Sunday, August 9, 2009

Poem: Pain of hunger

In a corner of the hut, she was boiling water and salt
Her kids were hungry. Was it their fault?
It was not too long ago, her life had come to a halt

Her husband committed suicide to get rid of debt
She was trying to move on but doomed was her fate

But the old woman was not alone. There’re many others
Who saw drought swallowing their fathers, brothers

No food, no water — the earth cracked, only woes pouring
Cattle perished, babies crying and the pain soaring
But unmoved are their masters, they find it very boring

The pain of hunger is the worst pain to bear
But shame on those who cannot shed a tear

(Wrote while on way back from village Pandui in Banda, one of the seven perennially drought-hit districts of Bundelkhand region)

Apnu Amdavad

I was a touch disappointed. For, the railway station was not even close to what can be termed magnificent (it must be magnificent — I thought to myself before boarding the train). Another ‘downmarket’ city? But before I could conclude, I was out in the hustle-bustle of a modern city — a series of multiplexes, star hotels, flyovers and shopping malls.

I was in Ahmedabad, or ‘Amdavad’— the largest city in Gujarat and the industrial capital. It was November 2007. I was to join DNA.

With culture varying from traditional to cosmo, residences varying from ‘pols’ to societies, buildings ranging from 3-storeys to skyscrapers, cuisine available from street food to luxury, it was the first real big city I was to work in. The driver told me much of this development happened since 2000, and the city looked back. He attributed it all to Modi. Some other colleagues from Patna were joining DNA. We were all supposed to stay in guest houses — good ones at that — for a good one month before we could find a place to live.

At the guesthouse, I met Rakesh Roshan — a man who tried to look stylish but had a simple heart (he worked with ToI Patna before coming to join DNA). He stayed in a room right next to me. He had already joined the paper.

I freshened up, had a good lunch and went to office. Shyam Parekh (the editor) had sent a text message asking me to wait for him and meet up Jumana in the meantime. I reached office — it looked magnificent too with a grand building and beautiful females around. I wore a lot of stuff, unmindful of the fact that the city was hotter that the place I came from.

With sweat on my face, I sat in a corner of the editorial section. A girl was talking on her phone nearby. I thought she must be a trainee. I was wrong. She came up to me and asked, “Are you Darpan?” I nodded. She said, “Hi! I’m Jumana.” She introduced me to the people present there. I met another girl called Tina. She was the chief reporter. In a nervous voice, I asked her, “Has RE come?” She did not get me and asked, “Who?” I said, “RE.” She smiled, “Shyam? He’s one way to office.” For the first time in my small career did I hear an editor being referred to by his name by a relatively young staff.

I checked mails, using one of the computers, read newspapers, trying to kill time, waiting for the editor to come. After sometime, I got to know that he was in his cabin. When I went inside, I was surprised. He went past me when I was waiting for him. I could not recognise him because I never thought he would be that young. I returned to the guest house as there was nothing much to do. I fell asleep.

Soon, Roshan, SS and MS joined too. It was fun. We were taken to another, and a smaller, guesthouse. I shared my room with SS. MS and Roshan stayed together, while RR got his partner in Utpal, an illustrator who came from Kolkata. We began having the best days of our life as we worked, eat, drank and laughed a lot. We left for office together, made pages, edited copies, smoked, snacked and came back late. Later, SS shifted to his brother’s place and I, RR and Mayank took a bungalow on rent. Roshan was posted in Surat. We three had a blast. We cooked at home. At times we ate out. We watched movies, read books. It was a welcome change.
I initially looked after a centerspread (poll special). RE looked happy with my work and I made page one too. The main focus was on design, layout and colour schemes. Work culture was good as there was a sense of purpose. People were very nice and informal and RE and other seniors are more like friedns, calling each other by name and cracking jokes most of the time. People said I gave page two (I looked after its production) a whole new identity with neat, ‘wow effect’ packaging. Battling all odds and constraints, experimented a lot, with big, catchy headlines, different kinds of layout using more and visual. I was also involved in coverage of international cricket in the city.

The work I did pleased everyone. I remained honest to my job. I was honest even in my stupidity — I chose to quit without any potential offer in sight over a trivial issue. My family and friends were so worried. I thank Shyam for not accepting my resignation then.
But I did not take up reporting assignments given to me from time to time. Well, I wanted to be a full-time reporter. I never loved reporting business, trends, etc. Not knowing Gujarati was another hurdle. I wanted to report things which interested me and directly affected people. Issues like crime, corruption, poverty, politics and life in villages. This was not possible in Gujarat, a state which is pretty much organised, laid back and devoid of such issues.

When RR shifted to Nagpur, I shifted to Sumit’s flat. In six months, I too left DNA. I got back to Hindustan Times as its Agra bureau. I was to cover Aligarh, Mathura and several other districts of western UP. Though my salary was to be a little less than what I was getting, that hardly mattered.

It’s been a great experience working at DNA for six months. I learnt a lot, especially from Shyam Sir, when it came to design, layout, planning and all that. I will forever be indebted to Narayan Sir too for tolerating me, getting the best out of me.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

To hell and back — twice

It’s only human to feel alone and, at times, lonely. It doesn’t mean people in your life don’t love you enough. Or there is something seriously wrong with you.

Everyone has some ups and downs, and sadness is a natural emotion. The normal stresses of life can lead anyone to feel sad every once in a while. Things like an argument with a friend, a breakup, doing poorly on a test, not being chosen for a team, or a best friend moving out of town can lead to feelings of sadness, hurt, disappointment, or grief. These reactions are usually brief and go away with a little time and care.

At times, it’s more than occasionally feeling blue, sad, or down in the dumps. It is a strong mood involving sadness, discouragement, despair, or hopelessness lasting for months. You know it will help to open up to your parents but you cannot.

In 1996, it was quite miserable and, surprisingly, I did not have a reason to blame for the kind of mental state I was in then. I was in school when it happened to me first. I felt terribly depressed and, worse, I could not share my feelings with anyone. No one took my problems seriously as no one thought I could suffer from depression at the age of 16 even as I wept in isolation. That was scary especially because I did not have anyone to tell me that it was a passing phase and it would get over soon. The fact that I never understood what caused me to feel so low is a mystery even till date.

I remember watching cricket matches while continuously thinking what I would do once the match ended, where I would go, who I would talk to and how I would spend time. There was an inexplicable sense of insecurity killing me bit by bit. Film songs which I liked once now began making me feel depressed. At times, the problem seemed a bit physical too as I found it difficult to stand properly. My head would begin reeling and I would feel like lying down immediately. That was the only way I would get relief from that scary thing. Doctors associated my problem with physical weakness. Then, things were different — the problem got sorted out soon and I did not think of any particular thing, no specific memory kept haunting me.

But what happened in 2006 was bigger. It almost killed me and I almost killed myself too. On reaching home from my convocation in Delhi and before leaving for Patna to join HT, Mummy noticed I was not behaving properly, seeking isolation and avoiding any kind of food and entertainment. There was only one relief, I could sleep properly but as and when I got up I had to face that same demon. I prayed to god it got over but it did not. I told her I was feeling a bit low after leaving the campus and saying good bye to so many friends and there was nothing seriously wrong. I knew I was lying.

I contacted Ataul and told him I would come to Patna and stay with him for the time being. I also told him about my illness. He asked me not to worry. He stayed in Patna in a small, dingy room built on the roof of a dilapidated house located in Sabjibagh — a crowded and unclean Muslim-dominated locality. The reason why he opted for that accommodation were the difficulties he faced in impressing Hindu landlords and his small budget. The whole ambience and the filthy toilet could have made even a healthy person feel terribly depressed.

While catching a train to Patna, I felt week, low and was drenched with perspiration. I once thought I could not make it. Once inside the train, I closed my eyes and tried hard to get some sleep that was the only way I could have saved myself from that agony and suffering. Raju — whom I helped become the Buxar correspondent before leaving for Orissa — accompanied me and tried his best to make me feel relaxed. But it just did not help. I could not stand, could not talk.

I was not sure if I thought of something because I was depressed or I was depressed because I constantly thought of something. But I was depressed and I kept thinking of certain things. I did not know how I would work in office. At his room, Ataul tried to comfort me to the best of his abilities. He said he too had gone through the same kind of situation and, quite strangely, attributed the same to an upset lever. He got me a syrup which did not help.

I informed my office that I was in Patna but could join only a couple of days later as I was not well. I must appreciate Ataul’s patience as he heard me out all the time even as I kept discussing the problem I was facing. I could not take an auto while going to office. I took a rickshaw instead as I sought to avoid crowd. During the first couple of weeks, Ataul always accompanied me till the place from where I usually got a rickshaw. He would talk to me, listen to all the crap I had to offer and cook for me too. He would wake up on my return from office late in the night and serve food. I do not think I would have survived those days in Patna if it was not for him.

There was some relief in office as I did not feel that low while working. Sanjay Sir noticed my situation and assured me it was just a passing phase. He told me about people who had suffered badly from depression. He told me about one of his family members who had the same problem and ultimately died. It was all very scary. But he asked me not to worry. He too helped me a lot.

When I returned from work, I was the happiest, most cheerful. I would have food and sleep, only to have the traumatic experience on getting up. Rakesh Singh, who worked on the desk, looked surprised on knowing I was depressed. He asked me to do some puja-paath, which I could not. SS told me a whole lot of things causing depression and how to get rid of the problem. He said, “Secretion of endorphins — the mother of all feel-good hormones — is affected due to lack of physical activity. Staying in a dark and dingy ambience helps release melatonin in the body which makes you feel even more depressed.” This helped me a lot in identifying the problem and in trying to combat it. He said, “Get a pair of running shoes and start jogging in the morning. This will help a great deal.” He also got me an article on depression which also had a few lines which went something to this effect: “Cheer up do. Who else will for you? Brad Pit? Think of Jennifer Anniston and get on with life.” I began jogging around in the Gandhi Maidan at 7 in the morning.

The zahir

Even as the misery continued, I tried my best to collect myself and focus on work while in office. And I must admit I did not let my mental and psychological state affect my performance much. But things refused to change every single morning when I got up and found myself thinking why things went haywire and how I could get myself back to normal. I almost bored Ataul to death by talking about how things seemed to improve once I was in office.

Once I concluded that since there was almost no physical activity during the internship and I never exposed myself to sunlight and hardly ate properly, I got very weak both physically and mentally. So there was nothing seriously wrong with me. I began eating well, increased the intake of fruits and other nutritious stuff not to feel low!

When things did not improve even a wee bit, Ataul took me to a doctor he knew. He said no drugs could get me out of the depressed state of mind I was in. I had to do it for myself. Drugs could only tranquillise me and help me sleep and, at one point of time, I had to stop being dependent on them. He said, “The idea is to stop thinking of things which cause you to feel low. You have to motivate yourself. It happens to the best of them. Most people today suffer from this.” I was surprised and maybe a bit relieved too when he said he was himself suffering from depression. He said, “I feel depressed when I get up. But things improve as I come to the clinic and start seeing patients.” I was not sure if said what he said to make me feel good or it was actually a fact.

I told MM too about my condition and he thought I was finding it difficult to adjust to the new working hours. SS warned me against sharing what I was feeling with just everyone. He said it never helped. I began taking pills prescribed by the doctor. The drugs really helped, but only temporarily. Every evening while working, I would suddenly feel lonely and depressed. I would down an anti-depressant and feel somewhat good.

I soon thought of changing the place of stay. I thought this might help change things a bit. I and Ataul did a bit of house hunting and chose a two-room house right besides the Gol Ghar. I went home to get utensils and other stuff. I asked Daddy to come along and be with me in Patna for sometime. Ataul was to stay with me. Though the landlord had issues with him moving in as he was a Muslim, I persuaded him into changing his mind.

Daddy and Ataul used to cook and handle the kitchen. Daddy helped me a lot — from washing my cloths, giving me a massage, pressing my head to being subjected to my harsh and erratic behaviour. Ataul left for his college — he was doing masters in Urdu from Patna University — and library in the morning, while I kept sleeping. I went to office — now, I began using autos — in the evening.

SS gave me a few books to read. He said to be able to survive on the desk, it was imperative to read 50-60 pages a day. A read a few books by Earnest Hemingway and liked them too. I remember these lines from The Zahir: “One fine morning, I will wake and I will not think of that and I will know the worst is over… stop being what you were, try and be what you are.”
And if I could think of getting on with life, it was mainly because of Amrita and her frequent phone calls. Every time I spoke to her, things looked up a bit. I think, she spent a lot of time and money talking to me, trying to cheer me up on phone. She could not get anything worthwhile in Delhi and chose to work for some travel magazine. I wanted to help her but did not know how.
to hell and back

Vivek once told me thinking about hurting yourself or about suicide needed help as soon as possible. When depression is this severe, it is a very real medical emergency.

My friends and family members did not totally recognize that I was depressed. They could not respond with love, kindness, or support I needed, hoping that the sadness will soon pass. They offered to listen when I wanted to talk. When the depressed feeling did not pass soon, Ataul encouraged me to get help from that doctor. Some people don't really understand depression. For example, Kamlesh Bhaiya reacted to my low energy with a little bit of sarcasm, taking a dig at me for acting lazy or not trying harder.

People like him mistakenly believed that my problem was just an attitude or a mood that I could easily shake off. It's not that easy. Sometimes, even I did not take my condition seriously enough. Some people around me felt I was weak in some way simply because I was depressed. This is wrong — and it caused me to hide my depression and avoid getting help as much as I could. They reacted only to the physical symptoms.

At times, it was intense and occurred in bouts that lasted for weeks. Otherwise, it was less severe but lingered at a low level for longer durations. I felt lack of energy and tired all the time. I could not enjoy things that used to bring pleasure once upon a time. I sensed a strange sense of withdrawal from friends and family. I always felt irritated, angry and anxious and could not concentrate. Even as I struggled, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, pessimism and indifference got the better of me. I even thought of death and suicide. It interfered with my ability to participate in normal activities. It affected my thoughts, outlook, and behavior as well as mood. I tended to have negative and self-critical thoughts.

Sometimes, despite my true value, I felt worthless and unlovable. I pulled away from those around me and activities I once enjoyed. This usually made me feel lonelier and isolated, making the depression and negative thinking worse. At times, I would try extremely hard to get some sleep without success.

When I finally met that doctor, I began having a better quality of life — I felt better and enjoyed myself in a way that I was not able to before. The treatment included talk therapy and medication. Though the doctor was not a mental health professional, his talks proved very effective. Therapy sessions helped me understand more about why I felt depressed, and ways to combat it. He prescribed medicine for me and monitored me to make sure I got the right dose. It took a few weeks before I felt the medicine working.

That my appointment letter also came in the meanwhile, was also a factor. I received a phone call from MM informing me that my papers had arrived and I could collect them. I went to office with daddy and the melancholy did lessen a bit. I had understood I shouldn't wait and hope it would go away on its own. For me, it has taken a lot of time for the pain to go away.

It was to be a long mourning process.

It just had to run its course.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

From Dumraon to Delhi — and Dhenkanal!

I had never been a good student. I feared science and maths and, quite understandably, wanted to pursue arts in Intermediate. But precisely because of peer pressure I opted science (biology) and did everything in the coming two years except study. There was only one option before me — skip the exams.

It was a mistake. I should have appeared and known that I did not belong. Another year rolled by and I did not even notice. Needless to say, I did not study this time around too.

The inevitable happened. Single-digit marks in some subjects made me feel like vanishing. Every single person reacted to the disaster in his own way. Mummy did not get angry, which was very surprising. Bhaiya ridiculed me in the worst possible way every now and then. Friends could not do it but were very surprised as I might not be very studious but everyone around always thought of me as someone sharp and intelligent.

Next year, I put in a lot of effort. Not only did I pass and get good marks, I was confident about so many subjects for the first time. The failure proved my biggest success. I heard hard work always paid. Now, I knew it for a fact.

Three is a crowd, not always
Some years later, about a couple of months before the IIMC entrance test in 2005, I reached Delhi. Harsh and Shakti were already staying there in a room at Laxmi Nagar. We shared the room rent and other costs. Harsh had to attend his NIIT class and Dada used to study with me the whole day. I gave my everything. I did not want to lose this chance. At night, we would go out, have dinner and ice-cream and talk about several issues. While sleeping, I would often dream of making it to either IIMC or Jamia.

Since both Garimas were at that time doing internship in Delhi, we would often talk on the phone, go to the movies and spend time together. During my stay in Delhi, I learnt to use the Internet. At times, I would feel lonely and go to a nearby cyber café and write mails.

On top of the world

After the written test, I returned to Dumraon. On getting to know I have cleared the test, I again went to Delhi to prepare for the interview. I put in a lot of effort. The routine was almost the same. Dada would take me everywhere as I did not have any idea of bus routes in Delhi. In fact, I must thank both for showing me around Delhi and taking me to important places. While I prepared for the test, looking for a job was also a priority.

I met a few people and asked for a job giving the reference of people known well but to no avail. No one was willing to entertain a youth who was just a stringer. It was a good learning curve. They took me everywhere. Even after the interview was over, the final results got delayed for some reasons.

When I was about to leave Delhi, a got a message telling me that I had been selected but for the Dhenkanal campus. I and Shakti were waiting for a bus when I received the message. I soon hugged him. I called mummy, a few relatives and people I knew. We planed a party. Harsh, Shakti and the two Garimas got a treat and we went around the city. I returned the next day. The two girls also came to the station to see me off. I was very happy.

Getting the act together

Prior to I went to Delhi for preparation, I was in Patna for the same purpose. I stayed with Ataul. I followed a tough routine and hardly did anything except study. Before coming to Patna, I once heard a radio programme for those aspiring to get into a journalism institute broadcast by the BBC. Anand Pradhan Sir of IIMC Delhi was on show giving tips on how to prepare for the task. When I came to know that Gopu Bhaiya was his friend, I got his (AP’s) number and stayed in touch for a while. In Patna, There, I stayed in touch with him through mails. The communication helped me immensely.

During my stint in Patan, I stayed away, perhaps for the first time since I began working for HT, from my daily routine, local friends back home and the excitement of being there and almost doing that. I had sent a mail to my office informing them I was out of station for some personal reasons. I did it even as knew full well no body really cared for stringers in districts. They are remembered only when something major happens in their area of jurisdiction. And this was more than evident from the fact that no body bothered to reply. While studying almost around the clock, I did get to see some events taking place in Buxar and its adjoining areas. And I almost felt like covering those issues. It’s very difficult to stay away from work if you have been a reporter.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cracked earth and pouring woes

It was the monsoon — or the lack of it — of 2006.

The body of Kishori Lal Sahu – father of eight girls – was found hanging from a tree in his field. His daughter Kamla (17) tells me, “The canal near our filed became defunct. Babuji tried his best to get water from other sources but in vain. He sold off land, tried selling milk, took loans through brokers but could not improve the scene.”

Kishori's body was found hanging in his filed – exactly where the defunct canal lay.
The administration, however, said the farmer killed himself as one of his daughters was having an affair with a village boy. It's another matter that the village panchayat gave a clean chit to the girl.

It was Saturday. Official drought of July 2009. I was in Pandui – a nondescript hamlet in Banda district (some 240 km south of Lucknow). I was in Bundelkhand. I was in a different world alltogether. I had heard of unseen miseries. I was seeing untold woes. It was one of the most moving assignments of my life.
On Friday afternoon, I had brought home an automatic washing machine. I was very happy. But before I could ‘feel the magic’, I got a call from office. I was to leave immediately to cover drought. When I, along with our chief photographer, got into an office car, I didn’t know what I was up against. I had no idea those bottles of packaged mineral water and packets of chips were soon to bring me so much guilt. We reached Mahoba late in the night.

Bundelkhand comprises seven districts of UP — Hamirpur, Mahoba, Banda, Chitrakoot, Lalitpur, Jalaun and Jhansi. Drought is a perennial feature. So are suicides, hunger deaths, migration and debt traps. At Pandui in Banda district, I met family members of Chunbat Dhobi. Chunbat killed himself when he could not payback the loan he never took. “The brokers admitted in a village panchayat that they trapped him. My husband became a labourer from a farmer. He sold off land but could not get out of debt trap,” says his wife Lakhsminiya. I was standing in her hut. There were clear indications she was going without food for long.

In Bundelkhand, I noticed, deaths follow suicides. These are termed natural. But they are disturbingly linked. The administration routinely probes suicides and hunger deaths but the vicious cycle continues. There’s been only 25 per cent rain. Only 30 per cent agricultural land is under cultivation. Cattleheads are perishing. People are migrating. Land being sold off.

How can all this be possible?

Villagers say banks put pressure for recoveries. But if they have taken loans, they not criminals. They are in a way partners with banks' projects which want to make money using them as convenient platforms. The cut that we have to pay up while taking loans is one main reason for failure of projects. It's like buying a tractor with two wheels less. Seventy per cent of money in banks comes from villages. If farmers get five per cent of that as loans, it's not a divine favour. Industries contributing only 30 per cent to the total capital in banks get 95 per cent of that as loans. Farmers contribute Rs 70,000 crore to the country's economy and the budgetary allocation for us is just Rs 10,000 crore – Rs 145 per farmer! And how much of it reaches to the grassroots is no secret.
At Jalalpur village in Mahoba, I met Sita Devi. She said she was better of digging a well in scorching heat under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) along with other labourers. It was a battle for survival, against nature. Now she is fighting government officials too. She tells me, “They (the officials) owe me Rs 3,000 by way of payment for the work I did. It’s been months since they promised to pay. There’s no hope now."

The well was dug last year. Sita is not alone.

In Mahoba, there is acute shortage of drinking water. "Drinking water is purified and sourced from wells and ponds. There's hardly any water in them now," says Rajendra Singh, who runs an NGO. "Villagers have to keep waiting for hours for the wells to recharge water," he added. Women fetching water from far flung areas is a common sight.
Is declaring districts of Bundelkhand, or for that matter those in other regions of the state, actually a solution or an acknowledgment? What does the new status entail? Does it guarantee a solution to all prevailing woes?

Ironically, most districts are still awaiting ‘perennial guidelines’ to ‘officially’ combat drought in its severest form. I guess allocating special funds would not help. The whole region -- which prospered only a couple of decades ago -- is going through a severe climate change due to destruction of mountains and forests and excavation of sand from rivers. The problem has to be looked at in a different way. Efforts to balance the region’s ecology — dominated by dry, deciduous forests — have not been sincere. Every year certain districts are declared drought hit but by the time it happens most of the damaged is already done. Back-to-back plantation drives worth crores of rupees have come a cropper.
While returning, I was mostly silent. I knew I had stories. But I was thinking of something else. I was reminded of the character of Mohan Bhargav in the film Swades. But do I have that much courage? Perhaps, I don’t.

But hey! It’s not my fight. I’m not party to it. My job is to inform people and let them take informed decisions.

It’s not after all very difficult to get rid of guilt pangs!