Continuing our recurring series featuring conversations between Disha Mullick and Kavita Bundelkhandi, Khabar Lahariya’s co-founders, in times of the new normal.
Aiming to focus on the myriad meanings of keeping safe and sane, Delhi-U.P., while reporting in the north Indian hinterlands during the ongoing global health crisis, these dispatches are illustrative of the unique diverse identity of Khabar Lahariya, and the bonds we forge as women at work.
K: Hello! How are you? I’ve had more meetings than I can count today. Don’t think I’ve done anything else. My head is about to split. My period pain starts from days before, and goes on for days after. How are things?
D: We’re body and soul sisters! COVID has done something to our lunar cycles. It seems like the longest day and the longest week. Weren’t you meant to have a call with Kumkum just now?
K: I’ve been trying her for two hours and I’m not trying anymore. I spend most of my time trying to speak to ‘out of reach’ reporters. I’ll speak to her tomorrow now. I know we have to take any and every opportunity to stay afloat, but this research project was meant to be done in a month and it’s going to take us double that time, between coordinating with the team in Delhi and our inaccessible team, and all the non-functioning Zoom links sent to interview subjects that we’re held responsible for…
D: Yes, and I’m quite aware and apologetic for urban research partners treating you like you’re slow and ignorant. I just popped open a beer. I wish you were here, Kavita.
K: How far away those days seem! Now life is an endless loop of work and visitors with emergencies.
D: That sounds pretty old-normal! What do you mean? Aren’t you locked down this weekend? Why are people still visiting?
K: I’m not sure what this lockdown really means. Our mohalla is throbbing with maskless crowds. And I’ve had a constant stream of relatives coming to get treated in Banda – my sister, my sister-in-law – who stay with us while treatment is on.
D: Are the hospitals functioning normally now?
K: Not at all! TUKTUK! You little scoundrel! Get AWAY from here. Hold on a sec?
[cat-like screeching and admonishments]
D: Kavita I really hope you don’t do this on your other calls with those urban research partners.
K: He just ate three pieces of the chicken we got for dinner! And he does it to get attention, and if I don’t give him any, he throws a tantrum!
D: We were talking about the hospitals and your unwanted visitors.
K: The medical college is in shock after the principal and his wife tested positive. So has his second in command. But they are still admitting only COVID cases. The district hospital is sealed, because a nurse there tested positive. That whole area around the district hospital is sealed actually, so even labs and getting dressings done is hard.
D: The district hospital is sealed! How can they do that? So where are people going?
K: Private doctors. And they’re in a bad state. I took M to Dr Karan Rajput the other day and there wasn’t space to stand outside his clinic. Medicines have become so expensive.
D: How’s M doing? The medicines haven’t worked on his kidney stones?
K: He’s not too good. We’ve gone from one radiologist to another to ascertain what’s going on with his stones. Other inconsistencies aside, all reports say they’re just getting bigger. I think it’s months of moving very little and drinking a lot.
D: I guess that could be a wider COVID19 fallout, Kavita. But aren’t you back on your exercise routine? Take him with you!
K: I just started yoga today. I try. We go to the sabzi mandi in the morning and ogle at the lovely green veggies, and the maskless vendors. Then he wants to take the shortcut back. I’m out of ideas and patience.
D: True. Keep your ideas and patience for our new shows. Did you talk to N about running her own show?
K: She could totally run her own feminist show if she wasn’t so harassed. I just spoke to her. All the kids are still here. The older son now wants to get married. He wants his mother to foot the bill. He’s pressurising her, getting his dad to pressurise her. Recording her chatting on the phone and threatening to make that ‘viral’. The girls get dressed up everyday and head out, to who knows where. She can’t restrain them, they’ve always been out of her control….
D: You’re making my head ache, Kavita. So angry. Why do people have children!
K: You’re telling me. I feel relief all the time that I didn’t have any! Anyway, our team is really struggling with them. I spend an hour at least every day on the phone to someone or the other, or many of them, about the situation at home. Even Geeta’s having a tough time with her son… Shivdevi’s daughter – the middle one, who dropped out of school, wants to get married…
D: You could make a lot of money running a halfway house for everything from kidney stones to family troubles! But fortunately or unfortunately, we have enough troubles to report on to keep us distracted from the internal ones. This alleged Chitrakoot ‘sex racket’ has been playing across social media. When will it stop being such a cliche that these sensationalist stories make people pay attention to areas they otherwise wouldn’t. Did we pause on the investigation?
K: Yes, we withdrew the story we’d done, since after the first story broke on India Today/Aaj Tak, people in the area have been very intimidated to speak. The administration is doing their own, very intimidating, investigation. And journalists and activists in the area are being called in for questioning. [Our reporter] has also been called in and is quite rattled. I wanted to ask you about that…
D: She should go, she doesn’t have anything to be intimidated about. And she has a good rapport with the police there. We can say we are waiting and watching for now, and will report when we have more clarity. I feel terrible for those families at the centre of this, not being able to earn their daily wage, harassed by contractors and media and administration all at the same time.
K: Local reporters are saying they don’t even know how the reporters who covered the story got tipped off or what rules they followed to report, to protect the community…
D: Since when have local reporters we know had any ethics around reporting on sexual assault! Sounds like a case of sour grapes, that they didn’t get there first.
K: Yes for sure. And if only the stories of unpaid wages or accidents in quarries and illegal mining and starvation deaths got this much local coverage. Anyway there are many controversial stories emerging, from the COVID rubble. We’re treading a bit carefully. Many local activists, involved in food distribution and employment programmes, rumoured to be siphoning money and trapping those that desperately need work in new forms of bonded labour.
D: Oh, well. The new normal isn’t really structurally different from the old, is it. Anyway, please let’s be careful. Truth-telling isn’t valued at a premium, and we should also not be trapped into doing some sensationalist coverage. So let’s lay low.
K: I’ve just heard Babulal chauraha, and even the mohalla where our old office was have been sealed. And weekend curfews in UP! [Sigh] I guess we’re not going to meet for that drink for a while yet.