Punjabi poet saved from being thrown into the river as a child talks culture, disability and Ironbridge's Festival of Imagination
Rejected, misunderstood – Kuli Kohli was almost thrown in the river to drown when she was born, only surviving because her father stepped in to save her.
Now the Wolverhampton-based poet is preparing to talk about her experiences at the Festival of Imagination in Ironbridge.
Life with cerebral palsy was not easy for Kuli in her remote village, Uttar Pradesh in north India. She was described as being like a lifeless ragdoll as a baby.
But, now 48, she has turned her difficult upbringing into a catalyst for a life in poetry, and she will be performing at this year's Festival of Imagination in Ironbridge.
“No one knew what was the matter with me and I was almost thrown in the river as a rejected first born,” she said. "I was literally saved by my father.
“My aunts tell me now that I was like a lifeless ragdoll as a baby."
She now lives with her husband and three children after moving to the UK with her grandfather at a young age, and has come a long way in the face of great adversity.
“I lived in embarrassment as a child having cerebral palsy,” she said. “The Asian community says I have been cursed in my previous life to have a disability in this life.
A beaming smile
“People stare at me, but I always respond with a beaming smile. My internal happiness shows through regardless of my cerebral palsy.”
Kuli now runs the Punjabi Women’s Writing Group in the Black Country who will be performing poetry and stories for free at the big yurt in Dale End Park, Ironbridge, as part of the Festival of Imagination on September 22 from 2pm to 4pm.
It comes after the Punjabi Group, along with Kuli herself, have been sparking interest with their work all over the West Midlands and in London, Berlin and Liverpool in the last year.
“The performance will have poetry, dramatic role plays, history, culture, fun and love, untold stories from ladies in colourful sparkling outfits," she said.
“Prepare for some uplifting stories. The audience will be amazed. In recent shows they thoroughly enjoyed watching and hearing the voices of these sparkling women who have never told their stories before in public and especially to multicultural audiences.”
Kuli’s condition means she struggles with mobility and physical activity. She can often fall down and it also affects her speech and hearing.
But the welfare rights support worker at Wolverhampton Council has always had a passion for writing and uses it as a way to express herself.
A passion for writing
“I have had a passion for writing since childhood,” she said.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to use a typewriter. My primary school teachers used to say that I must learn to handwrite, however, handwriting was always a struggle, my hands got tired after writing a couple of lines and then I would find it difficult to read.
“When I was nine-years-old I got the chance to use an electric typewriter and the keyboard pad has been my medium ever since.
“Writing has opened up all sorts of possibilities for me as I struggle to express myself because of my disability. Having the ability to write has made my life richer and more rewarding.”
It was at Penn Hall Special School that Kuli first found poetry.
“The teachers used to read us poetry and I enjoyed listening to it,” she says.
“Then I started to write poetry as a form of relief and a kind of therapy. I didn’t know I was writing in poetic prose. I enjoyed making words rhyme and writing about my emotions.
“It means a lot to me that I am able to share my perception of life through my poetry and deliver it in such a beautiful way.”
But Kuli was not satisfied in just being able to write poetry herself. She wanted to spread this joy to other women in the Punjabi community.
Kuli now runs the Punjabi Women’s Writing Group in the Black Country who will be performing poetry and stories as part of the programme of events at the Festival of Imagination, which runs from September 14-29.
“I have lived and experienced a Punjabi lifestyle in many different lights,” she says.
“I know many second-generation Punjabi women living in the UK, like myself, who have desires and dreams. These women’s dreams have been suppressed through the sacrifice of being dutiful wives, mothers, grandmothers, daughters and daughters-in-law.
“Writing and Punjabi women is not a very good match. Punjabi women who express a desire in writing and art are thought of as ‘time wasters’.
“Punjabis usually think that we should be doing something more productive with our precious time, like looking after the family and learning to sew and cook, and things like that. I’m a lucky fish, who has escaped the fishing net.”
Through a process of mentoring and support from West Midlands publisher Offa's Press that in 2017 Kuli herself was able to get the confidence to actually perform in front of an audience for the first time.
“I read out loud with a microphone a 15 minute set of poetry in front of an appreciative audience of about 40 people,” said Kuli.
“I read some new poems and a couple from my poetry pamphlet Patchwork.
“I spoke as clear as I could but slipped up a few times. I knew I could have done better. But the audience were very patient and supportive and they welcomed my work with great enthusiasm.
“I understand that for many people it must be alarming to watch a person like me on stage struggling to perform and articulate my words. Although, I would like my work to be unique and away from the ‘norm’, I know I am not physically normal but my heart, soul and mind are. I know that I will never be a ‘perfect’ performer but with practice and guidance, I know I will grow to be better.”
The Festival of Imagination runs from September 14-29 in Ironbridge. For more information search for Festival of Imagination on Facebook.