Book Review: Gurmehar Kaur's memoir gives you a glimpse of the real woman behind the activist

In Small Acts Of Freedom, Gurmehar Kaur pens a tribute to the women in her family and her late father

You may have known her ever since she held up a placard in a video but do you know about the story behind her protest?

Gurmehar Kaur wasn’t a known name until the controversy hit primetime news debates. 2017 changed things for Gurmehar as she was verbally abused and received death threats in response to her stand against campus violence. The student activist stood through the tirade of online trolls as a video of the story of her father’s martyrdom went viral. But Gurmehar’s fame (or ill-repute if you may choose to brand it so) is not what one reads about in Small Acts of Freedom. Instead, Kaur’s memoir draws from her inner pool of experiences and narrates the things that lead to her stint in the headlines.

Her introductory chapter lays down all the events that led up to her viral picture of her holding a placard. But that isn’t all that is there to the book. Kaur writes about her earliest memories of her father (Capt Mandeep Singh who was killed at war), a grandmother who had to abandon her village and call India her homeland and a mother who stood through the test of time, raising her daughters in the absence of her husband.

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In the book comes the story of 3 exemplary women — Kaur’s grandmother Amarjeet, her mother Raji and Kaur herself. Though she speaks about the aftermath of war, it is a message of peace that Kaur wants to convey at best.

What doesn’t work
Kaur’s voice of 3-year-old or even the 5-year-old version of herself isn’t convincing. Gulgul (as she is fondly called at home) talks like an older girl, someone who has experienced hardships and now wishes that she had seen all the loopholes as they came. This youngling’s perspective is actually that of Gurmehar Kaur, defamed and held on trial by the media. It is these snippets that change the story’s narrative to a younger Gurmehar, which is slightly off-key and doesn’t gel in with the ping-pong between the past and the present.

What works
Gurmehar is a simple writer and a woman of few words. She weaves a basic tapestry, though not too rich in vocabulary but dipped often in the brimming pool of emotions. She speaks from experience and there are portions when you can practically hear her cry out loud on the grave injustices she encountered. Through the course of the book, Kaur emerges as a story-teller if not a wordsmith.

In what is perhaps the most poignant chapter she writes of her first day at school, standing alone and memorizing the words her mother had taught her. If anyone were to ask about her father she would have to say that he died in a war, without even knowing the meaning of the words that her mouth was forming.

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The memoir is a tribute to the struggle of living without a father and a husband in the Kaur household, a tribute to a fallen soldier and more than anything, it is the account of a child left to deal with death at a very tender age. Kaur excels in putting all these pieces together as the 21-year-old tells the tale of strong resilient women.