An Interview with Sapna Moti Bhavnani, a survivor of gang rape
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.
About the author
Three close encounters with death and Neelam Kumar realised there were other women inside her, all demanding creative expression. Her multitasking and juggling between them led her to become an adversity coach, a writing coach, a life skills coach, a motivational speaker, a communications trainer, and, of course, an author. She has written ten bestselling books, some of which include Our Favourite Indian Stories by Khushwant Singh and Neelam Kumar (JAICO Publishing House, 2002), To Cancer, With Love—My Journey of Joy (Hay House India Publishers, 2015), and Healed: How cancer gave me a new life by Manisha Koirala with Neelam Kumar (Penguin Random House, 2019).
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