I update this section occasionally. It contains a small selection of some of the many things that I write (other than field notes) while traveling on fieldwork. I usually document these reflections on my personal social media accounts because they contribute significantly to my assimilation and meaning making of the many things that I encounter on the field. I tremendously enjoy traveling, fieldwork, and writing, so this is a peek into what I make of it and what the texture and appeal of fieldwork looks like for me. These everyday experiences and reflections are often peripheral to what is formally recognized as data, but they propel, enrich, influence, and consolidate the process of data collection and analysis, bit-by-bit, in very essential ways and constitute a kind of methodological minutiae.
11. June 4, 2019. Bandar Sindri, Ajmer, Rajasthan.
Sometimes, I wander into pockets of stillness with clearly visible histories that no one remembers.
I stepped into this space, looking for the panchayat office of the village and was intrigued by the beautiful architecture of these ruins that occupy the same compound as the office. The structure is an architectural abberation for these parts, where buildings are strictly functional concrete or mud structures with aesthetic flourishes limited to welcome signs and announcements of weddings that are painted on the walls.
So, it was easy to wonder about these ruins. Its windows still had their delicate jaali work intact and it was not hard to see that it was once a very handsome mini haveli of sorts.
The people have little idea about its provenance. They remember that post-independence, this building housed the police station for their block. After the police station moved to the highway, it passed into the care of the sub-divisional magistrate office and it’s lower structure that is still intact, now houses a girls school. The other part of its compound made way for the gram panchayat.
A village elder said that it was probably the property of the erstwhile diwans in the court of the Raja of Kishangarh, which is 20 kilometres away, but he wasn’t entirely sure.
For a property that stands in the heart of a relatively unchanging rural community, I was surprised that no one could tell me it’s history with any certainty.
Something to find out about at the SDM office, one day.
10. March 12, 2019. Kishangarh, Ajmer.
Rajasthan’s trysts with snow
The fiercely hot desert state of Rajasthan sees snow all year round in a place called Kishangarh in Ajmer district. Now, because this can happen only in India, read on.
Kishangarh happens to be Asia’s largest marble trading hub. This also means that a lot of its marble waste needs a dumping ground. Over time this dumping ground has turned into a vast white wasteland. In photographs, it looks no different from snow. Predictably, the social media craze it has fuelled is astounding. There is almost no one in this region I know, who does not have a picture on their social media from here.
People come from far off places to visit this place. For those who live in Jaipur, it is but just a two-hour drive and they descend in droves on the site.
The place is wildly popular among wedding photographers who bring down their clients here for photo shoots. The day we visited, I met a couple who had come down from Surat, Gujarat, for their pre-wedding shoot here! The place got an added fillip in popularity after Kapil Sharma shot a song from his film Kis kis ko pyaar karun and the local press went bazooka. He didn’t have the budget for an actual snow location 😂
The site is now regularly used by a lot of film crews for their scenes and songs. The marble association for their part has put up a board detailing the rules and permissions for photography and video shooting. Guards at the entrance try to get visitors to pay for an entry fee, which is not required, but many people do pay.
The site is for all purposes a health hazard and Kishangarh has one of the worst air and water quality levels in the region because of the marble factories. But, when it’s for social media swag, who cares, huh?
This was truly a most bizarre discovery.
9. April 3, 2017. Ajmer-Bangalore.
Music on the RSRTC
Gearing up to wade into Bangalore traffic after four weeks.
My daily commutes in Rajasthan used to be infinitely more interesting and far more adventurous. To get to my primary field site, I had to change at least five modes of transport each way.
Firstly, to get to the highway, I would either have to walk from the guest house to the main building or wait for the electric auto to come to come ferry me. Both were chores requiring comparable exertion because one had to call and plead with the auto in-charge of the day to come fetch you. This was because either the driver would be missing or the electric auto would be charging its battery and hence out of service. So, it was infinitely more easier to just walk the distance. Why is that a problem, you ask? The sun, the Rajasthani sun! And the distance which was a considerable length and which was easier to traverse in the evenings when things would cool off.
From there, I would wait for Gungun – the campus auto – named after the auto driver’s daughter, that ferried students and hapless visitors like me to the highway. Like everything else, this also involved a lot of waiting. Gungun would only move once it was packed to the gills. And when it arrived, there was always a mad scramble to bag a seat because you risked being left behind if you could not get inside the auto with lightning fast reflexes.
Once you crossed that hurdle and reached the highway, you could flag a passing private bus or a jeep to take you to Kishangarh bus stop. If I was lucky and the bus was not taking the highway bypass to Ajmer city, then I would get dropped at the Mill chauraha where the Old Mill bus stop was located. From here, I would board the bus to the final leg of my journey to Arain. Otherwise, I would get off at the bypass and walk or hail another share auto that would drop me at the chauraha.
If I were really lucky, the bus to Arain would either be waiting for me or would arrive within a few minutes of I reaching the stop. However, most days, it would mean another 45-minute long wait for the next bus to arrive. The mill is now a decrepit, abandoned structure teeming with monkeys. While waiting for the bus, the monkeys and I would observe one another with great interest. Sometimes they would bare their teeth at me, as if, very pleased with what they were seeing.
When the bus would finally arrive, the driver and the conductor would immediately vanish for some time. This meant more monkey watching and teeth baring and picture taking. And when we would at last depart, it would mean another 45-minutes to reach Arain. From there I would journey further into villages hitching rides on motor cycles of PDS dealers or waiting for the next shared jeep ride. Overall, it would take me a minimum of two hours or more from the guest house to reach any place useful and begin work.
The return journey from Arain would be simpler if I could get a direct bus from Arain to Sarwad Gate. From there, any bus headed toward Jaipur would drop me off at the Central University stop on the highway and then I would wait for Gungun to come forth and take me to the main building. For the last mile to the guest house, depending on my mood, exhaustion, and how intense the rays of the setting sun were, I would either walk back or head in search of the electric auto again.
Sunsets in Rajasthan are wildly beautiful. They have a fierce rawness to them given the stony barrenness of the land and the light it casts is stunning. It is to scenes like the picture below that I would end my day after a long day on the field.
I learned a lot about my field site, its people, and the rhythms of their daily life because of these commutes. It was invaluable knowledge that helped me ground and orient myself and gain my bearings in a place that was unfamiliar and challenging in every way. I thoroughly enjoyed it all, notwithstanding plentiful moments of frustration when my patience would begin to wear thin.
When I returned to the field in 2019 and hired a private vehicle to facilitate the rest of the field work, this knowledge was to prove of solid use. In the early days of our acquaintance, the driver would try to mislead me about distances and directions, little knowing how well I knew the area and how I had learnt to get from place to place using whatever means were available. He dropped his tricks once he realized that I could navigate the area as well as he did.
To end, during my return trips to the Central University campus in the evening, the stretch of commute on NH8 would be my favourite part of the day. A smooth drive of 25 kms until my stop. I would sit by the drivers seat to facilitate easily getting off at my stop, given the short distance of the trip. The unhindered view of the road from the front of the bus and the evening breeze cooling off the day as we coursed through the highway would be my time to consolidate all that I had learnt through the day.
I soon discovered that for some reason, every RSRTC bus that did the Bhilwara – Jaipur route always had Hindi film music playing no matter who the driver and conductor were. I did not find this on RSRTC buses originating from any other depot. So, I would try as far as possible to get into the buses coming or going from Bhilwara depot to revel in the serendipity of the songs that they would play. They were always stuck in the 1980s and 1990s so it would make for some lovely flashbacks that would warm my Vividh Bharati-loving heart and growing up in the India of the 90’s-soul.
This was from one such Bhilwara bus. Ae mere humsafar from QSQT. As evergreen as ever. Will hum this when I am stuck at Sony world signal, Koramangala, today. And will go to Bhilwara some day.
8. March 20, 2017. NH8, Rajasthan.
The campus guest house managed to catch weak signals from two of Ajmer city’s radio stations. The first evening, I walked all over the room with my transistor trying to get signal and found that if I placed it at a specific tilt on the bed and if my phone was far from it, I could tune into two stations.
As I was to discover, Ajmer liked it’s music old. Barring a couple of hours in the morning when the latest Bollywood hits were played, the rest would default to the 70’s-90’s era. And these weren’t always even the most memorable from the period, so Ajmer’s musical choices were a wee puzzling. For instance, I encountered songs from Bobby Deol and Twinkle Khanna’s debut film Barsaat more times than I care to remember on the radio. And then once again on this bus.
The driver was enjoying the song so much that he would tap along to its beat frequently. I would often meet this particular driver on my commute. He appeared to be a die hard Chulbul Pandey fan. RSRTC staff do not seem to have uniforms, but this driver was always togged out in khaki, his belt slung low and with imitation Ray Ban goggles- the only driver to wear one on all the routes I traveled.
He didn’t appear to care as much for Salman Khan as he did for Chulbul Pandey’s Dabbang persona because the famed blue stone bracelet which is really the troooooo sign of the authentic Bhai fan was missing.
7. May 27, 2016. Panisagar, Tripura
Waiting for a ride share at Panisagar in Tripura. Public transport in the rural parts of the country is usually an act of hustling. Operators charge on a per seat basis and you have to wait until there are enough passengers for the driver to justify the economics of the trip. The other option is to hire the vehicle for yourself, but that’s not always possible if they quote high fares. The auto driver refused to ply to the neighbouring village which I needed to visit until he got two other passengers. So, I sat down to wait and fiddled with my phone. I wanted to try out the static wide shots that Chaitanya Tamhane used in his film ‘Court’. I had much fun watching people trooping in and out of the frame.
6. March 19, 2013. Austin, Texas.
Stories from Homeless Shelters
I spent all of today transcribing interviews. Since last semester, I have been working on a project that has taken me to public computing centers in homeless shelters in Austin and San Antonio to know more about how they are being used. I interviewed ex-offenders, Mexican immigrants separated from their families, genteel women who suddenly find themselves homeless, and recovering alcoholic amongst others.
In Austin, I learned that certain kind of ex-offenders have to live in a place called the ‘Halfway House’ that serves as a transitional center to enable rehabilitation. If you are an inmate of a halfway house, you are given an 8-hour day pass that allows you to leave the center. During these 8 hours you can only visit places that have a telephone so that the case managers can call and check on your whereabouts. Because many of the inmates are sex offenders, they cannot own internet-enabled phones. The public computing centers are especially important to these inmates because they are prohibited from visiting any public libraries which are the places where free computer and Internet access is available in any US city.
The two homeless shelters in Austin are day shelters, but the one in San Antonio is a residential shelter. It has dorms, single rooms, and apartments for families. It has a day care center for children full of happy faces – both of the caretaking staff and the children. It has kennels for domestic pets, a gymnasium, and courts where you can play basketball, handball, and football.
When we were given a tour of the place, we wondered why anybody would want to find a job and leave. Won’t this system be abused? But then we learned about rehabilitation, about how every person has their own journey towards becoming better, about how no two people are alike. Yes, there could be abusers, but there are so many more people who deserve a supportive, loving, and comfortable environment such as this shelter to become better and conquer whatever demons threw them out of the reach of mainstream society.
When I interviewed the residents, I found them striving to get a job and get out. I found them content and comfortable to be in a place that was allowing them to do so without stigmatizing their lives. Most importantly, I saw that they were being given dignity and a fair chance. The staff at this shelter is a cheerful bunch. They are full of smiles and loud cheery greetings. They have signs such as ‘friends of felons’ hanging from their desks and the residents stop them to talk and exchange hugs.
One woman I spoke to had only recently arrived from Mexico. She left behind her husband and three lovely children to try for better life prospects in the United States. She dreamed of the day when her family would be able to join her. “I need to get out of this homeless shelter as soon as I can. My husband and I hate being dependent on any one and I would hate for them to have to come and live with me in a shelter.” This woman with twinkling eyes worked as a ‘chef’ at a hotel cooking breakfast everyday. At heart she is a carpenter who loves laminating kitchen cabinets and other assorted furniture. She has the skills but no degree so she is studying for a GED so that the businesses she is trying to get a job with hire her. When she is asked to clean tables at the restaurant where she works, she finds herself shaking the furniture and running her critical eye over it to gauge how well it has been crafted. Ultimately she wants to set up her own business with her husband such as the one they had in Mexico before it went bust.
As she was describing her life and her need for the Internet, she expressed her frustration with her job, but also her determination and quiet optimism that the universe would eventually align and make everything alright. Good cheer is the last thing that you would expect to find in a homeless shelter, but I walked out of ‘Haven for Hope’ feeling that the universe would align. Somehow, somewhere, in its own way. For everyone inside there.
These were some of the narratives that I was transcribing today. I ended with her story, but before I reached her voice that I am going to play every time I feel despair.
5. July 31, 2012. Bodo, Norway
The Online Puttars of the Punjab
I have been transcribing and writing the past couple of days. Going back to listen to the interviews is like reliving everything all over again. If the interview was a great one, this can be a blessing. If not, you are doomed and it turns into a dreary chore. A lot of things come bubbling up to the surface during transcription. These are generally incidental memories that are not pivotal, but are important because they add another layer of understanding to whatever it is that you are studying.
The particular narrative that I am now writing focuses on a family’s journey to the High North of Norway from the plains of Punjab. As I transcribe and write through their story, I was reminded of an incident that happened after I visited them. I spent a lovely day with this family and grew very fond of them (as I hope they are of me) so of course we are all friends on Facebook and all of that. The funny thing is that their young male relatives in Punjab noticed this sudden befriending of one girl by all members in Norway and a couple of them sent me friend requests, which was slightly disconcerting. It caused more amusement than worry though.
The two requests that I received and most of the other young men that I saw on their friend lists are all twirling either one side or both sides of their moustaches. Their profiles were all open so I curiously poked around fascinated at my compatriots from a different part of the country and their lives. They seem very sweetly harmless in their display of macho maleness. One can’t help but look comical when you are photographing yourself with your cellphone in one hand and the end of your moustache in another though I don’t think this fellow intended having that effect. Stumbling across their photographs revealed so much about the lives, aspirations, and cultural expressions of the Punjabi male.
More than anything else, it just served to reinforce the absolute diversity and heterogeneity of India. It makes me wonder how on earth we manage to stay together as a country. I marvel at how little we know of each other, how each person’s concept of being an Indian must be so vastly different depending on the region they come from. My familiarity with Punjabis and Sikhs is limited to the visits to the gurudwara near my home in Pune. In Austin, my roommate is a Sikh too and I love the few times that I have accompanied her to the gurudwara there. Of course, the langar is a big draw for this.
Yet, a Sikh in Pune or the United States is so different from the Sikh male who is rooted to the mitti of his native land. His upbringing and his expressions of manhood are so culturally different to what I have grown up seeing. I have not been to Punjab, but looking at the proud expressions of male virility and their investment in their moustache (also an important religious symbol for the Sikhs) on Facebook, this seems like an integral part of self-presentation. It helped me understand the Punjab that I have never visited a little better. Mediated by Bollywood, I dance to their music, sing to their songs, enjoy the sweetness of their language, and yet, the few photographs I saw makes me understand the stereotype that drives the Punjabification of Bollywood a little better. It also allowed me to understand why Sunny Deol films are the way they are and why Punjab is such an important market for him.
It also made me wonder if different regions in India present themselves differently through their photographs. I often use my camera and laptop to break the ice with people when I am doing fieldwork in rural Maharashtra. It is a big draw for children and when I first enter a village they are the people I make friends with on priority. The elders generally watch my interactions with them cautiously and then decide if I am harmless or someone to be avoided. Mostly, everyone wants his or her picture clicked. But the way rural Maharashtra poses in front of the camera is very different. They stand at attention, backs ramrod straight and will look straight into the camera. The younger ones will generally giggle and relax, but the older the person the more rigid and unwavering their gaze at the lens. The 63-year-old patriarch whose family hosted me in Chandrapur leaped straight out of his chair when I requested permission to take a picture of him. I wanted a casual photo of him relaxing in the living room, but he ran to the barbers shop for a shave. He then bathed and wore clean new clothes and presented himself to me half-an-hour later for the photo session. I never did get a casual picture of him, after all. Social networking sites haven’t yet reached some of these villages, so it will be very interesting to see the kind of pictures they will upload of themselves when it finally does. There is a research paper in here somewhere, for sure.
All the recent Punjabiyat around me invoked so much film nostalgia. From the lush fields of DDLJ and Veer Zaara to Abhay Deol and Paresh Rawal in Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye. Only two films in recent times have had the Sikh male as their protagonist. Of these, Ranbir Singh in Rocket Singh – Salesman seemed a little tame compared to the ones I saw on Facebook owing no doubt to the more cosmopolitan city locale of his character. With his red blooded earthiness, Saif Ali Khan in Love Aaj Kal appears to be a more closer version of these fine young men. I liked him as the determined Sikh characher who fights for his votti in the film. Here he travels all the way from Punjab to Calcutta in search of her even after getting soundly thrashed in public by her relatives. No amount of dishum-dishum could dissuade him when his eyes had found assent in those of the comely young lass. Their eyes lock as she looks at him from her window seat even as the train slowly pulls out of the station and he sets off to find her in Calcutta. Quite a Punjab da puttar gesture no?
4. January 7, 2012. Killemachindargad, Sangli, Maharashtra.
With every fieldwork site I encounter, there is an initial amount of time spent in grappling at the nuances of words and what they mean to the people where you are based. Not acquainted with the traditions of the Maratha community in rural Maharashtra, I tried not to show surprise when I first heard a woman talk about her ‘maalak’. Translated quite simply, it means ‘owner’ or if you are an employee, your ‘boss’. Yep, that is how women refer to their husbands. Plus, they blush and adjust their saris over their heads every time they say that. Conversely, but not surprisingly, the men do not refer to their wives in any way at all. When asked, “ghari kon kon aahe,?” as a way of wanting to know their family composition, they will shift in their chairs and softly mutter, “maajhi mandali” or “my group” that pleads with you to understand that it means “my wife along with children”. Not once did any of the men say “maajhi baiko” or the usual Indian way of “my Missus.” And yes, their is always some amount of shyness and shuffling of feet that both sexes display when asked about their better halves.Then there is the ‘battery’. “Do you have one?,” I was asked on my first day at my host’s house. “No problem, I have many.” I answered. “Why do you carry so many batteries,?” she wanted to know. “You never know.” I shrugged. “Well, take one if you are going down to the toilet,” I was advised. “Huh?” I was stumped, but obediently went to fetch a battery from my bag. “What do I do with this in the toilet,?” I asked thinking maybe it had to be inserted somewhere.” After a lot of laughter a torch was thrust into my hand and I was told, “here – battery.” In that moment I felt like Helen Keller who has just been taught by her teacher to name the thing that flows out of a tap as – Water.
So, when that little girl wanted to know if she could lift my “sag”, I had caught on to the linguistic rhythms of the village to decipher that she probably meant my bag. Any bag that can be slung over shoulders is referred to as ‘sag’ in the parts where I was staying. It is of course derived from ‘haversack’ that in a lovely game of English whispers traveled all the way to Sangli district in Maharashtra and inserted itself into the local vocabulary as the hip ‘Sag’.
The thing that had me most stumped is their use of the word ‘partition’. This was one of the more important words for me given that it cropped up so frequently in response to questions about what they did not like about their village. It took many questions to finally unravel that the word partition is closely aligned with taking sides in favor of different political parties. It is not a division of a physical structure, but the existence of social frictions. Partition, in this part of the world is quite simply used to describe the act of identifying with opposing political parties and the subsequent tensions it causes to the social harmony of their lives. It really is very logical when you sit down to think about it.
And then there are times when the joke is completely on you. At such times, you are forever grateful that you are probably (and hopefully) the only one who recognizes this. Often rural India’s use of English betrays a sense of innocence that is far away from the worldly-wise ways of urban India. This is not to say that they lack in wisdom – far from it. Just that they sometimes use words in contexts that mean very different things in the milieu you come from. Add this to their eagerness to display familiarity with English to any city dweller and it is a perfect mix for situations that force you to keep a straight face. Like the time the taciturn, reticent, and very grey-haired chairman of the village’s dispute resolution committee promised that he would identify two people who had approached the committee with their disputes so that I could interview them. At the appointed hour, he dutifully led one man into my room and announced with his usual stone faced expression, “Here is one client. I will send in the other once you are done with him. Don’t worry, I will shut the door on my way out”.
It was my turn to shift around in the chair and shuffle my feet after that.
3. March 8, 2011. Jashpur, Chhattisgarh.
A Birthday Cake from Jashpur
I keep an eye out for the youth. The ones just like you and me. The ones who will grow old with you and me. What is their life like in these far away parts? What are their aspirations? What do they do for fun? I haven’t yet had a chance to speak to anybody yet on these issues. I don’t meet too many youth and the conversations that I have had so far with the older folks are generally far too serious for any mention of fun. Yet, beneath all that seriousness there lurks a willingness to burst into song and dance whenever fancy strikes. That much is evident. The voice portal that I am researching, receives numerous calls from people who just want to sing their hearts out and entertainment content is also one of the things that people suggest when I ask them what they would like to listen to more on the portal.
Sundays are weekly bazaar days in Jashpur roughly 150 kms from where I was based in Sarguja. The town had a lovely market-day buzz to it and it was very uplifting to see advertisements for English playschools. Aspirations in small towns here definitely include obtaining an English education for their children. I had to meet a contact there and so had driven down to the district. Our contact pointed to a place where we could chat. It was probably the best restaurant in that market square and is akin to the best run down restaurant that you can think off in any big city. The hygiene is very questionable and you will have flies for company. I needed a quiet place to conduct my interview and we walked into the family room upstairs.
There was already a group occupying a part of the room. Three girls and two boys. And a birthday cake in front of them. Like all cakes this one too was layered with icing and cream. That they were having a ball of a time was obvious. They all had small camera phones and were happily clicking each other’s pictures. The whole scene was delightful; a colorful heartwarming tableau in a very grungy place. The girls were all dressed in their Sunday best salwar kurtas and the boys smartly turned out in formal shirts and trousers. I asked whose birthday it was and the group enthusiastically raised the hands of the pretty young girl who was enjoying her day out.
I got on with my interview. We spoke about life in the district, the expectations that my contact had in putting his voice out and being heard by outsiders, the police suspicion that dodges his activity, and his refusal to leave his birthplace for a more peaceful life outside even though he had a chance. We were so engrossed in our chat that I did not realize that the sweet birthday girl had been standing at my side softly urging me, “Didi, didi”. She lightly touched me on my arm to get my attention and offered me a piece of her cake. I thanked her and wished her again. The interview was at a sensitive point and I was hoping that the interruption had not caused my contact to lose his train of thoughts.
I worriedly bit into the cake. The cake that was full of icing and cream. And I realized that this cake was not sweet. The icing and cream tasted like mud. There was simply no trace of sugar in them. The cake that she was so excited about would not pass for a real cake in the world that I inhabited. But, it was joy for her. Probably the best cake that money could buy on that Sunday afternoon in Jashpur. Probably the cake that her friends had pooled money together to buy. And that is how I could taste a slice. Of a cake that unwittingly demonstrated what their lives were like. This youth, who are just like you and me. And who celebrate birthdays with cakes that are not sweet.
2. March 16, 2011. Chhattisgarh
Characters, Stereotypes, and Generalizations
The ones who fight
They typically have no life of their own. They walk a lot and talk a lot. They exhaust you and give you a headache with their enthusiasm. They have the kind of energy that will make you feel ashamed of your strength and make you feel lazy. They galvanize and organize. Their efforts lead to people coming together and uniting. They are seized by passion. Their families call them mad and have given up on persuading them to lead a ‘normal’ life. They are mad, in a manner of speaking. They are often not on talking terms with their families nor do they have a personal life to speak of. They love what they do. They may be educated or could be school dropouts. Even if they are lucky to receive payment, they still remain severely underpaid. These are typically the last links in the NGO ecosystem, without whom the whole setup may collapse like a pack of cards. And often, the most dedicated. They are highly respected in their villages, but will agree with you when you say that respect and honor will not fill their family’s stomach. Such is their tragedy.
The ones who force you to lie and flee
This may be your NGO contact. He could be the one with the pleasant smile. The one whom you have spoken on the phone in order to plan your visit to that place. As the day ticks by, you take in his slick smooth talk and his boyish charm. You see the power centre that he is for the villagers. He has grown up in this place, but lives in a bigger city a few hours drive away. You see him handle journalists with just the right amount of deference. You observe how he seems to touch women lightly when he speaks to them. He does the same to you a couple of times. You see no plausible reason why that finger needed to be on your person. You need his knowledge if you are to remain on the field and don’t have the freedom to ask him to buzz off. He walks you to the hotel and seems to want to linger on on a flimsy pretext. You excuse yourself and flee to your room and after a while rush down breathless to announce that you have some urgent phone call to attend to and assure him that his work will be done later in the night. He buys your story and leaves and you breathe easier.
The ones who dare to dream
She could be that dainty girl sharing your seat on the bus. You both are traveling to Raipur from that tiny tehsil town. She looks out of place in that setting with her carefully brushed hair and ‘modern’ clothes. She is very placid and soft-spoken. She will offer you her biscuits and her chocolate bars. When you are done, she will offer you water. You get chatting with her. You learn that she is from the northeastern part of the country and that she studies fashion designing in Raipur. You ask her why Raipur of all places to study fashion designing? Why not a more urban centre that is closer home? She tells you how she was allowed to come to Raipur by her father only because her relatives live in that tiny tehsil town nearby. She tells you how she thinks her father’s attachment to her is unhealthy. She says that she has the freedom to do anything, make friends with anybody, but not the freedom to move about. She has a plan in her head. She tells you how she is hoping that staying in Raipur will loosen her father’s hold over her and lessen his attachment. She wants to make it to Mumbai – that city of dreams. She will use a short course in Mumbai as her excuse, but will push ahead with it slowly. She needs to proceed slowly, one step at a time. She is patient and is sure that she will be able to negotiate that freedom for herself. She leaves you rooting and cheering for her.
The ones who do their job
They could be that civil servant or that journalist. They will listen to you and talk with you instead of at you. They don’t carry torches, they don’t make a big noise about who they are and what they do. They are unassuming and will be surprised at the fact that them doing their job should earn them praise. They will be worried about anonymity and confidentiality, but once assured of it will open up. They will give you further leads and freely share whatever they know. They may even confess to being glad that you are asking them questions because they rarely get to talk about their work and what they think of the system with those around them. They leave you with a sense that all is not lost. They are probably the conscience keepers of their professions; the reason that India lurches that one step forward for every two steps that it falls behind. They make you want to be friends with them. And all because they are doing their jobs when others of their ilk are not.
- March, 5, 2011. Raipur – Ambikapur, Chhattisgarh.
Encountering Royalty and VIPs.
You know that the journey will be an overnight one and the land strange. You decide to be prudent and eschew your favorite 2nd class sleeper coach. You log on to the ticket portal barely in time to get a 2 tier AC ticket – in tatkal. The wait-list is already 11 people down and you wonder who these people are who all want to travel to this very remote place in 2nd AC on the very same day as you.
At Raipur station, they don’t announce coach positions until the train has already arrived and you happen to be standing on the farthest end of where your coach is supposed to be. Given that you have spent the last 7 hours killing time, you curse you luck where the end has to be a mad rush to your coach instead of the stroll you thought it would be.
You don’t find your name on the reservation chart and panic. It is nighttime and you wonder what to do. You get in to the coach nevertheless. Kind passengers tell you that your seat will be at the other end of the coach since the single coach contains both 2 and 3 tier berths. You make it to your berth only to find it occupied by nine men. What???
They are kind, but. They take your luggage and push it down. You squeeze through them and seat yourself. A menacing looking gent walks in with a rifle and stations himself in the berth. You give a start and look at your co-passengers carefully. The man opposite you is fiddling with an smartphone.
He is tall, regal, very haughty, and very well-spoken. You don’t exist at all as far as he is concerned. He is cursing his phone’s battery which does not seem to be charging. He blames it on some AC/DC electricity flow funda. You steal a look at the switchboard. He follows your eyes and realizes that he had not switched it on in the first place. You look out of the window.
By now the realization has dawned on you that these are esteemed netas. This is confirmed when they talk about the commotion which made them adjourn the Vidhan Sabha today. They call themselves MLAs. Your familiarity with Chhattisgarh politicians extends to knowing that the chief minister is Raman Singh. You are very frustrated that you can’t put a name to your co-passengers’ faces.
They all seem to be discussing a leader’s death and wondering if national mourning will be declared. They debate if it will be for a day or three days. They recite the list of the politicians offices held till date and arrive at the conclusion that national mourning will last three days. You message your sister asking who died and you learn that Arjun Singh has passed away.
The haughty one seems to be in two minds. He is sure that “Dilli se bulava aayega, toh jaana toh padega.” His lesser haughty companion advises him to disembark. “We can always board a plane from here if they summon you. But if we reach Surguja, we won’t be able to do that.” The train begins to move and they hurriedly jump out, bodyguard in tow.
Another gent takes haughty one’s place. He has his man Friday and another male companion with him. He offers you food and you politely decline. His man Friday opens a tiffin carrier and serves him dinner with such ceremony that you wonder if you really are in a train. There are others too crowding your berth. But, their talk is all about disbursements and ‘cuts’ and postings. You realize they are government officers.
They try to draw you into conversation. They are curious why anyone would be visiting Surguja. You don’t want to say much. Field research is best performed anonymously. By now, the other gent has burped and digested his dinner. His man Friday spreads out the white sheet for him on the seat. He commands him to make your bed too. You protest; he insists. This goes on till he imperiously waves a hand indicating that no more arguments will be allowed.
You step aside embarrassed and watch as a strange man spreads sheets out for you. Everybody sleeps. But, the gent wants to know if tomorrow is a day of national mourning or not. Man Friday is instructed to wake up the deputy collector or the collector to find out. The call is made and you are informed that there is no holiday declared. Everybody sleeps. Finally.
It is early morning when the train reaches Ambikapur. There is a small contingent of men milling about, waiting with garlands and drums. The gent gets down to cries of, “BJP ki jai ho”. Later, you mention your co-passengers to the NGO contact you are meeting. You are informed that the haughty one is none other than T.S. Singh Deo, the all powerful maharaja of the place you are in – now a Congress MLA. Gent number 2 is Murarilal Singh, BJP MP of Surguja.
These were elected representatives of the people. You have had a chance to observe a slice of their life from very close quarters. The one thing that remains with you is how overpoweringly masculine the domain of politics is. The other thing is how well insulated a and far removed, politicians like to be from the people they are purportedly representing. If that means traveling with your own tiny portable fiefdoms, then be it.