I visited Banda for the time in the beginning of this month. I was both anxious and excited to visit Banda – a place, its people and work, I had heard much about since my very first day in Nirantar! Entering the field after almost five years brought back many wonderful memories from my past. I had forgotten how refreshing, grounding and challenging it is to work in the field.
I reached late at night by Chitrakoot Express (a train known to never be on time!), and on seeing Nasreen and Krishna ji waiting at the station, my anxiety and fear of the unknown were put to rest. Once we reached the office, it was like a slumber party – everyone sleeping together, making tea, cooking, eating together, and being given the option of not bathing and going to work – made me feel at home! Now there was nothing but anticipation for the day to unfold. With speakers blasting KL songs sung to the popular tunes of ‘lungi dance’ and ‘kajra mohabbat wala’ by our own Nirantari singers, a proud KL banner, ten of us and the driver, our car was loaded and roaring to go! With Meera ji’s buland awaaz announcing to the streets, fields, shops , cattle and people of Banda the arrival of the all new “bada aur rangeen khabar laheriya ab sirf paanch rupay mein”, we were certainly making waves in the hinterland.
A few things things have stayed with me from that visit. Being from Delhi, I’m aware of the ‘public gaze’ (from both men and women) and how that makes me feel very conscious and uncomfortable mostly; I was prepared to be stared at from a different questioning lens, a – who are you and why are you here distributing newspapers – perplexity. Though I was familiar with that too, my skills of dealing with that had rusted. And then I observed Nasreen, confidently pushing her way through a group of middle aged pot bellied men sitting in a circle basking in the sun discussing the AAP win, demanding “akhbaar padhiega!” She logically counter-questioned every question asked and convinced them to buy a copy. I found my mentor in her and began imitating her style of marketing and found this new experience challenging and rather energizing! “Yahaan pe leejiyega nahi, padhiyega bolna, uska log galat matlab nikalte hain”, she corrected me controlling her beaming smile at the double meaning of my inexperienced vocabulary! I could then answer questions like – “aap foreigner hain”, “aap dilli se yahaan aaye hai”, “aap AAP ke jeet se khush hain”, “bethiye chai peejeeye” “yeh aapki beti hai” (when asked to Nasreen about me for the third time, she firmly said haan yeh meri beti hai) – directed at me with ease and composure.
The newspaper was priced at rupees 5 and I kept thinking about the problem of “change nahi hai” it might impel. To my surprise, not only did people have enough change, they were also not stingy about parting with it, unlike in Delhi where people are so possessive about their coins! This discernible example made me think about and brought me face to face with the known fact about the difference in the kind of economic transactions in the rural and urban settings of our country. A food for thought left to be nuanced over my future visits hopefully!
Our target audience consisted primarily of men. When we approached single women selling vegetables for example, their response was that they did not know how to read or when they were with their husbands, they would discourage them from buying a newspaper as well. The latter still intrigues me… is it that a newspaper does not find its place in the daily budgeting of these women’s lives or is it that since they have been denied literacy, they do not value it. Even when we asked them to ask their children to read it out to them, they refused. A refusal that was sharp and decisive yet was laced with both sadness and ignorance. Middle aged men too refused many times with a reason that was consistent amongst them – “what is the point, nothing will change”, a sentiment of hopelessness. So who reads a newspaper and why are two questions that I have come back with.
The long tiring yet energizing day ended with an impressive sale, handing over of our accounts, exchange of phone numbers, goodbyes and a hope of working together again: over a cup of well deserved tea, at the Banda station!