Sainath reporting from the border of Kalahandi-Rayagada in Odisha circa 2002
He’s been a journalist for 36 years. P. Sainath – mentor, teacher, editor – is among the most inspiring people I know.
Sainath took up his first job as a sub-editor in New Delhi, at the UNI on September 20th, 1980. For much of the 36 years – from 1993 – he’s been a rural reporter. On December 20th 2014, he founded the People’s Archive of Rural India.
I met him exactly three years ago. I had written to him in July 2013, a fan mail, after reading one of his outstanding profiles in the oped pages of The Hindu (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sainath/when-leelabai-runs-the-farm/article4921390.ece). Sainath replied to my email. He told me about a journalism venture he was going to start with friends. He invited me to be part of it. My life changed direction.
Sainath has inspired countless journalists. He’s taught thousands how to find stories, how to write them. When he tells them, he leaves himself out of the picture. He once advised me: ‘if you’re traveling several hundred kilometres to meet someone, and have 800 words to tell their story, don’t make it about yourself.’
In his book ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought’ he’s given voice to people who would never have had their stories told. I have my favourites from the book. The Tamil Nadu ones. And another, called the ‘Hills of hardship’, from Godda, Bihar, about the Pahari women who travel 31 kilometres up and down hills, carrying head loads of firewood (sometimes greater than their body weight), only to earn eight or nine rupees. This story was later published in Ordfront’s Greatest Reporting of the 20th Century. I had mailed Sainath in August 2013 about the story, that I loved it. He replied that it was one of his favourites too. He told me the backstory, one that makes me smile even today. Sainath had written:
“Well, those two stories are amongst my favourites (there are more), but so because of the memories attached to them.
With the women, they were extremely shy to begin with – the way that was overcome was quite ludicrous. I was nursing a foot recovering from a fracture in Ramnad.
a) It was tightly wrapped in elasto plast with strict instructions not to get it wet. The Ortho however was an adventurous fellow who told me I could do all the walking I wanted
b) I had to wear shoes of different sizes! One size 8 Bata hunters and the other size 10.
Anyway as SP Tiwari and I walked behind them, they were nervous despite many reassurances. Then we all came to the river (not deep, some flowing water and current, say 3-4 feet).
The women had a bath and SPT decided to have one too, all at a respectable distance, not to scare them.
I had my not-to-wet elasto plast, and camera hung around my neck. I was desperate for some wetness on my face and neck as we were sweating insanely in the humidity. I balanced one foot on a rock and bent over into the water to wash my face. The rock had moss on it and I disappeared into the water. My immediate reaction, of course, was to save the camera from a dunking.
As SPT told me, the most spectacular sight was not of a missing body, but a hand rising above the water holding a camera above the surface. Must have looked like the hand holding the sword of Excalibur?
The women giggled, then burst out laughing, and then howled with laughter thereafter.
We were friends after that, and they laughed all the way after.”
I hope, one day, there will be more opportunities to sit Sainath down and ask him how he went about finding and telling the stories he did.
Until then, I’ll go back and re-read the book that I love.
Oh, and here’s the link to the Hills of Hardship: https://ruralindiaonline.org/articles/the-hills-of-hardship
Happy Journalism Anniversary, Sainath!