Rahila Gupta is a writer and journalist and is the author of an article that will be published in our forthcoming issue on ‘Debility and Frailty‘.
Rahila’s son, Nihal, had cerebral palsy and died at the age of 17 in 2001. Rahila began writing a ballad about their life together, Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong (Gupta, 2013), as a way of coming to terms with Nihal’s death. In her forthcoming piece for Feminist Review Rahila reflects on how the ballad opened up a conversation about disability both in Britain and in India and how the energies honed from her anti-racist and feminist organising were unleashed in her battles with an educational establishment that labelled and segregated Nihal.
Rahila has recently written a blog post, Pressure To Be Cheerful, for the Royal Literary Fund in which she reflects further on autobiographical writing and the transformation of experience through the performance of her ballad:
There is something about live stage performance which induces in the writer, like an unanswered telephone or a boiling kettle, a compulsive desire to respond. The knowledge that my life is being enacted elsewhere, and that I am absent from it, brings back the rush of guilt I felt when my son was alive that I hadn’t done enough for him. I have been ‘disturbing the dust’ each time I’ve attended the 60-odd outings that Ballad has had across three continents. The actor and the audience with their interpretations and responses skew your memories and add further unexpected layers of meaning. I wanted to unpick that reflexivity, the loop between writer, director, performer, audience and the work itself.
When you think you are writing about a dead person, you discover that you are actually writing about yourself — a self that may also vanish because it existed only in relationship to the person who is gone. Both in the stories that I chose to tell and to withhold I constructed a self which contains both fiction and fact — although which of the two serves the truth better is open to debate. Much of what I describe in Ballad is true, it happened, even if that part of my life seems so exceptional that in some ways it feels like fiction.