22-year-old law student Vinatoli Yeptho’s poetry slam at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata has become a sensation.
Titled “Five rules for whomever it may concern”, the performance video has gone viral on social media, earning more than 100,000 views on Facebook since it was uploaded last week.
Vinatoli is from Nagaland. She studied in the state till Class XII, and it was only after her schooling that she started traveling frequently to other parts of India.
Speaking to The News Minute, Vinatoli says, “Though my seniors and family members had mentioned the racist comments that they have faced, it was only when I experienced them myself that I realized how bad it was. Once, when I was in Ahmedabad, a girl who was very friendly towards me asked me which part of China I come from.”
When Vinatoli clarified that she was from Nagaland, the friend asked her where in China Nagaland was located. The disbelief at the ignorance is still apparent in Vinatoli’s voice as she recounts the incident. “She was actually disappointed that I was not Chinese when I explained to her about Nagaland and that I was an Indian,” she says.
Migrant North-Eastern women, in particular, are subjected to a lot of sexual harassment by men across much of India, who find it difficult to accept their way of dressing and appearance. Vinatoli says, “They ask if I work in a spa. They comment that North-eastern women are ‘easy-going’, ‘friendly’ and so on. Not in a good way.”
Though women experience sexual harassment across the country, Vinatoli says that it happens at a different level when it comes to North-Eastern women. The prejudice is dual – of gender and race. Vinatoli, who identifies as feminist, does not see why one should keep quiet about this violence. “People tell me that this is ‘normal’ and that ‘it happens’. It’s not normal and we should not accept it,” she says.
It was her own unpleasant experiences and those of her friends that inspired Vinatoli to write her poem. In her performance, she addresses the common stereotypes about women’s looks and their character that are prevalent in the country.
Wearing hot pants and a sleeveless top, for instance, doesn’t give anyone the right to judge a woman. Neither does wearing bright red lipstick or having coloured hair.
Vinatoli points out that dressing to stand out is an act of bravery – it requires courage to be unique and the effort should be appreciated, not mocked.
She says, “I’m a feminist. I write about my real life experiences. I like to write about things that nobody wants to talk about. Because that’s how you can start a conversation about them.”
Fierce and impassioned, Vinatoli warns “whomever” that they break these rules at their own risk – 'If you still do not obey these rules, remember, my forefathers were headhunters.'
Celebrating her community and family history, and making references to the landscape where she comes from, Vinatoli appeals to the audience not to judge her for what she looks like and where she comes from.
She will be your friend if you treat her right. If not, you’ve made yourself an enemy with a deceptively delicate fist that’s made of “molten iron”.
Vinatoli has done poetry slams earlier but the performance at NUJS was the first one before such a large audience. Vinatoli loves poetry slams and says that events like these give space for people to assert themselves and be who they want to be.
Watch out for her next poem. It’s on body shaming.