Friday, September 28, 2007

Here, every village is a 'Khairlanji' today

Bhandara and Gondia, Sept 28:
There is a palpable tension in the dalit basti of Pimpalgaon Kohali village, some 80 km from Bhandara in Lakhandur tehsil. The village is going in for panchayat election, and 'caste-card' is in play once more. Or leaders would ensure it does.
"This year our basti had to buy two tractors to complete 'our' work in the fields, because 'they' refused to lend us theirs," reveals Sumedh Lade, a neo-Buddhist (Mahars who have embraced Buddhism). Earlier this year, every Ambedkarite – the neo-Buddhists or converted dalits, as they are called here – in his village faced social and economic boycott.
"We were not allowed to shop; we were not offered any work," says Bhaiyyalal Motghare, a villager. "The entire basti was erased from the BPL list (below poverty line), but we fought to bring back our names into it," he informs. Things have eased a bit off late, but only just. "We know it's all superficial; a small trigger is enough."
The village saw the dominant castes turned against the Ambedkarites, when one of the farmers from the latter registered a case under Prevention of Atrocities Act against a farmer from the former community during a village get-together. The matter was trivial, say villagers, but local leaders blew it up. Result: the tension triggered the rift, followed by complete isolation and boycott of the Buddhists.
Pimpalgaon is a sample of what's happened – and is happening – across the rural Vidarbha, particularly in Bhandara and Gondia districts, exactly a year after four members of Bhotmange family were brutally killed in Khairlanji sparking a wave of violent protests in Maharashtra. Today, it's "they" versus "us"; but Buddhists are isolated, ostracized and living in fear and insecurity in village unto villages.
"You can see the reflection of this polarization and total isolation of Buddhists in village elections," notes Vinod Thakre, a BJP worker in Lakhandur, Bhandara. It's a stark reminder that the caste divide is a reality, but in the absence of any reconciliatory efforts on either side, it's growing worse for the Buddhists.
Every small incident, charges Bhandara ZP member Vasant Einchilwar, is given a caste colour and tagged as a case of atrocity by the small time leaders. "Threats by the dalit activists have become common that they'll slap an atrocity case even if the matter is trivial and could be resolved at village-level," he says. On the other hand, politicians from dominant castes exploit the situation to consolidate their base, by antagonizing the impoverished people of Buddhist community.
This, coupled with fiery speeches and statements by the Republican leaders from outside, has fuelling the caste division farther, Einchilwar suggests. "This past year has seen a spurt in the atrocity cases, though many were actually very trivial and personal issues," says a senior police officer in Bhandara. If there was any chance of reconciliation, political class ensured the tension remained. Yet, he admits that the genuine Atrocity cases fall apart due to pressure from the leaders of the dominant political class. "Anger against Buddhists is growing."
"Nobody opposes the installation of Babasaheb Ambedkar's statues in villages, but there will be reaction if their leaders publicly humiliate us and our religious sentiments. This is what has happened over the last one year during such events in and around Bhandara, vitiating the village harmony," says deputy sarpanch of Pimpalgaon Ramchandra Parshuramkar. "Agriculture work suffered due to it."
Ostensibly, the exchange and interaction between the Buddhists and dominant castes in villages has stopped. In Surewada, a teacher from OBC community sprinkled cow-urine on dalit students to purify them six months ago. The teacher was transferred, but the incident further antagonized the Buddhist community.
"The matter is serious. Every village is a Khairlanji today," warns a senior police officer. "While the four members of Bhotmange family were hacked to death in one stroke, the poor Buddhists would die a slow death everyday, being isolated and ostracized," he fears, in view of the alarming social fallout.
"Last month, an engineering student was denied accommodation by the landlord because he was an Ambedkarite," says Gondia-based journalist Kishor Borkar.
Adds Rajendra Gajbhiye of Dhusala: "Our community farmers did not get farm labourers this year, and Buddhist labourers didn't get work from dominant and upper caste farmers." Denied work, Buddhist farmers and farm labourers from Bhawal village in Bhandara, for instance, migrated to Dhusala where they got work from the landed farmers of their community. Migration shot up this year.
One year of protest, hatred, isolation and riots hasn't resulted in any benefit or economic empowerment of dalits, including the more organized neo-Buddhists.
"The naxal outfits are waiting to exploit the opportunity, the government must step in to intervene and talk to the leaders from both the camps," says a villager.
For, what's more serious though is isolation of this single community. Even the Hindu dalits (SCs who haven't converted to Buddhism, such as Khatiks, Burads etc) are also distancing themselves from the Buddhists. "This is a disturbing indication that the polarization is against us," says a local Ambedkarite leader.
"Polarisation is sharp, but I hope the strong bonds that existed between the OBCs and Buddhists would not crumble in the selfish political game," hopes Prakash Ambedkar, leader of the Bharip-Bahujan Maha-Sangh. He told DNA over telephone that there had never been any tension between the Buddhists and the dominant Kunbi community, but after Khairlanji incident, it has been made out.
Locals feel the only solution is social engineering. For, there is a volcano waiting to erupt. And political class on either side is ready with the matchsticks.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The man and his mission

Nagpur, August 2007:

I learnt two important things from him: what the heart does not feel, eyes cannot see. And there is no Invisible India. If at all there is one, it’s Blind India. He says, “Invisible India is an elephant in your bedroom that you don’t want to see”.

Palagummi Sainath, the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award winner in the category of Journalism, literature and creative communication arts, has inspired many a young journalist like me, not only in the country, but also beyond the borders.

When the news broke on Tuesday, July 31, afternoon, we were about to start for Nagpur from Pandharkawda in Yavatmal, after three days of non-stop traveling in rural Vidarbha, visiting half a dozen suicide households and meeting people. It was typical of Sainath that he was doing what he loves to do the most: visiting the rural households to understand the newer processes that affect their lives.

Those calling him on his cell phone were not the powerful editors from the national and international media, but people who are part of his long journey into the hinterland – many like me, Sainath’s foot-students and friends.

Excited, happy, pumped up – many of those callers were from rural Andhra or rural Karnataka. Desperate though to meet his deadline, he had time for all.

They all felt, and I could sense that joy, as if they had won the Magsaysay. For, why a Sanjay Bhagat would throw a bash for his friends and relatives in rural Yavatmal, so excited that he ended up inviting almost everybody of his town! Or a Ram, a taxi-driver who drove us to far flung places and became part of many of our journeys, distribute sweets and proudly flaunt the newspapers to his friends to claim that he has seen the man work twenty four by seven the past few years.

In every part of India where Sainath has traveled, it was time for celebration. What’s more, a few farmers, deep in despair, too made calls to convey their wishes. They were happy to read about Sainath deservedly receiving the award! Many of them are now part of his ever-extending family – a microcosm of India.

“If you don’t know rural India – or if you stop covering the rural poor, you have actually decided not to cover 75 per cent of India,” Sainath feels, “but that is now changing. Today, there are more journalists wanting to cover the rural issues.”

And much of that change came due to his dogged perseverance with rural issues and inequalities that shape modern day India. Covering it for days unto months unto years is not easy. There are many sacrifices on the way you have to make.

“It’s going to be the worst year for this region,” Sainath, who is covering agrarian crisis plaguing the country for a decade now, fears, as we emerge out of a farm household in rural Akola, where yet another farmer ended himself last month.

Not overawed by the Asia’s most coveted award, an equivalent of Nobel, Sainath says: “I am very pleased with it; awards open up spaces in the newspapers.” In the era of what he calls “journalism-for-shareholders”, receiving a Magsaysay for covering deprivation only legitimises his work and cements his strong belief in a legacy Indian journalism inherits from the country’s independence struggle.

He says his interest in rural issues has got two origins: “First, in 1984, when I was in UNI and we were covering drought. I realized we were not showing the real picture; my stories were not really telling the very complicated processes. The second in 1990, when I was in The Blitz – the issue of malnutrition deaths in Thane evoked quite a few passions among the journalist and made us angry. But I thought, had we been doing our job properly, many of these kids wouldn’t be dying in the first instance. That led me to the idea of looking at India’s rural poor and telling the stories that were beyond the comprehension of beautiful people.”

Even today, farmers wouldn’t have been dying the way they do today had the journalists been doing their basic duty – that is to signal the weaknesses in the society. “Today’s journalism is more or less stenography to the rulers,” he quips.

In the era of flashy journalism, Sainath's work is serious and importantly he enjoys doing it. It is his mission. And there is no sacrificing commitment and credibility at any cost. At times, he is the most acerbic critic of the media that they are today.

“When Indian press decided to look only at top five per cent after 1991, I decided to look at the bottom five and let people decide on the real face of India,” informs the author of the award winning book Everybody loves a good drought. Sainath spends more than three quarters of a year in villages reporting on rural poor – be they the cotton farmers of Vidarbha, or vanilla growers in Wayanad, or toddy tappers in Tamil Nadu, or Orrissa migrants, or Andhra’s chilly growers…

Those are the voices from rural India that Sainath listens to on a priority. “The often used clichés like ‘giving voice to the voiceless’ and stuff life that is rubbish. When you say they are invisible; they are voiceless, you are turning them dumb and blind. In fact, we are the ones who are dumb and blind. A farmer wants to tell his story. “Point is do you want to listen? Do you want to see how he lives?”

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Super moms of the suicide-country

In Vidarbha, where an average one cotton farmer ends his life every six hours, Mangalabai and Kamalabai are mothers who singularly stand out. After the death of their husbands, they learned every thing and are raising their family with unnoticed resilience. This one's the picture of the widow, of a farmer who committed suicide two years ago, and her two children in a village in Akola district, in western Vidarbha.


When Prabhakar Digambar Mohadkar, 55, hung himself from a tree to take his own life, which was steeped in unfathomable debt in September 1998, his widow Mangalabai stared at a long and treacherous journey, full of hurdles and thorns.

But the resilient woman did not blink. What if her man had forsaken the world, she still had a role to play – a role that was far bigger and far more important.

"I still had three daughters to marry, after we performed weddings of our five elder ones," recounts Mangalabai, who, post the suicide by her farmer-husband, single-handedly managed her seven-acre farm in Rampur village in Yavatmal. "I had no time to mourn his death," she remembers wryly. Big loans had to be repaid; three daughters had to be seen off; and then there was the farm.

Mangalabai is the super-mom of the suicide country Vidarbha, where an average one cotton farmer ends his life every six hours, even as the agrarian distress turns worse. These are mothers, who singularly stand out and raise their family in the face of a crisis and loss of their men. Vidarbha's farm widows are also mothers, who, very often, get junked in the debate over farm suicides and biting distress.

"Time passed so quickly," says Mangalabai, now in her late sixties, nonchalantly. It's hard to be alone, she adds. "Now when I look back, I wonder how I managed my responsibilities!" But, she adds, there was no time for her to live for herself!

Remarks Kishor Tiwari: "Those who think lowly of these women, the widows, as victims or sufferers and pity them, should come and see their resilience. We see their struggle every day! Make no mistake, these women, these mothers, have an unmatchable strength and undaunted courage. They are inspiration to all of us."

"Many of them are illiterate; had no idea of accounts or banks; but after the death of their husbands, they learned every thing, when our agricultural systems are not women-friendly. Rural tragedy is still unfolding. There is no health care; there is no support system; and, there is no money. Even then these rural mothers fight their way out, even while some of their own people mock at them," says Tiwari.

Tiwari's organisation, the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, felicitated Mangalabai and 20-odd farm widows like her, in March 2007, for their astonishing struggle.

Mangalabai repaid all her loans by saving every single penny and cleared her burden. She married her three younger daughters and refused to pay any dowry to the grooms. "To my luck, all my sons-in-law are very good," she says. And she saw to it that all her daughters came to her for their first deliveries – a custom, she followed very religiously, notwithstanding her fragile financial condition.

Saraswati Amberwar, about 50, is still waging the battle that began some 10 years ago, when her husband Ramdas ended his life in Telang Takli village, in Yavatmal's Kelapur block. It was the first suicide case to have been widely reported by the media in 1998 – and the only outcome of it was that she got a lakh rupees in compensation. "The cash of Rs.30,000 was exhausted long ago, and the monthly interest that I get on the remaining RS.70,000 is abysmal to run my household," she says. Saraswati now tills her ten acres alone.

The banks and her creditors troubled her, year after year, for the recovery of the loans that her husband had taken from them. But the woman did not budge. Last year, she lost her eldest daughter to brain tumour; and the youngest is diagnosed with clinical depression ever since the death of Ramdas Amberwar. Saraswati says this girl needs medicine worth Rs.200-400 every month. Treatment is costly but inescapable.

In 2005, when the creditors did not stop chasing her, Kishor Tiwari shot a letter to the cooperative bank officials in Marathi. Loosely translated, it read: "Last night Ramdas Amberwar came into my dreams. He told me that he is waiting with the money in heaven and has asked you (bank officials) to go there to fetch it."

The banks have stopped troubling her since, says Saraswati. That has eased the pressure. But the pressure of farming clearly shows on her face. But there are two daughters to be married off still, she notes, and piled up debts to be cleared. "These women are the face of the Vidarbha's agrarian tragedy, but they also portray a resilient face," says Tiwari, whose organisation has singularly focused on the plight of the region's cotton farmers.

Added to the problems of debt and distress are the in-built social pressures on women – the land laws that weigh inherently against them, the pressures from in-laws, the rigid caste and class structures which turn these women even more voiceless and much more. Their struggle in the face of such odds remains unheeded and unnoticed, points out Tiwari.

Cut in to Jalka, a village about half an hour's drive away from Rampur, where Kamalabai Bandurkar is about to wed her fifth daughter. "Three more to go now!" she tells us, smilingly.
Kamalabai's husband consumed Endosulphane in January 2006, with mounting debts finally becoming a fatal burden. Shattered, she hooked on to an unforeseen hope that life would change for better. While her income rests fragilely on the only buffalo she has, a 50-something Kamalabai is not giving up. The mother in her stands up, every time the untidy yet playful if somewhat noisy house, sinks in money and food crunch. A family of ten, minus her husband, is now swelling; she's now a grandmother of four. "Life has to go on," says this mother of nine, "crisis or no crisis". If only the path was a trifle easier, she'd have been relaxed.

But Kamalabai, who also tills a nine-acre barren farm-plot, knows she's not alone in the cotton country waging the great agrarian crisis today. There are hundreds of moms striving to lift their families out of the plight alone. There are hundreds of them holding out the promise across the suicide-ravaged region.

As Robert Frost wrote: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep; but I've promises to keep, and miles to go, before I sleep…"

Burning down standing sugarcane crops

Yavatmal, May 2007:

Panjabrao Jagtap was attuned to the cotton woes. But the 45-year-old farmer in Yavatmal's Datodi village has just tasted the bitterness of sugarcane as well.

"I burned all my standing crop because there was no buyer for it," says a flustered Jagtap. He set ablaze over 200 tonnes of his standing sugarcane crop a week ago, shouldering huge losses. His only hope wrests on government compensation.

Close to 1500 tonnes of sugarcane remains uncut on the land of Datodi farmers. It will all wilt in the flames over the next week. They've no option but to burn it.

Across Maharashtra, especially Marathwada, estimates from the Sugar Commissioner's office in Pune and various other independent agencies suggest that an overproduction of sugarcane is crushing farmers. Roughly 50 lakh tonnes of cane is uncut and uncrushed. Farmers are in dire straits.
"It's an irony," notes a local Panchayat Samiti member Vijay Raut, "sugarcane is burning in cotton-rich region."

Datodi village, located in the catchments of two rivers Painganga and Arunavati, turned to sugarcane when the Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, called on the debt-ridden cotton farmers of Vidarbha to shift to the sweet cane last year. They are now paying the price.

"Our fertile soil and irrigation facility make sugarcane cultivation possible, so we thought of giving it a try last year," says Prahlad Patil Jagtap, a veteran and a director of now-defunct Shankar Sugar Mill, Bangud, Yavatmal. There was one more strong reason for the farmers to opt for sugarcane crop, instead of cotton.

Vinay Kore, Chairman of Warna Sugar Mill and Maharashtra Transport Minister, decided to run on lease the defunct Jai Kisan Sugar Mill at Bodegaon in Darwha tehsil of Yavatmal district last October. The Warna management promised local farmers that they would buy the entire sugar cane crop, whatever be the costs. Datodi villagers obviously thought they would benefit if the mill revitalised.

But as the international sugar prices collapsed and a bumper crop rolled out in western Maharashtra and Marathwada, the Warna management packed up and left the area, leaving the local farmers to grapple with the shock of huge losses.

Ironically, the host management of the mill, chaired by the former minister and senior Congress leader Manikrao Thakre, has no concern for farmers either.

Just factor this: When Datodi farmers were sinking in despair, the entire cabinet, including the chief minister, was in Yavatmal to attend the wedding of Thakre's son. The problem of sugarcane is not as acute here as it is, say, in Marathwada, but it assumes a different dimension in a debt-ridden Vidarbha, farmers note.

"In a region devastated by deepening agrarian crisis, promotion of sugarcane is a prescription for disaster," warns Vijay Jawandhia, a farmers' leader in Wardha.

Why would the farmers not take the extreme step, in such a case, ask farmers of the village. In Yavatmal, about 11000 hectares of land have come under sugarcane. But farmers ask who will purchase the crop next year, when mills are defunct?

Take this: As many as 13 of the 16 sugar cooperative mills in Vidarbha are closed – an estimated liability of all the mills put together is to the tune of Rs.1500 crores. What is more, the celebrity politicians of the region own all the sugar mills.

Only one is operational in its full capacity, while two others are operating at 50 per cent capacity. Mismanagement and lack of sugarcane availability in the areas are among the major factors for the closure of sugar mills in entire Vidarbha.

One sugar mill can crush up to four lakh tonnes of sugarcane in a crushing season. Farmers say there was no point in sanctioning so many sugar mills in Vidarbha, when the government knew sugarcane couldn't be cultivated in the region that is almost entirely rain-fed. "It's a massive loot of the public money," they say.

"I can't dare cultivate sugarcane this time around, after this bitter experience," says Vishnu Patil Jagtap, another farmer who has had to burn his crop on five acres of land. "The Bodegaon mill bought only half of my yield," he informs.

Datodi's total loss on account of unpurchased sugarcane is a meagre Rs.15 lakhs, compared to the phenomenal losses borne by the Marathwada cane farmers. For the entire state, the cane problem is getting worse with farmers burning the crop in the fields. But the fallout of sugarcane crisis in Vidarbha could be manifold.

"A small trigger is enough to knock the fragile village economy in the region," warns Jawandhia. "Indebted farmers will have no option but to die."

Now teachers turn to moneylending in Vidarbha

Akola, Yavatmal, May:

Chaya Thakre, 38, is still to come to terms with the blows. Bruised, and shaken, she sits on a bed in Akola town’s general hospital, her two sons by her side.

“It was a close shave for her,” says her husband Sahebrao Thakre. “We’ve lost our land; I am lucky that my wife is still alive,” he says, completely shattered.

Two days ago, an “ideal” teacher in Lakhmapur village, some 60 km from Akola town, and his family tied Chaya by ropes and mercilessly beat her in her field.

Her fault: she had tried to stop her tormentors – the family of her moneylender from claiming possession of their farm and working it for the coming season.

“It is my land, they have grabbed it by deceit,” cries Chaya. “It’s the only thing we owned, and now it has been grabbed by this moneylender,” she complains.

Two years ago, when banks turned him down, a desperate Sahebrao borrowed Rs 20,000 from Sheshrao Sontakke, a recipient of President ‘ideal teacher’ award. In return, the teacher got him sign sale deed papers for his four-acre land.

A year later, as per the deal, Sahebrao repaid double his loan amount – Rs 40,000, to the teacher, and sought back the deed papers. But the Shylockian lender, who is alleged, to have in possession tens of acres of land grabbed from the distress-ridden farmers like Sahebrao against loans, coolly went back on his words.

Sahebrao lost his land, and money, but local Shiv Sena MLA Gulabrao Gawande won him possession of his land last year along with hundreds of others through a campaign against the moneylenders. Yet, legally, Sontakke still owns the land.

On May 22, when Sahebrao was away from his village, the Sontakkes entered the field and tried to claim possession of the farm. That’s when Chaya says she took on the moneylender and five others, including his wife Usha, and got thrashed.

This one’s a growing trend in Vidarbha – teachers turning neo-moneylenders.

In 2005, a farmer in Janunagaon village in Akola district, Santosh Sontake, lost both his father and land as a result of the growing racket of usurious lending. His father Gopal had “mortgaged” three and a half acres in the same fashion as the Thakres did to their moneylender. He too had borrowed only Rs 20,000 and in his case too, the lender was a primary school teacher and a big landowner.

“The land was worth Rs 5 lakh. He coaxed my father into signing the deed and staying with him for a while. The trouble began when I made my father see what was going on,” says Santosh.
Hired killers murdered Gopal Sontakke, and the police arrested Santosh. “The effort was to frame me for killing my own father.” However, the case collapsed the day one of the hired killers was nabbed. The teacher-sahucar is still free. And Santosh hasn’t got the deed of sale of his land scrapped. He has lost the land.

“It’s sad, but true,” says Congress member of Arni Panchayat Samiti in Yavatmal Vijay Raut. “If husband and wife both are teachers, they bring home Rs 30,000, and lending a huge chunk of it to desperate farmers guarantees high returns and land, if borrowers fail to repay loans,” he informs. “Interest rate could be as high as 60 to 120 per cent annually,” he says. “And that too at a compounded rate.”

Admits an executive member of the Vidarbha Madhyamik Skhikshan Sangh, an organization of middle-school teacher, in Yavatmal: “I’ve no hesitation in saying some of us are big moneylenders and land lords in villages, but that is not new.”

He says the recent Akola incident is a blot on the teachers’ fraternity. “Since the teachers covet respect in villages, the law enforcers often don’t look into the cases of money lending involving teachers. Now even gram sevaks are in the game.”

A teacher with the Zilla Parishad School at Dotodi village in Yavatmal’s Arni block admits on the condition of anonymity: “Many of us do lend money to the farmers in the village. Since we live here, we have to help them in their need.”

Mortgages are long out of the game; now legal sale deeds are in vogue. The state government ran a drive against moneylenders. Now it has been relaxed.

When you borrow money, you sign a deed saying you have 'sold' your land to your creditor. This deed is registered at the district deputy registrar's (DDR) office. The oral promise is that when you repay loan, your creditor tears up the document. But, he does not. And you find you have been robbed of your land.

Adds Raut: “Not all teachers, who lend money to farmers, are usurious though. But an overwhelming majority of them are into money-lending business.”

Explains farmers' leader in Wardha Vijay Jawandhia: “The governments awarded fifth pay scale to its emlpoyees as an acknowledgement of high-cost economy, but kept farmers in low-cost rural economy. This is one important factor that is aggravating the agrarian crisis and fueling the economic inequalities.” He says a farmer prefers to sell his 10-acre land and pay the fee of his son’s B.Ed. course, for, he feels a teacher’s salary is better than the returns from his agriculture.

Jawandhia says a Zilla Parishad teacher earns several times more than a small and marginal farmer does, annually. “Will the government ever realise this huge disparity and rectify it by giving farmers the prices in lieu of cost of living?”

Meanwhile, for Sahebrao, the episode has brought back the ugly memories of his father Gulabrao Thakre’s murder. Gulabrao was done to death on the issue of land grab allegedly by Sontakke’s relative in the same village, Govardhan.

“I am lucky to have my wife still by my side,” Sahebrao says.

Meanwhile, Gawande, a former minister, warns that there would be a bloodbath if the police don’t proceed against the moneylender and put him behind the bars.

But, Akola Superintendent of Police Shantaram Waghmare says he is helpless in this case. “The High Court has ruled in favour of the Sontakkes. Why did this woman try to stop them from tilling their land in the first place.” The verdict says Sontakke owns the land. “We can’t take action.” And that’s the saddest part.

Friday, May 04, 2007

We live in a brazen world!

Early one morning through our summer academy at Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, my new Afghan friend got a call from his home town. He had lost his 22-year-old colleague and friend. Some one from a speeding car had pumped three bullets into his forehead on a street. No one knows the reason for his killing. No one would, perhaps, ever know the truth. But life is all worth a bullet in Afghanistan, our shattered and bereaved friend told us stoically. The other friend from the same country explained us the chilling realities of his war-ravaged country: “It could be me or him the next time, or any time.”

The past two weeks of our training at the ACJ, we – about 25 journalists from all the south-Asian countries – shared, discussed and learnt the strife across the sub-continent; the conflicts we are riddled with; the challenges; and hypocrisies of our nations with regard to acknowledging and resolving the conflicts.

We live in a brazen world. And all the while we talk about democracy. India, the world’s largest democracy, is plagued with conflicts within: of people falling off the basket in the lopsided economic progress; of Nepal catapulting to a new system, which hopefully would be democratic, after a decade of strife leading to the toppling of Monarchy by Maoists championing what they call the “people’s cause”; of Sri Lanka, groping in dark for over four decades now to end the ethnic violence; of Pakistan, for sure, a country which is yet to realize what’s good for her; of Bhutan, which is only now about to discover the word called democracy; of Bangladesh, standing perilously close to the brink of sabotaging democracy.

But we also realized that life goes on…It has to…And there’s always a lighter side to a more serious affair. And with us, the journalists closeted in Chennai for the past two week, there indeed are a few lighter shades! Here’s a glimpse:

Ekta’s fan from Afghanistan!

Ezmaray can hardly communicate in Hindi. But this heftily built, well-chiseled journalist just loves “Kyunki Saans bhi kabhi….”. “I can’t miss that serial; you know ‘when mother-in-law was a daughter-in-law once,” the fair-complexioned naïve-looking Afghani confessed, in his broken Hindi, at the welcome dinner on the first evening of our course. What’s more, no matter the hell breaks loose on to his country, he tries to catch what’s happening in the K-series! Afghans just love Ekta’s serials in Pashtun!

When he’s on a song!

Ruwan’s singing adventures are by now well known in our group. This Sri Lankan journalist’s Hindi is as good as his English. But, play a Rafi song, and there he goes, romantic and berserk, in a way! I beg a pardon Mr Rafi, but lyrics aren’t really all that important when the Sinhalese is on the song! Literally! So, he could flounder, but, we know, that’s okay. “Feel the emotions man!” We know. Last evening, when we heard Colombo was in panic following a threat from the LTTE, Ruwan sang: “Hay mayre vhatan ke logon, jara haankh may bharalo…”

Life’s a chill(y)!

A quarter of a kilogram of green chillies – that’s the staple food for three of the Bhutanese journalists. Shhhhh! You would scream, but they erupt if the banquet has no chilly corner. Last week, Tashi, the journalist with Kuensel in Bhutan, told the guy behind the stalls “we will starve if you’ve no chillies on the platter.” The ‘Anna’ has since started keeping a kilogram of fresh green chillies. He invariably finds the three-some savouring them with relish, much to the amusement of all of us, who sweat when they eat! You know why Bhutan is a peace-loving nation. There’s no time for feuds when life’s a chill(y) for these guys up on the terrains.

Three’s a party!

One’s a journalist in the making; so she fires a volley of questions, which may not always be ‘quostions’. The other’s already in the profession, but may not always communicate. The third isn’t sure about his fate yet, like that of his ex-Prime Minister. But confusion and mess is a routine for my Bangladeshi friends!

No full stops and commas for the Pak friends!

What with the 9am-to-9pm packed course schedule, some of us shudder when friends from Pakistan start debating, arguing and questioning in a long and some time boring lecture session. Good thing is we can catch nine winks through their longish and almost never-conclusive arguments. And we thought, Mr Sen, only Indians were Argumentative! It’s only when some thing goes awfully wrong with the accent of one of them that we wake up to burst into giggles. One of them, a diligent journo speaks in English punctuated by Punjabi and Baloch accent. Thets nyot quarrect! Aha. We heard ‘Tendulkar hits Muralitharan for a six!’ as: “Tyandulkar hates Murlithyaran for a sex!”

Meanwhile in Vidarbha…

Violent protests on ever-increasing power cuts continue; farmers’ suicides have crossed 325-mark this year; and a Principal from rural Bhandara’s government-run school has been suspended for pouring cow urine on dalit students.