Nirantar conducts this year-old program where seven newly-literate rural women are paid to be field reporters for their district in a magazine written in simple Hindi called Khabar Lahariya . All are married, most with children (one left her husband this year because he was violent), all have faced violence, all are neo-literates, many are the primary wage earners for their families.
Three weeks a month, it is their job to collect local stories, interview people, and prepare the stories for print. One week a month, the women spend a week in the Khabar Lahariya office in Chitrakoot, Karvi district, to write up their stories, illustrate, and format the local broadsheet under the supervision of two Nirantar staff, Shalini and Ritu.
I got so excited when I heard about the project, I bugged the Nirantris for three days to let me come to see the newpaper in the making. They let me visit, provided I was certain it would not impede the progress of the website. I lied.
4:30 am and I get my feet tapped by the conductor. Twenty minutes to Chitrakoot.
I get off at the station and spot Shalini immediately. She and two other women are wrapped in shalls in station lit by one flourescent bulb. They are standing amid dozens of sleeping bodies covered in blankets on the ground.
I am introduced to Meera and Kavita who "namaste" me and smile sleepily.
All trains to Chitrakoot arrive between 10am and 5am. The area around the station is crawling with nocturnal rickshaw drivers, pan wallahs and stands selling and hard boiled eggs by lantern light. It is that impossibly-late magic hour, kind of like when you fell asleep at a grown-up party and got woken up to leave.
We climb on two cycle rickshaws and head down some dark lanes with barking, territorial stray dogs and a hairy pig with a limp. We turn down one alley that smells strongly of urine, and then make a sharp turn down another street with a small incline. We are at the Khabar Lahariya office.
Shalini and I go into the computer room where there is one computer and some thin mattresses laid out on the floor. Ofsana, the office caretaker, brings us some extra blankets. "Do you want some tea or do you want to sleep?" asks Shalini. She looks relieved when I say sleep. We pass out on the mattresses and wake up a couple of hours later by the sounds of the other women using the water pump.
"Namaste Didi!" they call out as I step into the covered courtyard. I am told that Didi means big sister, a term of respect. We eat parathas with chutney and drink chai as we take turns at the water pump. The water pump is cool. I love the novelty of bobbing head and squeaky release of water and I make a big production of finding it fun. It is amazing how lack of language can turn you into a retard. The women laugh at me as they hang their saris to dry and comb their hair around me.
I bring a bucket into the "bathroom," give myself a hasty bucket bath -what I would have given for a real shower after the overnight train ride! -and put on my salwaar kameez ( It was strongly recommended that I bring Indian-style clothes for the visit).
We walk to Mahadwi's house, (a notoriously big-hearted, earthy local activist from an org called Vanangana) to pick up Bishaka who will be doing a news workshop that day.
Bishaka is a rotund, energetic filmaker from Bombay who works part time with NGO's and has recently completed a documentary called "In the Flesh" about prostitution in India. Although her film does not depict actual sex, it is still before the Indian censor board, presumably because it does not cast prositutes as shameful, fallen victims.
We cram into a jeep with a driver named Moona. He takes us to a temple ruin called Ganesh Bag. Rising up in the middle of a mustard field's yellow flowers, the temple is an ornate, crumbling relic. There is a holy pond outside, pagoda-like spires, stairs to the roof, and an airy, pillar-supported central area with a smooth marble floor where we all sit. On either side of us are puja areas with miniature carvings. I can't believe how clean the air is here. I can't believe that no one is preserving this temple.
What are some of the stories you are covering this month? Bishaka asks the group.
Dalit land claims, says one. A supreme court case, says another.
What are they talking about in your village?
Cricket, says one. Smallpox. Child marriage. Dacoit (gang) kidnappings. Minimum wage.
Why don't you cover those stories in your next issue? The rooms fill with chatter as ideas shoot back and forth. The caretaker comes by and tells us to be quiet or we'll wake the bees.
The women split into groups and discuss the story ideas.
We take a break as the women pair off into groups to discuss the story ideas. I walk around explore the temple. I climb onto the roof and cheick out the carvings. The caretaker follows me up and when I sit down, he fills my lap with two handfills of "chimmmy" or peas. Meena and Ritu come up to the roof and we share them.
We have disturbed the bees. We sit down outside of the temple, away from the beehive that is on the underside of a dome at the far end of the temple. We flesh out the stories.
The first group discuss small pox, which the government says has been eradicated. But in the villages, people still get "che chack" they call it. A disease where they break out in boils and get ill-tempered with a fever. The do not go to the doctor because they believe it is a visitation of the goddess Devi. What if smallpox still exists in the villages, but the doctors don't know about it?
The group discussing decoits (gangsters). They ask what makes a dacoit. They menntion Dadua, the legendary dacoit of Uttar Pradesh, a local Robin Hood. He apparently never kills poor people. He is protrayed as someone who looks over the villages with strict morality and a soft spot for the suffering. Apparently he has sent word to Madhawi that her approves of her work on Dalit land claim cases.