One bright morning in January, a bunch of thirty odd youngsters set out on a trip with a mission- “covering deprivation”. Their motive was to visit the adjoining ‘poor’ district of Krishnagiri, 256 kms away from Chennai, to bring to light the plight of villagers and others who did not belong to the mainstream flow of convenience that makes up metropolitan cities like their own. Spirits soared and bad jokes as well as rumors flew about how they’d have to stay in sad little huts, with no electricity or water. Most had chlorine tablets, purifiers, blankets, thermal body suits and more safely tucked into their strollies. And they prepared for the worst as they kicked back heels, reclined into comfort and enjoyed ‘Ratatouille’ on the LCD screen in their mini tourister on the way.
Six hours and a few mishaps later, they were looking out their windows and drinking in rustic beauty at its best. The horizon was made up of rocky hills and forest land and the highway that they were speeding on was the lifeline that seemed to connect this island to the rest of civilization. Soon, much to the relief of some, they came to a hotel in which they were to be accommodated for the next week. The hotel boasted of a restaurant as well as a bar, thank god, but could they get some hot water, pronto please?? And then they were escorted to the district collector’s office where Dr. Santosh Babu, IAS, personally welcomed this bunch of overeager journalists. He was to make his best efforts to help them but they were to keep in mind that this district was also being developed at an extremely rapid pace- the officialdom was putting its best foot forward and they, the press, were to keep in line…
The following few days were a flurry of travel, visiting villages, talking to farmers, understanding the rural setup of life, as well as enjoying the idyllic pleasures of natural beauty, taking rides on fishermen’s boats down the Cauvery, eating, drinking and having ‘fun’ back at the hotel and then falling into bed exhausted but content. From seeing scruffy children running after their bus, and then grouping together with outstretched hands for sweet treats that these exotic looking ‘rich’ people might offer them, to finding out how bigger goals, such a conserving a forest, are achieved at the cost of taking away the livelihood of the marginalized alone- they saw it all.
It was like a pictoral collage of deprivation. A widow who was dumb and deaf, who stood smiling like an idiot, not knowing her plight, since she had no financial statistics of her own whatsoever. An eighty year old woman with no one in the world to call her own, except a brother in whose bathroom she was allowed to spend rainy days. Kaveri, an 8 year old girl, who was so enchanted by the tinkle of bangles on the wrist of one of these foreigners, that she cutely recited ‘ABC..’ in order to gain possession of them. Another girl, who sat watching Sun TV in her one room house, but was never allowed to go to school anymore, since she had gained puberty. Satyamurthy, a young man in his prime who worked in the pantry car of Lal Bagh Express, who believed that purity of the village was important to keep the Gods happy. Sujatha, his wife, who was living in the forest for the time being because she was having her period. Her one year old son, who was deprived of polio vaccination because she was unfit to mingle in social circles.
But with the graphic portraits of deprivation came the ghastly mask of deception. Government officials attempted to gloss over the truth by guiding their guests to their successful endeavors alone. The villagers had seen it all before- these foreigners came once, saw them in their natural habitat, absorbed the shock and went away, never to return. In turn, they had learnt techniques to make profit out of their destitution. They told tales of their poverty and then begged for some form of remuneration to ease their pain if only for a very short while. Kaveri and her friends too, had learnt the art of begging- since nobody could resist the sympathy they’d feel for these cherubs of the wild. The deception, probably, fully and finally existed in the heart of these journalists. What they came looking for, really, was stories and tales they could tell, and it did not much matter what the fates of these people would be.
The fun fair ended where it began. Questions, terrifying answers, doubts and clarifications- all swam together in the mind, but were not really voiced. For lack of concern or for fear of the truth and its reverberations- they all stayed woefully mum. Their hearts and heads were in the right place, probably, since feeling too much might have been something of a mistake. Emotion, after all, obscures objectivity, that much valued characteristic essential to a journalist. They all felt a little bit wiser to the ways of the world, now that they had gone down a road less travelled. They took their memories, and their notes, home.