‘When you know what darkness is and know the way out, it is important that we hold a torch or lend a hand into darkness to pull someone else out to light.’ – Harish Iyer, Co-founder Jimme Foundation and the only Indian to feature in the World Pride Power List, in an interview with Pooja Garg, Founder Chief Editor, The Woman Inc.
PG: How did you get involved in this work? They say there is usually a personal experience which propels such passion. Is there a personal experience/ story behind what started this for you?
H: I am a survivor of abuse. I have known what oppression is since I was a 7 year old child. I lived the life of feeling fish out of water. So, I understand how it feels like to feel aloof and like a leftover. We sometimes try to run away and put away bad experiences, the truth is that these experiences could be very empowering too. When you know what darkness is and know the way out, it is important that we hold a torch or lend a hand into darkness to pull someone else out to light.
PG: What were the challenges you faced when you started? Have they eased since then?
H: I didn’t know of any other male survivor who was speaking publicly when i started speaking about my abuse. It was a lonely place, the only other person I knew was in my mirror. And it took me several oodles of self confidence to look at the mirror and look at the impression as an inspiration. Things were different two decades ago. Now there are many voices that have come out and are speaking up. Making it easier for the cause to find resonance in the minds of people and to affect change.
PG: What are the new challenges you face today?
H: Cyber bullying is a major threat to wellness. People look for validation from the online world. Being online is undoubtedly very liberating especially since we know that we can use a pseudonym and be who we are in disguise, if we are not comfortable being so openly out there. This is also very challenging, because this equally empowers bullies who can hide behind a fake identities and fake machismo to insult and smear queer people and survivors of sexual violence. This is an ongoing challenge with technology – it empowers everybody, including our bullies. We need to constantly resolve to practice safe procedures online as much as we do offline.
PG: What is the one achievement that you prize more than any other, and why?
H: I remember this time when I rescued a cobra from a snake charmer and released it in the wild after examination. The animal looked at me in awe before disappearing into the wilderness of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The pleasure of animal rescue and rehabilitation, for me, cannot be matched with any social service involving human beings. They give you empathy, unadulterated.
PG: How has the thought / perception within the area you work in changed over the years? Is there a story that you might want to share about how the perception has changed?
H: People are more aware, though one may argue that this is not enough, I would say, never would it be enough. I am happy that people are realising that we cannot speak of issues in isolation, but that we need to deploy an integrated approach to our work. For instance, we are more aware that while we speak about rehabilitation, and human welfare, we also need to ensure methods that are environmentally friendly and not antagonistic.
PG: Is there a certain misconception that you wish people would change within the area you work in?
H: There is mass stereotyping in my field of gender/sexuality awareness. I wish more people understood that you are not limited by your gender and sexuality, but empowered by it.
PG: What gives you hope for the area you work in?
H: More woke minds, innovative strategies are coming forth bringing in hope with effervescent energy.
PG: If you had the chance to change any one policy in the area of your work, what would that be, and why?
H: There is a strong correlation between animal abuse and violence with fellow human beings, wish we explored that more.
PG: What makes you get up and do this everyday of your life?
H: The fact that I find myself purposeful and always believe that I have the potential to learn as much as I have the heart to share what i have, in terms of support, or knowledge with others.
PG: What is your vision for the future? How do you see your work and organization shaping up?
H: I wish to set up a walk-in center in Navi Mumbai where people who have mental health challenges could come and discuss with a resident mental health professional. Also, some day, I wish to have a rehabilitation center for animals in the outskirts of the city.
PG: If you had just three words to describe yourself, what would they be?
H: Enthusiastic, Learner, Collaborator.
PG: What are the three things that people don’t know about you?
H: That I hate reading books. (though I am writing one), that I love pigs more than any animal, and that I always wanted and continue to want to be an actor (but do not have the courage to accept that everytime)
PG: If there was one poem or book that has inspired you the most on your journey, which one is it? What makes it special for you?
H: Marley And Me. It is the only book I have read cover-to-cover and it is almost autobiographical.
PG: How are you spending time during quarantine? I know everyone is worried about it
H: I watch youtube videos. I attend to calls from survivors who seek counseling. And when I am not doing the above, I spend time judging people’s instagram photos and videos.
Harish Iyer is an Equal Rights Activist and an active voice for a number of causes. He is the only indian national to feature in the World Pride Powerlist a list of the most influential LGBT people in the world. He has won awards for his work with survivors of sexual assault. He is an ardent animal lover and is the co-founder of The Jimme Foundation, an organisation that stands for human welfare and animal welfare alike.