Text by Jehan, Photos by Shakthi
Wednesday 14th December 2011
We awoke early. Must have been 3:30am. Leah was already packed and knocking at my door. I didn’t know what planet I was on. Bangalore was still asleep. The streets were quiet. You could actually hear the slow rustling of leaves of this beautiful garden city. Even the airport was sleepy. By the time we got there it must have been 5am. It was good to see the dancers Sylvester and Meghna with us and infinitely reassuring that we had two fluent Hindi speakers with us.
The security guys confiscated my spare pack of batteries. It goes over my head. All I wanted was to be warm and away from the fluorescent lights. Our flight was on one of the 12 or so new domestic airline operators in India.
They run like a bus service, stopping off in small cities on the way to other bigger cities. The flights work out to be about AUD $115 per leg, which is actually on par with the cheaper end of tickets in Australia (and therefore expensive by Indian standards). No matter though. These flights cater to a new middle class has emerged in India – one that demands the luxuries that are enjoyed in developed world. I was quite pleased. We didn’t have a lot of time, and cutting two days of train travel on each end from our journey going to be a huge help.
This marked the first leg of a long journey into the heart of the Narmada. What is interesting is that each leg that we travel along represented a kind of going backwards in time. Our flight arrived in Indore, our stop and the largest city of Madhya Pradesh. It’s a town of just under 3 million people and the biggest hub of commerce in what is one of India’s poorest states.
These were taken as we entered the city…
Nearly three quarters of Madhya Pradesh is rural or remote, and there are over 46 distinct indigenous nations (Adivasi) represented. Each has their own language. Madhya Pradesh is considered poorer than other Indian states mostly because these rural and remote populations have decreased access to a public schooling and health care system. It’s a largely agrarian state, but trade between farmers is hindered by a lack of sealed roads in many areas.
The climate was arid, the dry air and piercing sun seemingly instantly blistering our lips. I was feeling a little woozy – I don’t think I’d had a good night’s sleep since the previous Thursday. We found a small hotel near the edge of town, dropped our big bags there and set out in search of the NBA. Not before a coffee though…
Ahhh…Sylvester enjoying the first coffee of the day.
It was 11am. Somehow 2 hours had run away from us and we had to make a quick decision about where to go from here. I had a hand drawn map of the Narmada, with Khandwa and Badwani, the two major activist centres marked clearly and several other smaller towns in smudged scribble. Both cities were within about 3 hours drive of Indore but in opposite directions. We made the choice to see Badwani, the historic beginnings of the NBA – a building people in the local area fondly called Medha Patkar’s house.
I thought 3 hours was quite a luxury give it once took nearly a day to get a decade before. We were was inspired by stories of how messages from the activists in court would be sent down via a man on a motorbike going town to town, constantly crossing back and forth across the river sometimes taking 4 or 5 days to reach the hilly regions.
Of course, it actually took a little over 4 hours to get to Badwani and after another hour of asking locals and traipsing back and forth across this squashed little town we just couldn’t find the NBA HQ. I kept saying Narmada Bachao Andolan and go quizzical responses until I started asking for Medha’s house.
“Ah Medha’s house – why didn’t you say so, it’s just over there.”
“Over there. Just around the corner.”
This went on…
The sky was going golden. I knew we’d never find it in the dark. There were few lights outside of the town’s bazaar. We got lucky, I spotted the blue logo on a flag close to sunset. It was hiding behind a brick drying yard. I felt like we had to trespass across yard to get to the house. I think I was delirious.
Medha didn’t live there. I think, given everyone calls it her house because she established it as the first activist office for the region. I didn’t particularly know what to expect. I was told by Madhuresh Kumar and Vimal Bhai to just go and see. They said if I said they’d sent me we’d get a welcoming response.
I knocked on the door. Someone answered – a young man, of maybe nineteen. He looked quite puzzled. I said I had spoken to Madhuresh Kumar, and M. J. Vijaya and Vimal Bhai and they’d said to come here. He brightened into a smile and said something in Hindi. Sylvester said Medha’s name.
He nodded, and said she is in Kerala. (I had the feeling Medha hadn’t been to this building in years though one might never know as she’s probably not in the same town or location for more than a week unless locked in jail or leading a Satyagraha). I didn’t really have any other contacts who I knew were here in Badwani a small town in rural Madhya Pradesh.
A much older and authoritative figure pushed out of the shadows and started speaking in fast Hindi. I wasn’t keeping up but Shakthi and I thought, well, we’re this far, let’s just starting interviewing and see where we are and find out where the action is.
His name was Bhagirath…