Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I always thought I’ll never write a travelogue. But just as another of those things that I vehemently, and even sanctimoniously, say Nevaa…hhh to and then one day find myself in the thick of, here I am, writing one of sorts.

If I were a pro traveloguist (if there’s a word like that), I would have mentioned the exact coordinates of my destination, but not before I physically landed in the village of Karauli did I even know the name of the place. I was a reluctant part of a documentary-film-making unit that was to shoot for the ministry of Panchayati Raj, a ministry I had, hitherto, not known to have existed. Rajasthan is a preferred location for all such shoots that show “Rural India” because of the stunning contrast between its earthy and undulating landscape and the vibrant colors that the Rajasthanis don. Not to mention the lingering effect of their folk melodies and the naiveté of the locals- both used equally deftly by the film-makers. All in all, it is a complete value-for-money destination.


We woke up early in the morning and went in our white, monolithic Sumo, further into the interiors of the village. I did not know what to expect from this expedition because this was going to be my first real experience of being in the “other side of the world”. Was I to expect the hapless and downtrodden villagers of Swades or the cheerful and quaint ones of Sajjanpur?

We zeroed in on a location that had lush green fields on the backdrop and a solitary tree under which my co-artist and I were to stand and play the roles of two really smart journalists who knew more about the ministry of Panchayati Raj than, I guess, even the Prime Minister would. About fifty odd villagers, completely caught unawares, were ushered into the scene at the “request” of their Chief or Pradhan. Apparently, they were told nothing but to just sit down and do as they were asked to. As the shot was being readied, I was trying to acclimatize myself to being stared at unapologetically by children, men and women, as if I just landed down in a spacecraft. I did not know what to do but to smile and twitch my eyebrows in a rather silly way. But because that did not work, I decided to ask them a few typical questions that smacked of my urban, patronizing attitude.

Of a little blue frocked girl, I asked, “School jati ho?”

She smiled, looked around, as if seeking approval from her elders to answer a funnily powdered and patched stranger’s questions. She then nodded.

I tried to make her comfortable and asked her in pure Hindi, “Kaunsi Kaksha?”

Pat came the reply, “4th Class”.

That was the first blow to my assumptive urbanness. But it could have been a one-off thing, I thought.

A partially veiled lady then asked me, “ Je philim ki sooting ho rayi hai?”

“Haan”, I answered.

Kay ki philim?”

A young lad dressed in a pair of jeans said “ Salman aur Aiswarya ki”

The crowd laughed. I smiled embarrassedly.

Then I tried to explain them in a Hindi so impeccable that my school teacher would have cried tears of joy.

“ Amma

Someone remarked Ee chhori ne amma bana diyo tujhe and a few little ones giggled.

I continued, “ Ye film aapke gaanv mein kya kya vikas hua hai, aapke kya kya adhikaar hain aur sarkari aur gair sarkari sansthayein aapki kaise madad kar rahi hain, inke bare mein banayi ja rahi hai”

Je kahan dikhegi?”, Amma probed on.

I myself didn’t know. So I made a smart guess, “Doordarshan

Maari photu bhi aaegi?”

Haan” I said, not very sure of my reply.

Humein pata hoti to hum nha-dho ke taiyyar ho ke aateen.

I smiled. But I, for the first time, realized that our counterparts, just like us, like to look good. Why did I assume otherwise?

Koi baat nahi Amma. Aap to waise hi acchi lag rahi ho.”, I wasn’t entirely lying.

Someone remarked. “Fair and lovely lagai aao

The crowd roared in laughter this time.

And I was nearly gaping in astonishment. Both at my ignorance of their beauty consciousness and at HUL’s market penetration.

The shoot went on the entire day. We rambled on like two lunatic journos who could write a thesis on the ministry. The script was in such cumbersome Hindi that even the villagers could not understand it. And without food and water, gradually their excitement turned into restlessness.

Je kab tak chalega?”, A disgruntled man asked.

Pata nahi. Madam se poochho.” I replied.

Hum to soch ke aye the ki naasta paani milego

Hum bhi” , I thought.

Ab poora din na khaana khayo, na kaam kiyo. Iski majdoori mile kya?”

They were right. This was labour and labour needs to be both paid and consented. But my ideas on HR and labour relations would not have been very well received by my director. The downside of being half a management aspirant and half an artist is that the two worlds don’t see eye to eye.

We packed up in the evening. I was too tired and hungry and thirsty to inquire if there was any payment set aside for the villagers and too enervated to brace myself for a confrontation with Madam, who was not exactly in the pleasantest of her moods.

But now, I cannot but ask myself- Will I ever stand up??


We got up even earlier today and frankly, I was wondering what stuff are these film-makers made up of? They get ready in ten minutes stat and I wonder if they’re all constipated or have ingeniously trained their evacuation systems to function at will, like true yogis.

We went to a different village within the Karauli district today. I don’t know why we did not go to the same village as the day before but my guess is that after the previous day’s experience we wouldn’t have been very welcomed. So to maintain the continuity of the shot, all throughout the rest of the shoot, we had some or the other puzzled villager hold for us a broken branch of a tree, brandishing it behind our heads, so that it gave the effect of the tree that we stood beside the previous day. Only I know how I kept a straight face during the shots. Acting ain’t no funny business!

Yet again, I found myself surrounded by men and women, gaping at me like I was a circus lion in chains (They weren’t very far from the truth.). A young woman offered me a hukka or a smoking-pot. I politely refused, a little taken aback from seeing even rural women smoke. But I was getting used to all the surprises and my urban presumptuousness was being humbled.

They asked me the same question- what were we doing? I answered verbatim as I had the day before. I noticed that each crew member was giving a different answer. Guess we were a very confused lot!

A young lady suddenly said something that I was totally unprepared for.

Mhare ko bhi Dilli le chalo madamji

Dilli mein kya karogi?” , I asked.

Main bhi tumhari tarah acting karungi”

Well! It could be true that looking at me she must have thought that if I can act, anybody can. And I dare say she was right! But as I smiled at her (my only weapon when I don’t know what else to do) and looked at her closely, I realized she was not just anybody. Give her six months of not working in the sun, a good face cleansing and threading regime, a blow dry and Shopper’s Stop and Voila- She could have been Nandita Das! And minus the tan she would have looked a little like Sonam Kapoor.

Humko padha do behenji.”, A veiled woman intercepted my musings.

Tum school nahi gayi?”, A lousy question, I thought in hindsight.


“Ye gair sarkari sansthayein padhane ka kaam nahi kar rahin yahaan?”, I asked in the true spirit of my script.

They looked around trying to figure out what Gair Sarkari Sansthayein meant. I got my answer.

“Je sooting ke chakkar mein aaj roti na pakaegi ghar mein?” , An elderly man asked his wife.

To which she retorted, “ To tum roti bana lo, Main bhi to kamaa ke laaun ab.”

I smiled again. This time a genuine smile of relief that came from both this small glimpse of women empowerment and the humour with which both the man and his wife conversed.

Kaam karti ho tum sab kahin?”, I enquired.

Haan. Yahan khudai chal rahi hai.”

Narega (NREGA) se?”


I don’t know what exactly about this made me happy. Was it the knowledge that a Government scheme is actually helping them or the lessening of my guilt at not being able to help them become literate?

Anyway, time was up and I made some mumbled statements of trying to bring them help.

DAY 2.5

Our final destination was a village in Savai Madhopur. This was a much more developed village. The villagers here brought us loads of guavas and some radishes, fresh from the farm.

I was overwhelmed by their gesture. They needn’t have. After all it behooved us to treat them to naashta-paani after all the work we extracted from them. But the white, monolithic Sumo, for some odd reason, bestows the status of learnedness and power on its travelers.

Dhanyawad”, I thanked them.

“Welcome”, came the response!

What is your name?” , asked a villager, trying to talk to me in what he thought was “my” language, English, just as I had been trying to speak with them in “their” language, Hindi. Weren’t we both equally ignorant of each other?

Mayukhini”. I replied.

“Hain? Ke khini?” someone asked. They giggled.

I giggled too. This time, again, it was genuine.

The sun was going down and that meant, much to my relief as well as that of the villagers, that the shoot had to be wound up.

My patchy foundation had become even patchier and cracked and my real skin was showing, finally getting a chance to breathe. I wanted to wash my face, splash it with some cold water, so I could remove this layer of lie from me and become “Ke khini” again!

I was too tired on my way back home, but as I write my “travelogue of sorts” now, I wonder which villagers did I meet? The hapless and downtrodden villagers of Swades or the cheerful and quaint ones of Sajjanpur? Guess I just met the hapless and cheerful and downtrodden and quaint people of incredible India


Prashant Singh said...

As they say there are only two fundamental themes in literature "someone goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town" so every piece of writing is a travelogue of sort . only difference is that this time journey involved a geographic dimension also. very Nice writeup.

As someone who is born and brought up in Rajasthan I can picture the surrounding of your shoot very well . Whenever I go to some village i am confused what to make of my experience .On one hand i am sad by the hardship of thier life ( by urban standard ) and on the other hand I am always shocked by their magnanimous attitude toward life (again by urban standard ) .

Not to belittle the intent of NGO or hard work of your crew but I feel that in all probability the documentary would eventually be shown to some world bank delegation as a gimmick to raise fund for the NGO. portraying villagers as some Anthropological specimen .

Much of the pain comes from the fact that politician ,policy makers and so called Rural Activist know far less than what I have seen and What you learned in two days of filming.
but somewhere we know that a bigger question is , as you rightly put "Will We ever stand up??"

the who said...

@ Prashant- This documentary, in all probability, is a eulogy on all the good work that the ministry of Panchayati Raj and the NGOs have purportedly done. You were not belittling the hard work of the crew because a) What you're talking about happens often and (b) at the end of the day, they are film-makers, professionals trying to make their living through legitimate means. However, I find it a little hard to view things completely "professionally and rationally", hence the origin of such anecdotes and sentiments!How I became a part of it is a long story that I'm not very proud of but i know that it was a relevant experience. How am i going to change this experience from being relevant to me to being relevant to someone else is still in question...
But i think i came back more humbled.. And that , probably, was what i needed, for starters..

Karthik said...

Kabhi Kabhi lagta hai ki kabhi bhi kisi bhi jagh chale jau.Glad you are getting some personal time. :)