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Sorrows of a far-flung correspondent.
[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi; pictures by the people of Purnia]
These are jottings that I scribbled on the notepad during my stay in Purnia, the town closest to flooded regions of north Bihar where I volunteered in relief efforts.
I always wanted to be a newspaper correspondent who would cover stories in the world's dangerous hotspots like Baghdad, Mogadishu, Khartoum, Kabul, Peshawar and Kashmir. There I would have clandestine meetings with terrorists, interview dissidents, chat with cab drivers, drink beer in the local press club, attend dinners with socialites and stay awake till dawn to file stories.
So, it was thrilling when I went to volunteer as a relief worker, as well as write stories, in the flood-hit Bihar. But not all shared my enthusiasm. My parents feared that "Bihar is not really a safe place." A friend warned, "This won't be like Barkha Dutt reporting from Kargil". Another scared me with stories of cholera and loose motions. Many others wanted me to call off the trip. But sorry, this was my first 'off-shore' assignment and I was going to have the time of my life.
Action shifts to Bihar.
Oh God. I'm in this godforsaken town called Purnia. I had imagined that there would be four feet of water everywhere and I would be rescuing villagers, comforting the grieved and distributing food packets to the starving millions. No such adventure. The flooded ground zero is still further and this dry, blistering-hot town is as dull as any small town in India. Worse, Purnia-wallas appear to be as indifferent to the disaster as Delhi-wallas.
That might be because Bihar's people, a senior journalist told me, have grown so used to man-made miseries that they have learnt to take everything in their stride. Even if this time it's one of the state's worst floods ever.
Yesterday I spent my day in a refugee camp and found the 'survivors' living quite a 'normal' life -- sleeping, talking, eating, feeding, bathing, and even smiling. There was no drama. Tragedies can be banal. All that heart-tugging action – wailing people, shrieking babies – is more likely to happen on manipulated 'exclusives' of TV news channels than in real life.
I was…how to put it, disappointed.
As a big-city guy who sacrificed one week's worth of browsing in Bahrisons bookstore, eating blueberry muffins in Oxford Cha Bar and watching movies in PVR, I'm just getting no payback thrill here. Better donate one day's salary for the victims and remain in Delhi than slosh around amongst a people for whom, perhaps, most of us are unable to feel anything beyond textbook sympathy.
Last night I set talking to the senior roving editor of a national daily. He is cooped up in the same hotel I'm in. The editor was wondering if there's a real disconnect between the metropolitan India and the rest of the country. I think he's got his answer.
Missing Delhi in Purnia
Game for a Bhojpuri film?
Textbook sympathy for the starving millions