Reporter’s Diary: Those memories from the field which are beyond notes and quotes
A reporter recalls her travel to the remote Sundarbans to meet the women who earn a living by catching prawn seedlings on the riverine islands.
Aishwarya Tripathi 5 Aug 2023 1:57 PM GMT
Boarding the train to Kolkata from Canning station, I knew what was about to keep me occupied throughout my train journey — a reverie.
A reverie of memories that had registered in my mind during the last six days spent in the Sunderbans, hosting the world’s largest mangrove expanse. It was a field visit to document the struggle of the women in the riverine islands. Upon arranging my luggage in the train on my way back, I sat down to remember.
All I could think about was Devika. Her words echoed in my ears, “Didi humko koi aur kaam mile, to ye kabhi na karen” [If I can get some other work, I would never work here].
I imagined how smothering it can be to dedicate 10 hours of one’s day for 24 years continuously to do something they absolutely dislike.
Thirty-four-year-old Devika somewhere believed that I would know a way out — one of the reasons why she probably shared slices of her life with me.
I had been reading academic papers and news reports about mangroves and fishing communities and this reporting gig in the Sundarbans was my maiden experience of witnessing life in these islands as a first hand experience.
I took a flight to Kolkata, then a bus to Sealdah railway station, followed by a train to Canning then a shared tempo to Godkhali ferry ghat, a boat to cross the river and then a 45 minutes ride on the e-rickshaw to finally make it to my homestay on the Bali island at 10:30 PM.
My reverie in the train was broken by the arrival of passengers in the general compartment of the train. With every station passing, more people swarmed in — mostly the daily wage workers and fishers who boarded the local train everyday to commute to their work.
They sensed that I was an outsider. And with the West Bengal panchayat elections scheduled for three days later, most of them assumed me to be a government official sent for election duty.
Despite speaking a different language, the conversations didn’t stop — they spoke to me in Bangla, and I responded in Hindi with a lot of gestures.
As Canning approached, the scenery through the window had changed — the lush green rice fields and the azure blue sky was all that was visible from the train’s window. It was as if the scenery outside was painted with two colours in abundance — green and the blue.
The next morning Prasanjit Da, my local field support took me to Sonagar, another village by another ferry ride. A walk of almost two kilometres after the ferry ride took me to a point where a generator-powered rickshaw waited to take people to Sonagar. The two kilometre stretch was unkempt and the ill maintained road — courtesy of repetitive cyclones in the region.
It was hot, the sun was merciless but I barely had the moment to register the heat. I had waited to meet these women. The women laughed at me when I questioned them about their fishing routine.
They asked me if I was there to shoot for a film. “Are you going to make cinema?” they giggled.
I just picked the word cinema and made sense of the remaining sentence spoken in Bangla. I laughed and they laughed back, only to carry on with their work.
The male fishers didn’t hesitate to give me a hand to get down a slope to reach a boat — a spot which I fixed to capture the pictures for the story.
Devika, the woman whose memory had hit me upon boarding the train at Canning, was also on that boat. She didn’t go inside the river that day, which allowed me to spend more time with her.
The story revolved around Devika and other women’s occupation of catching prawn seedlings and the associated hazards. But the conversation with Devika was mostly about her husband, father, children, their school, and her aspirations.
I could sense the restlessness in Prasanjit Da — four hours of conversation which might be sounding senseless to him.
“Madam, ho gaya?” he asked multiple times. I asked for more time, everytime. And he was humble enough to smile and nod, everytime.
I was not done with talking to Devika. Every slice of her life she shared with me, made me feel closer to her.
Time and again I was reminded of another reporting lesson — ‘Don’t attach yourself to the subject’. But at times the lines get blurred — in order to empathise, one needs to feel the attachment. At 34, she was a mother of two, separated from her husband, taking care of the old and young in the family. She aspired to move out, or maybe stay in the village but make a living as a seamstress.
“I can stitch. I can also learn,” she told me. She was eager to switch from her everyday ordeal of stepping into the river.
But more than anything it was desperation — desperation to escape her accident of birth in a region prone to cyclones, a life of poverty, and moreover with the brevity of choices in life.
I took her phone number — for the purpose of getting any gaps filled that my editor might point out in the story but little did I know that I would call her just to talk.
I came back to my desk and while I had to flip through my notes time and again to recall the names of the people I met for my story, every detail of Devika Burman was etched deep in my memory lane to the Sunderbans.