Anuradha Beniwal in conversation with Puneeta Roy
By Rushati Mukherjee, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
To describe Anuradha Beniwal as just a travel blogger does no justice to her extraordinary versatility. She is a national-level chess champion, a teacher and activist for women’s rights, a journalist, and once considered training as a lawyer too. On a hot afternoon, in a hall filled with eager listeners, she spoke with Puneeta Roy about her unique story.
Beniwal’s father was a college lecturer: ‘My father had five sisters and he had seen their struggle in our state.’ He wanted to protect her from that patriarchal structure, and the easiest way to do that for a young girl in Haryana is to participate in sports. Her father, a wrestler, soon realised that she was not cut out to be a wrestler. Then, one day, his friend brought a chessboard, which changed the course of her life.
Hours of practice and hard work led to Beniwal becoming a national champion in chess by the age of 16. But the stress of performance became far too much. By the time she won the championship, she already knew she wanted to quit. The search for her passion began after years of restlessness. One fateful day, she decided to take a solo trip to the state of Rajasthan. ‘We were cycling to Kuldhara, a village in Jaisalmer,’ she says. ‘And then, I thought, I’m happy! And it’s not because of a person or even any particularly tangible reason. I’m just happy.’ It was at that moment that she knew: this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
Despite her MA in English Literature, Beniwal blogs in Hindi, a feature that sets her apart from many other bloggers in India. The idea came to her after meeting a fellow traveller from Brazil, who spoke in English but blogged in Portuguese. ‘I find Haryanvi (a dialect spoken in Haryana) very empowering,’ she says, ‘and I’m more comfortable in Hindi than in English. When I write, I’m writing for my aunts and uncles, all my family that I’m missing. It’s like a conversation with them.’
Beniwal has repeatedly spoken up about political and social issues in her state. She protested against the violence of the Jat reservation agitations through multiple platforms, even participating in panels where she disagreed with the speakers, because it gave her the opportunity to make herself heard: an opportunity that many women in Haryana are denied. The deluge of hate mail and online trolling she has been subjected to as a result was monumental. It made her fear for her personal safety. But will that ever stop her from speaking her mind? ‘Of course not,’ was her prompt rebuttal.
As a lone woman traveller, Beniwal is no stranger to unwanted male attention. She recounts an incident of 5 men in a car, following her on a deserted road where she was cycling alone. Only after she pretended to take pictures of the license plate and make a fake phone call did they leave. ‘These men are not used to seeing a woman in their space,’ she said, so they needed a reminder that a woman has every right to occupy that space and be there. How, asked an audience member, can a woman travel alone in India? Her advice is to ‘Change the city, but also let the city change you.’ She cited the example of travelling alone in Srinagar. ‘I wore a hijab there,’ she said, ‘But in Srinagar, even a woman simply choosing to walk alone is unique, which is what I chose to do.’
A vocal fighter for feminism and the girl child, Beniwal has adopted the village school she attended until 5th grade, to promote education. Her dreams for Haryana, the state she dearly loves, are as inspiring as her actions: ‘I have travelled to Budapest and Bratislava,’ she says, ‘And in that unknown unfamiliar landscape, I have felt more secure than I ever have in India. I want to take that with me, that intangible feeling of safety, take it in my bags and drop it in the streets of Delhi and Rohtak, until every girl living there experiences that same security that I have known.’
Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor