Saturday, July 14, 2007

14th January

Part 3

The incident of Mr Pisalkar telling me to dress “appropriately” was so unnerving more so because he had come to meet us early in the morning wearing a bush shirt over a ‘pyjama’. Irony of the situation was such that I was asked to take a ‘duppata’ to meet the villagers by a man who did not wear a decent formal garb to meet two urban women coming from Delhi.

By the time we reached Yavatmal our itinerary was almost decided and some changes had to be made in reservations that we had made from Delhi. Once Shailesh came to pick us up in the Sumo, the first stop was to buy a white duppata for me. This was a piece of cloth that I had with me for most part of the rest of the travel not considering whether white matched the colors I was wearing or not. Next we were taken to a travel agent to arrange for the changes in the reservations.

All this was happening while I was patiently waiting for the encounter with the villagers. Before I proceed with the travelogue, it is imperative that I explain my fascination with villages and villagers. I have been born and brought up in the urban setup of Delhi. Love the city and the city slickers alike. I have also grown up on stories of how wonderful the villagers are and of how beautiful the villages are. The stories of hospitality, ingenuity and generosity were at this time taking a life of their own in my mind. My imagination had put the villagers on a pedestal and the villages were more of a part of heaven than of earth by 10 o’clock on 14th January 2006, when I was so near yet not there.

After coming out of the travel agent I was very sure that the next stop would be a village. The direction that the Sumo took belied my instinct. Shailesh had instructed the driver to take us to his home/office. Here we were greeted with a plate of poha and sheera (a sweet preparation called Halwa in north India) along with tea --- that was very black, very sweet and very little (thank God for that last mercy). After the eating and the small talk with Pisalkar family our party followed Shailesh to the upper floor of his house to talk work.

The office was a two-room setting. The furniture was minimal. The room that greeted us as we entered was just like a government establishment. Where numerous green, red and mustard colored cardboard files with sheets of paper coming out of them were strewn all over the place. A huge Godrej iron almirah with a bunch of keys hanging on the lock was the focal point of this room. Shailesh at this point announced that he would like to tell us a little about his organization, its origin, its working and then finally of how he would be of help to us. From this point on my job of an AD began. Ma’am told me to take notes and to remember all the major points that Shailesh mentioned. I was on the job!

I was amazed at the man’s stamina. Being a talker myself, talking non-stop for an hour is no big deal for me. But Shailesh opened my eyes when he spoke continuously for 2½ hours. Even ma’am interjecting him with questions trying to make sure he stuck to the subject did not deter his spirits.

It was 12 o’clock and time for us to finally go meet a Self Help Group (SHG) of 20 women, who prepared and sold herbal oils, incense sticks and medicinal tooth powder. Here I met women who were living on the threshold. They were not rural anymore, yet urban living was still a distant dream that they were working hard to achieve. We spoke with women of the group and how they marketed their product. How the SHG helped them financially etc.

14th January is celebrated as Makar Sankranti all over India. Maharashtrians celebrate the festival by decorating their houses, the aangan by making rangoli and making a sweet preparation called Til-gud. The guests are offered Til-gud on this day accompanied with a wish and blessing to say sweet words throughout the year. On 14th January, Sabiha ma’am and I had more than our share of Til-gud at all the places we went.

The women belonging to the SHG welcomed us very warmly. They offered tea, which we did not have the heart to refuse. Til-gud followed and then came the best part of the meet. I was enthusiastically urged by the women to try brushing my teeth with the tooth powder they had prepared. It was loads of fun doing that. Though the tooth powder is not something I cherish nor is the red saliva mix dripping down my mouth a scene I am proud of; but the experience of using the water from the well to wash my mouth. Well for a city slicker like me… That was something!!!

More of 14th January next time…

Saturday, May 5, 2007

14th January

Part 2

The next 45 minutes passed away as ma’am and I shared our small town holiday experiences. The locals (those who had already begun their day at 3:30 in the morning) advised us to take a Jeep, Trax or Sumo if these were to come before the local state transport bus. Heeding their advice we opted for the first Sumo that honked its way to the bus stop. The early morning laziness seemed to vanish from the idyllic villagers the moment they saw the Sumo. All the seats were occupied before Ma’am and I could say ‘Good morning”. The backside of the Sumo was stacked with newspapers that I presume were to be taken to the interiors for the morning ritual to begin. The driver said “ Maadamji, bassoon za. Adjust karne ko maangta. Main aapko chorr deta na.” (Translated it means, “ Madam accommodate yourself, you need to adjust a little but I promise I’ll drop you at the correct place.”)

With our luggage on our laps, Ma’am and I adjusted on the sides of the voluminous stack of newspapers. It was not that bad. This was the adventure I was seeking and I had no doubt I was going to enjoy it to the fullest. The commotion that had stirred up when the sumo had arrived had begun to die down as all the passengers settled in. The driver ceremoniously took his seat. The helper shouted something in a dialect of Marathi that I was unable to comprehend. As the driver put the Sumo into gear we all settled-in hoping to catch some sleep during the 1 hour 45 minutes of the journey till Yavatmal. The driver though believed in the dictum, ‘if I ain’t sleeping, no one else is sleeping either.’ He popped in a cassette of Marathi bhajans praising a neighborhood goddess, Renuka. Bhajan early in the morning is a thing that I would usually not mind, but the sheer volume of songs made me want to actually walk the whole distance rather than be in that Sumo. All my dreams of a quiet village had suddenly gone haywire. Sabiha Ma’am and I continued to chat over the blaring music. The Bhajans were not original compositions sung as an ode to the goddess; they were bhajans that were written on filmy tunes. The one tune I remember distinctly is ‘Babujee zara dheere chalo’, so instead of invoking a feeling of respect for the regional Goddess, the bhajan actually had me visualize Yana Gupta gyrating on the tunes. This is not a mental image that a cold-blooded straight woman would want to see early in the morning. Anyway, the Sumo ride was swift. The Bhajans though excruciating in the beginning later added a sort of rhythm to the whole journey through the forested tract.

Mr. Shailesh Pisalkar was to be our local contact in Yavatmal. He had booked a twin bed room for us at Mai International hotel. This was again a first for me. I had never before stayed in a hotel except on school trips. The hotel was clean and the bed was the only thing that mattered. We kept out luggage, took-off our shoes, asked the bellboy to wake us up at 6:30 am and slept. Shailesh Pisalkar was true to his word. He was at the hotel at 7:00 am sharp. At this point, it is imperative that I appreciate the speed with which Ma’am and I had our bath and were on the breakfast table having bread and omelets with the coffee that was not strong enough and was way too sweet for our urban taste-buds.

The encounter with Shailesh Pisalkar brought home the reality of the saying that Sabiha ma’am had repeated many times during our class and she had received headstrong opposition from the girls and easy agreements from the guys. She often said, “it is a man’s world.’ Living in Delhi, where I pretty much do what I want this dictum made no sense. But when Shailesh asked me with as much politeness that he could master that I should take a dupatta over my kurta, I was aghast. My urban mind refuted the idea that the dress code made any difference. Another worry also plagued my mind; I had brought only jeans and kurtas for the whole of 17 days. This I had decided was to be my look for the documentary shoot. This was modest, conservative and comfortable. I had not a single duppata with me. After all wasn’t this the official attire for the documentary filmmakers I was asking myself while still coming to terms with the fact that a man I had known for 5 minutes was asking me to dress properly.

Shailesh left us to arrange for a Sumo for the recce. Ma’am said that we would stop over a local shop and buy a duppata for me before we venture out in the villages. My mind still numb with the shock of being asked to dress properly, that when I had put so much of thought on my wardrobe.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

14th January

Part 1*

Sleeping at odd hours is something that I share with all the fellow web addicts. Waking at odd hours is a talent that I acquired during the documentary film. Waking up at 2:45 am to get down at Dhaman Gaon where the train was to stop for only 2 minutes was the first challenge that Sabiha Ma’am and I had to overcome. The Indian Railway did not surprise us by being 30 minutes late. This gave us ample time to drag our luggage till the door and be on the ‘ready, steady and go’ position to make most of the 2 minutes that the train was to stop for at the station. Before I proceed, I would like to re-instate the fact that I am filmy to the core. And I don’t mean documentary or offbeat films type filmy. I am the Hindi masala movie type filmy.

The station of Dhaman Gaon presented an eerie picture. It was dark. There were a couple of homeless people crouching under thin, worn-out blankets. Somewhere on the platform was a small bulb to provide the only source of light except for the moon that was in full bloom. Even the bulb was ready to give up anytime soon. I actually heard a dog growl. The only thing missing, and I thank God again that it was missing, was a ghost of the stationmaster. The most filmy thing that can happen in a backdrop like this is for two females to lose the way. That is exactly what happened. As is the case mostly, the only person who was ready to answer our query decided to inform us wrongly at that God forsaken hour. Ma’am and I tugged our heavy bags from one end of the station to the other. Finally we figured out the way out of the station. This village was comparatively a big one. There was a bus station to testify the fact. The presence of a bus stop, I soon discovered is the measure of categorizing villages.

We walked to the bus stop that was a stone’s throw away from the station. The scene at the bus stop was my first brush with reality of villages and villagers of India. For years I had written essays describing at length (what I intellectually perceived till then, without any real time experience to back my conviction) that the metropolitans like Delhi are not the real India. Suddenly I could see in realty what the books and the intellectuals all along had said and I had repeated as a wise old parrot.

Sabiha Ma’am and I were clad in what is known as the best garb to travel in (specially when you have been traveling for three days straight!) i.e., jeans and sweat shirt. The freedom to wear clothes of my choice is something I have always taken for granted. I realized this when I saw these old villagers and the chai wala looking at us strangely. They were not eyeing us but just that for the first time in my life I felt that I was inappropriately dressed, specially if one chooses to go by the dictum--- ‘when in Rome do as Romans’. What struck me at first was that despite it being so early in the morning there were people around, not too many, but nevertheless there were enough people to not give the quaint town an eerie feeling!

The Indian villagers are of a different human race altogether. They may have not approved too much of our clothing or the fact that two women were visiting them at that odd hour, but they were respectful and very courteous towards us. We had not felt the need for a cup of tea this early in the morning. I was pleasantly surprised that the Chai wala offered us chairs and was ready to answer all our questions about the local buses or transport that would take us to Yavatmal. A Delhi shopkeeper will not as much as give you change for a 50-rupee note unless you buy something from them. And here was this magnanimous old man who was ready to help us out though he did not entirely approve of us.

The bus stop of Dhaman Gaon was opposite an old home that I am pretty sure will not be there the next time I chance to visit the place. It was dilapidated but the beauty and artistry with which it was made many years ago was still visible in parts. After ma’am saw me staring at the old haveli she told me about a haveli in Lucknow where she had spend some summer vacations as a child and that the arches were peculiar to the Mughal architecture and were called ‘Bara Dari’. She was narrating a prank that she and her cousins played by knocking on all the Dari’s of an old haveli to tease an even older man. Even Sabiha ma’am was a child. I generally presume that the people I have met have been the same age all their lives. Imagining Sabiha ma’am as a prankster kid was fun.

* I told you 14th January was to be a long day. Imagine one blog just explaining the span of 1½ odd hour of the part of morning that many of us have never witnessed i.e., before sunrise. Yes it is referred to as ‘early morning’ rather than the Delhi norm of calling 9 am as early morning!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

13th January

The morning started with the breakfast onboard Rajdhani. We soon were in Mumbai the city of dreams, the point where my documentary film dream was to begin. After calling a lot of contacts that the CEFI Director, Vijay had provided us with, we managed to finally decide upon an itinerary for the documentary shoot. The time for the research being limited there were a lot of times when decisions had to be taken on the basis of circumstances, like we had to cancel the shoot in the Konkan belt because the season of herbal plant collection was over in that region. After mulling over from where to start once we were in Maharashtra, Yavatmal was chosen as the venue to begin the recce.

Yavatmal is a district in eastern Maharashtra. I had previously visited the neighboring districts of Amravati and Bhandara and the city of Nagpur on family trips. But reaching Yavatmal meant that we travel for twelve hours more from Mumbai to Dhaman Gaon.

After reaching Mumbai and making more enquiries we booked train tickets from tatkal counter. Now I cannot express the excitement that I felt during all this because this was the first time I was running around a station carrying my bag and very much aware of the fact that my mom was not around to cover up my blunders. And also pressuring my mind was the fact that I had to prove myself, not only to Sabiha Ma’am, my mom, relatives who had their doubts, cynical classmates but most importantly to myself that I was capable of handling the pressure. I, who had lived life as the delicate darling of the family and friends, was capable of living on the edge.

We were hungry by the time the reservation formalities were done. With food on our mind we went to the main station. Seeing a McDonalds and a Deli outlet our stomachs growled their respective appreciations. The food was disappointing. It was as Sabiha ma’am put it the beginning of the outdoors and its perils. I was sure that she was waiting to see a flinch or a shadow of regret on my face but there was none there, as I was on such a high that I was enjoying the bad meal days as well.

Once onboard the train to Dhaman Gaon in the second class compartment the task at hand was to upgrade the ticket to the Second AC. This meant that one of us had to search the TT and request him to do the honors. Ma’am asked me if I was scared to cross the bogies and find the TT. I call my self ‘railway ki santan’ as my mom is a railway employee and I have traveled in trains since I was a baby. But in all my journeys my mom never let me cross the bogies. Telling ma’am that I had butterflies doing a Shakira dance in my stomach at the mere thought of walking on that unstable and continuously shaking corrugated tin sheet was something that I was not prepared to do. Ego was playing a role you see. I don’t need any bungee jumping or white river rafting to match the adrenaline rush that I enjoyed just crossing that raggedy piece precariously bridging the two bogies of the train. Finally managed to get hold of the TT after adventurously crossing three bogies and the TT uncle very sweetly replied, “beta we will discuss this when I come to your bogie.” Now this answer spoiled all my aspirations of implementing all the skills of convincing (read bribing) the railway official. All the tactics that Sabiha Ma’am had tried drilling into me within 15 minutes were to be reserved for some other time.

Coming back the three bogies was not such a difficult task for me. Infact if at that time someone was to even speculate my being afraid I would have brushed off the matter. At that time I was confident that trapeze is something I should consider. Thank god that all that was momentary. And I have not changed my professional line so drastically. The TT kept his promise and upgraded our seats to the second AC. We followed the same process of calling all the contact people that our CEFI main man Vijay had provided us with and planned our itinerary accordingly. Calling strangers and telling them that we wanted to land at their door in the next two days and then shoot a documentary film was something that would scare most. But not me. Talking. Talking more. And then talking a little more is how all those who know me real well would describe me.

We went of to sleep with the knowledge that the next day was going to be hectic and a long one beginning at a remote village at 3:45 am. With dreams of a real adventure and the first visit to an Indian village occupying my mind I slept on a train berth for the second consecutive day!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

12th January

The D-day arrived with all the excitement that such an occasion demanded. Frantic phone calls from ma’am about the collection of tickets from the travel agent’s office, where we were to meet etc started early in the morning. Garima came specially to meet me before going to office. While I was starting on this adventure she had her first trip abroad, to Singapore on an assignment, all planned. So the two of us were going to have adventures of our lives on our own merit together… this is what ‘filmy dosti’ is. Garima got me some snacks for the journey. Thank god she did because with all the excitement food was something I had completely forgotten. After the last minute shopping of tissues, creams and medicines and packing over I was off to the Sita Travels office to collect all the tickets. Mom and I met ma’am at the Hazzarat Nizamuddin Station at 3 o clock. I was nervous as mom was to meet ma’am for the first time. It felt like being back to a Parents Teachers meet in school. Not surprisingly the first thing that Sabiha Ma’am told mom was “Priyanka talks so much, how do you live with her?” But then this was a statement that mom has gone used to hearing from my teachers since the nursery standard.

After the introductions were over there was a little formal talk about children, students, and weather till the train arrived at the platform. It was definitely the only time I was traveling without my mother and did not shed a tear. My mother and my friends will vouch that I cry every time I leave my mom even for a 2-day trip. This was no trip. This was a journey of a lifetime so tears had no place. I had to be brave or atleast give that impression to my mom and ma’am.

This was the first time I boarded the Rajdhani Express. Being the daughter of a railway employee (my mother is in the railway ministry) Rajdhani has been a part of various conversations during family dinners, outing with friends and get togethers with her office friends. So Rajdhani in itself was a big deal for family and friends. Though, boringly enough, for me it was just of mode of transport and nothing more. The Rajdhani Express is known for its hospitality, the amount of endless food tires one after 5 hours. Believe me.

Once the train chugged the sense of the beginning of the adventure began to sink in a little. Ma’am and I spend the evening sorting out the stack of paper we both carried for research purpose. Ma’am told me the exact subject and the storyline that had been planned for the documentary film. At the time of the dinner we started chatting with a co-passenger. She was a manager with the Taj Group of hotels. When she asked us what we do ma’am answered very simply that she is a documentary filmmaker and I am her assistant director. With that statement I had felt like I had won an Oscar. It was for me the moment that many people have described as the moment they are sure of their calling in life. That was pure bliss for me. I had known that a moment will come when nothing else will matter--- not the food, the comfort, the material, the money etc. the film and the whole process till I got the CD in my hand was a series of such moments for me. I slept peacefully and the happiest I had ever been ever on the upper birth of Rajdhani Express.

Monday, February 5, 2007

5th to 11th January

There is a game that most of us have played in our childhood--- Chinese whispers. Let me tell you why I think of this game when I remember these days. I have written the conversation I had had with Sabiha Ma’am. Now what my brain interpreted of this conversation in the subsequent days will be very interesting for the readers. Well the adventurous girl that I am, at least ostensibly, I thought that Sabiha ma’am was going to shoot a film on Naxals and she had chosen me to go along. Me as a choice for such a project was a little discerning to myself too. Nevertheless there was no way in hell that I would have let anyone else know about the fear that had started to build up inside my tummy. Naxals were a new concept to me. I had come to know about their working only during the past 6 months. So fear was the only thing I associated with Naxals and their movement. I could not keep the excitement of it all only to myself for long. I blurted out everything to Gurneet. Aah! What a relief…keeping a secret, many of my friends will vouch, is not my best quality. Another major reason to tell Gurneet early on was that we both had been making plans of how to spend the break we were to get post our exams. She was going to forego her trip to Canada and cousin’s wedding to execute the plans we had made by voluntarily (and quite happily) wasting so much of our study time. If I was going on the journey of my life I definitely did not want her to stay back and miss her cousin starting a new life. So it was decided that Gurneet would go to Canada for her cousin’s wedding while I will traverse in the jungles of central and south India.

For the next couple of days I was busy browsing news magazines, websites and newspapers to educate myself with the Naxals and every possible detail I could get about them. 5th to 8th January, I was miserable. I was frantic in my attempts to call Sabiha Ma’am and tell her I had convinced my mother and I was onboard. But as luck would have it I could not contact her. Her cell phone was always out of reach. The worst possible thoughts plagued my mind. Maybe she had changed her mind; maybe I had taken too long to answer and angered her, maybe…

The answers to the maybes I had none. But I think it was the second time around in my life that I had wished for something so badly. First being of course my father’s recovery from the illness that resulted in his death. God had not answered me then. He had to this time. Prayers being rejected twice were a policy, even if God’s own, I was not ready to accept or approve of. On 9th I finally had a word with Sabiha Ma’am. She was in Agra on a shoot for the past 4 days. Phew! Thank God! I told her I was onboard. After enquiring about my mother’s consent, Sabiha Ma’am asked me to go to Hauz Khas to the CEFI* office to collect some literature from there. This she informed me was to be my study material.

Going to Hauz Khas was as easy as the bus-ride. Nothing eventful happened. The fun started once I reached back home and opened the literature I got. All I had were these brochures and books about herbal plants. Now I was completely out of loop. Where were the Naxals, the vulnerable villagers whose story I had to capture? I read all the literature. Next day I called up Sabiha Ma’am ready with my list of questions. She was awesome when she did not laugh at my inanity of thinking that the two of us were going to traverse the Naxal area all by ourselves (not that we did not do that later on) covering such a sensitive issue. Sabiha Ma’am gave me a brief idea of what was going to be the main line of the story we were going to take. Though it still wasn’t crystal clear.And I did not ask with the fear that it might dawn on her that I was not ready for the project. This is when Chinese Whispers became the theme game for the trip. As this was not the only time during the shoot that what anyone had said was misunderstood or rather misinterpreted.

The next couple of days I spent searching the net and preparing a suitable travel plan that would help us save time and money. That was my first brush with extensive online search. I would be in touch with ma’am through the numerous phone calls we made daily. I was introduced to this voice called Jogiraj by ma’am. She instructed me to call Jogiraj and tell him something about the travel plan. I did so not realizing whom I was talking to. The first thing that Shakti (my boss at Lifestyle) had taught me was to Google professional associates. It completely skipped my mind to Google Jogiraj. But I liked the man on the other side of the phone he was very kind to me.

Once the decision to go was made an important ritual that I always follow before taking on a journey or a new job was to be adhered to. I had to go shopping. The instant shopping sprees were gratifying and added to the whole excitement of going for the first documentary shoot of my life.
Ma’am and I could not meet before the 12th when we left for our journey to recce* and then shoot the documentary film. It was on 12th that the real fun began.

*CEFI Community Enterprise Forum Internatinal, the NGO that had commissioned Jogiraj to make the film
*Recce is an inspection or exploration of an area, especially one made to gather information before commencing a shoot.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

4th January

This day did not witness any progress in terms of the documentary film. But nevertheless I am accounting this day just so as to not break the chronology of the documentary saga.

Exams at NRAI are not something to dread. But yes the way all the students took the exam I lived in constant fear of failing one or the other exam or scoring relatively very low for sure. The current affairs exam on 4th was no different. When everyone else in the class had bought bagsful of magazine stacks and notes to cheat, Gurneet and I had gone for a toss. We were sure that clearing or even scoring a decent score in this exam was to be our Everest. With nothing to refer to in this exam I felt it was going to be a defining moment. A student of journalism failing the current affairs exam… I can only imagine the wagging tongues and the gossip mills within family and friends working overtime.

The three devils as I used to call them in those days---Supragya, Kazim and Jha (the monster) were back at their old tricks. A lot of verbal attacks and jibing went on during the exam. It was a day when I got a feel of how the exams in notorious centers across UP and Bihar went. Magazines dating back to the last six months were available in the class in English as well as Hindi. All one had to do was pick the language, choose the choice among the questions to be answered and all the material to help score the best of marks was there.

The problem that I usually face in such circumstances, please don’t take me for a prude or a self crowned Gandhi Bhakt (I am neither), is following my head which often tells me “everyone is doing it”, or my heart which says, “That’s the only reason you should not.” With these perplexities on my mind, Gurneet and I decided to abstain from cheating. The reason was simple for both of us. We could not bear to be happy with the results even if we scored highest. Once the decision was made things were not that difficult. Then giving the exam to the best of our knowledge and ability became our focus. Having Gurneet for a friend is a blessing that I always thank God for. That day, again I was re-affirmed about the correct choice I had made in Gurneet. She did not once ask me to go the wrong way. The usual answer of ‘everyone is doing it’ or even ‘if you don’t want to don’t but I will’ could have come from anyone else but not her.

The worst part was seeing the teacher, Dr. Ritu being totally shocked. Never had she seen students so bluntly and openly cheating. I could sympathise with her. The viva went well. Though ma’am was a little worried for Gurneet and me and our marks.

The events of the exam were least of my worries. The documentary and saying yes to Sabiha ma’am had consumed me completely. I was so tempted to tell Gurneet. That was the toughest test of will power I had given myself till date.

P.S: Gurneet and I faired well in the current affairs exam. Surprisingly better than those who cheated front to back, introduction to conclusion. Guess the evaluators are smart people after all.