancouver International Asian film festival, and directed political music videos for Anna Hazare’s ‘Ambar Tak’ sung by Kailash Kher.
She recently adopted an entire village called Palegaon in Maharashtra and set up a kindergarten as well as a women’s centre by raising funds online. She has also set up a women’s centre in the village of Jawahar. She is a spokesperson for PETA, Fight Back and Operation Black Dot. She is also the Co-Founder of ‘Stop Acid Attacks; (2013), which won ‘CNN IBN Indian of the Year’ award (2013) and NDTV ‘Indian of the Year Award’ (2014), among many others.
In November 2015, Sapna won ‘The Digital Woman’s Award for Social Impact’ and was one of the eight woman entrepreneurs chosen to meet Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi at the launch of his initiative #StartUpIndia in Delhi.
Inspired by the initiative, she returned to Mumbai and started ‘Path ‘kkyk School of life’, where the underprivileged (for lack of a better word) women are empowered to harness a new skill. She teamed up with AAWC (Apne Aap Women’s Collective), an anti-trafficking NGO that serves the women and children of Kamathipura, the red-light area of Mumbai, as also one of the largest and oldest red-light areas in Asia.
For the first batch, she recruited five former sex workers to train as professional hair stylists. Sapna rented a small space in Bandra and once again got funded by just one post on Facebook. The hairstyling community reached out and in no time, she managed to create the best academy to date in India. Sapna was awarded the ‘IBelieve’ award by Savvy magazine and the ‘Fem Empowerment’ Award by Zee TV for her work with ex-sex workers at Path ‘kkyk . The rest, like they say, is herstory.
Actor, spoken word artist, writer, director, producer—Sapna embodies it all as a visionary and change-maker.
These are her list of accomplishments. The glitzy labels she is known by. And applauded for.
And then there is Sapna.
So, who is Sapna, I ask her.
She dimples back at me in her little-girl-lost-way and says, “I have no idea! I think the moment you define yourself, you stop growing.”
I sigh. Perhaps I should attempt to peel a few layers of her complex persona? But I also believe she promptly grows them back in surprisingly innovative ways the moment you peel one! Finally, I decide to do a rapid fire with this joyous being. So here goes:
Me: What does vulnerability mean to you? And what has the ability to make you feel vulnerable?
Sapna: I don’t think I have ever thought of myself as being vulnerable. I don’t think that word means anything to me.
Me: Has there been one thing in your life that has made you a stronger person?
Sapna: You mean in an instant? Umm. I would say maybe when I was thirteen or fourteen years old . . . I was way ahead of my time. Even at that time I used to wear very short skirts and had very short hair. I used to hang out with boys and people called me a slut. I think back then I didn’t even know what that was. Maybe that was a very big point in my life . . . the fact that at such a young age I had to go through people’s judgment. It was great that they did that, for at a very early age I decided that what people say about you doesn’t matter. I decided I was going to do what I wanted to do. I think it helped me grow up to be a much stronger human being.
Me: Is there one place in which you feel most like yourself?
Sapna: Yeah, I think it feels most like myself when I am myself (laughs).
Me: There must be one or two persons who have had a big influence on you.
Sapna: To be honest, I don’t talk so much to people. Maybe, if I am going through some issues, then perhaps. But I am not that kind of person who reaches out to other people. I am a very private person. I don’t look it, but I am a loner. And I like that. I love my private time. My job involves so much talking that when I am not working, I like to switch off. I mainly talk to my cats or my six imaginary friends. And they are all called Alice.
Me: Sapna, if you had one day left to live? What would you do first?
Sapna: I don’t think I would do anything different than I am doing today.
Me: Are you realising your dream?
Sapna: Of course! My dreams change every day. So, every day I wake up, I have a new dream. I am a constant mover. I am constantly flowing. So, it changes according to the day.
Me: You are seen as this very stylish, very bold person who seems happy all the time. Is this true?
Sapna: Yes . . . yeah . . . yeah . . . Of course. I think the reason people see me like that is perhaps because I have nothing to hide. So, when you are an honest person you have no fear.
Me: What would be the first thing you would do if you were to be a man for a day?
Sapna: I would not want to be a man for a day. Not because there’s anything wrong with men. I just don’t like to put anything into a gender category. Nowadays too much importance is put on gender—male, female, trans. I think as human beings we play all genders all the time. Sometimes, I am male, sometimes I am female. I don’t really need to put it in a bracket. But I don’t wake up and say, okay, today as a woman I’m going to do this. I don’t think any man says that either. Just do it. If you want to do it, just do it, regardless of gender. So, whether I was a man or a wo-man, I don’t think I would do anything as a specific gender.
Me: What is that something, Sapna that you have always wanted to do, but have never done?
Sapna: Actually, I am doing whatever I wanted to do. I am an in-the-moment person. It has to be in the Now.
Me: Are there any regrets you have?
Sapna: No, none at all. Because whatever you do in that moment is the correct thing to do. Then even if tomorrow it goes haywire, it does not matter. Because in that moment it was the correct thing to do. I don’t know if I feel powerful because of this; at least I feel very honest.
Me: You are a person of very strong views. You have lived your life on your own terms, have spoken from your place of truth, have had the courage to go against the tide, so to speak. You don’t conform. Do you do it on purpose, Sapna?
Sapna: Naw! I was born that way. It was never like something I set out doing—if everyone is going right, then I must go left. It just happened.
Me: A very personal question. What about the man in your life?
Sapna: I am very yogic. I do not believe in forever. Of course, I do believe in love—just not in attachments. I have had lots of men in my life. And I will have a lot more! I’ve been married three times, maybe will do so a hundred times more. (Laughs). Nothing is forever. I think everything comes with an expiry date. I don’t think of anything as permanent. Everything comes and goes. You just have to allow yourself to go through the journey. But you must release it when the time comes.
Me: How has “that event” changed you as a person? Are you a different person now?
Sapna: No, not at all. I don’t think instances can change you from the person that you are. I think it can make you act in a certain way temporarily, but at the end of the day, you are going to find yourself back to the person you are.
Me: So, do you forgive those guys?
Sapna: YEAH! OF COURSE! This is why I know I have healed. There is no anger. That is why I was saying on TV when the judgment was passed on Nirbhaya’s rapists that I do not believe in the death penalty. I don’t think that if you hang someone, it is going to stop rapes. I don’t think it is a deterrent. It is like saying, everyone knows smoking causes cancer, but does that stop them from smoking? The thing is that when one is bent on committing such a heinous crime, they are not thinking of punishment in that moment. Something manic comes over them and the consequences are not important. So, I really don’t believe in the death penalty. There is forgiveness in me. I would much rather you rot in your guilt. Actually, you will!
Me: So, you do believe in divine justice?
Sapna: I believe at the end of the day we are all humans. Everyone makes mistakes and they should be given the opportunity to correct their mistakes.
Me: Sapna, you have celebrity status. You are safe. But in this society, there are girls who can’t move out of their house at night due to the fear of being raped/molested. How would you want girls to change?
Sapna: Just because I am known, that does not make me safe by any chance. I don’t think one has anything to do with the other. The minute you start living your life the way you want to, you will not be afraid. But that is something that should come from within; it cannot be taught. For girls, the environment is changing. Not only in Mumbai, but everywhere. I just think that it is difficult to handle women with opinions. People are so used to squashing them. Changing this will take time. But the only way to do it is to do it!
Me: Talking of rape, what would you like to tell society?
Sapna: Too much attention is given to the rapist; not to the survivor. Focus should be on the survivor so that the survivor can come back to society—integrate into the mainstream without judgment.
Me: A raped woman is overcome by shame. What do you have to say to a survivor?
Sapna: No preaching, really. It is difficult for one person to tell another what to do. Only that survivor knows what she is going through. Nothing has changed for me. I still wear short dresses. I still go out drinking in the night. But that is my personal thing. It doesn’t mean that if I am doing it, others also should. Sister, please believe there is no shame in it. I feel at some level you must understand it is not your fault.
Me: Will society ever make the survivor not feel ‘dirty’?
Sapna: I think it is human nature to be judgmental. We judge everything—it is either good or bad. We are constantly classifying. I don’t think we are that evolved as a race to be kind or accepting. Of course, we talk about it. We quote Buddha. We are constantly quoting holy men. But maybe that’s why there has been only one Buddha—no one after him. I just feel like it is very difficult. It is up to that survivor to understand that you have to continue living your life and get rid of the judgment.
What better way to conclude this piece on Sapna than by her powerful statement on Facebook after she went for counselling:
“The fact that you are a survivor means that you were once a victim. And if you were a victim then there was a perpetrator. The victim is still present. And so is the perpetrator. In many ways the victim is now the perpetrator. The goal is to make them both one so you can move forward.
Had my first counselling session today after I publicly spoke of my gang rape. I cannot tell you how good it feels. Get help. There is no shame in seeing a counsellor. Love you all. Love myself too. As a victim, as a perpetrator, as a survivor, as Sapna, and mostly as a human being.”
As we go to press, Sapna continues her rise to fame. Currently, she is being felicitated and being decorated with coveted national as well as international awards for ‘Sindhustan’—a one-hour documentary, which she has directed beautifully. Feeling rootless and burning with a desire to find the elusive Sindh, her homeland, she decided to tell the story of the largest migration of a culture in history through tattoos. And her skin became the canvas. Her deeply inked legs depict that journey. Using art forms like Arjak (Sindhi) and Madhubani (India) to tell the story of a land and its people, not rooted in any soil, she has become a magical storyteller, a walking historian, and inspiration personified.
Kudos to this strong woman who keeps breaking through newer horizons!
(Neelam Kumar is an author. This is an excerpt from her book, I am Invincible, Thirteen true tales of Courage, Grit and Survival, published by Fingerprint Publishing.)