The invisible stories
- May 1, 2014
Last month I coughed more than I breathed. And in that state I had to travel to Delhi to honour a commitment made to KhabarLahariya. I tried excusing myself but their insistence and my desire to keep my word gave me the strength to travel. Though it left me physically tired, I came back energised. And I want to use this space to tell their inspiring story that may not otherwise reach you.
When I walked into the conference room of a cultural centre in Delhi, there were about 50 rural women, dressed in their fineries, as they would have for a festival. For them this was no less a celebration. None of them ‘looked’ like journalists, but each of them was either a reporter, photographer or editor. KhabarLahariya, a project of Nirantar, a Delhi-based NGO, is a weekly run by the first ever network of rural women journalists. They have a readership of one lakh and publish in various local languages like Bundeli, Bajjika, Awadhi and Bhojpuri. Their staff is of mixed backgrounds with a significant percentage of Dalit and Muslim women, rarely found in regular newsrooms.
KhabarLahariya conducted a survey on the presence and experiences of women journalists working in the seven Hindi speaking states. The report I launched that day was called ZilekiHulchul: Conversations with Women Journalists in Small-town India. It captures the attitudes towards women in journalism, the challenges faced by them and their experiences of establishing themselves in a male-dominated field outside the big metros.
The urban mass media that we view and read is often under pressure from or outright controlled by giant corporations and guided by vested interests. The upcoming election has only bought this depressing picture more into focus where the nexuses are hardly hidden. So meeting the women of KhabarLahariya was refreshing. Of course the cynics will dismiss such initiatives and say that it has negligible reach compared with the mainstream weeklies. While this is true, it would be wrong to evaluate such initiatives purely by the yardstick of mainstream media. In meeting the women behind it, what became clear to me was the empowering impact of reporting done by the people for the people and of the people.
The strength of such projects is not just the stories they tell, but also the resulting slow bottom-up transformation of the old social order, like that of patriarchy of casteism. Often they bring more nuances to stories first covered by the mainstream media and tell smaller stories that remain untold. This is the closest one can get to the reality of an Indian village from one’s desktop. On my return when I started reading their web site, many questions I had not even asked began to get answered. What do farmers have to say about the long spell of fog and winter rains? What are the victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots now grappling with? Who is responsible when the only health care centre in a village is dysfunctional?
KhabarLahariya at times brings a different perspective to stories because of its rural base. When the December 2012 gang rape in Delhi was in the news, they did extensive study and reported violence against women in villages. While they of course condemned the incident in every possible way, they also raised pertinent questions about whether women outside big metros mattered; whether we really know what the women go through on a daily basis in rural India.
I started writing this piece just after I returned from the event, but I am completing it on a cold night in New York, a media-saturated city. I cannot help thinking that it is ironic that we will continue to get much more news about far-off lands, and not about our own neighbouring villages. So here is saluting the women of KhabarLahariya who have dared to get out of their homes to unchartered territories, bringing us invisible stories the rest of the media often chooses to ignore.