The first time P. Sainath travelled on top of a train was when agricultural labourers from Bihar promised to take him to Punjab in ‘A/C 1st class’, back in 1993. “I was innocently waiting for the ticket counter to open, but they said just come, this is public transport,” he tells us, recalling an incident from his 36-year career as a journalist (24 of which was as a full-time rural reporter). “I couldn’t shoot one decent photograph, because you will never know how much a train sways, until you sit at the top. When the train approached a bridge or barrier, someone would pull the chain, and we would all get down and walk. And that’s how millions of journeys were made, are still made, in this country.” And it is this country and this people that Sainath –winner of over 40 awards in journalism, including the Magsaysay in 2007 – hopes to archive in the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). In this interview, he talks to PARI volunteers Siddharth Adelkar and Aparna Karthikeyan about the importance and challenges of documenting rural India.
Q – What would you say if PARI was perceived as exoticisation of rural India?
Sainath – Have a look at the content and tell me which part of it exoticises rural India. The part when you see a potter digging in the ditch after the rains, on his hands and knees, for clay, which he’s running out of, because real estate is taking over those lands – is that exoticisation? Or people talking to you about lands being grabbed – a poet in Odisha telling you about his village’s resistance to the POSCO project. And by the way, there are things in rural India that are exotic. Probably more than any other place. However, there are also things in rural India that are ugly, regressive, brutal, and we capture all of it. What is displacement? It is brutal. What is the destruction of people’s farmlands about? It is inhuman misery forced on human beings. So we cover that and we cover the beautiful, and what you seem to call the exotic. The incredible number of styles of pottery, weaving, the unrivalled artisanal skills of rural India. We cover everything, we cover the everyday lives of everyday people. And everyday lives have both. The exotic and the abominable.
Q – It is easy enough to make extreme human experiences interesting. People have a very voyeuristic interest in them. How do you propose to draw people’s attention to everyday experiences?
Sainath – The strengths and weaknesses in the Indian press and Indian media, is that we’re very strong in covering events. And zero on covering process. It’s very easy to make events compelling. You know, journalism can do that very easily. By the way, that’s what event managers do – they make events compelling. It’s not difficult to make visuals of a train crash or derailment compelling. To try and understand how extraordinary the ordinary, everyday lives of people is – and it is, by the way, in India – to make that compelling, calls for real, journalistic skills.
It’s much easier to cover an event. If you cover the death of 29 – 30 children from Mokhada (Thane district, Maharashtra) from malnourishment or hunger, you’re covering an event and it’s very easy to do that. Had we actually covered the process of hunger, which brought those children to that stage, and that level of risk, maybe those kids would be alive. That’s the difference, the utility value, between covering events and covering processes. Also understand that there’s a lot of drama in process, which is journalistically far more demanding of our skills, than covering events.
In the middle of nowhere, in Idukki district, we run into a librarian. A guy conducting a library, in the middle of the jungle, in the cross-roads where the wild elephant herds of the Idukki jungle moves. Now this is astonishing and stunning, but it is his everyday life. It is not astonishing and stunning for Chinnathambi, the librarian. For him, it’s his everyday life. That’s process. Chinnathambi’s work cannot be captured in an event. There are a thousand things where I would tell you that realities of everyday life and non-fiction easily outdo anything that fiction has to offer.
Q – One of the serious shortcomings of the online form is that it panders to the short attention span of the model consumer. How will PARI handle that?
Sainath – I have always understood that the length and depth of a story ought to be determined by the story – how compelling it is, how important it is. In fact, what some might see as the shortcoming of the online form, is actually its strength. It can keep an article to 300 words, without leaving blank spaces, it can take an article to 3000 words, if there’s a need to do it. That should not be an excuse for bad writing. Unfortunately, some of the greatest atrocities in journalism are committed in the name of development reporting or development journalism, which is a euphemism normally for bad writing. So, telling stories, making that compelling, that’s the challenge.
Q – Another prevalent online form or sub-form, is the Wiki, with thousands of people crowd-sourcing information. Is PARI that kind of a model?
Sainath – No. PARI is not Wikipedia. PARI is definitely crowd sourcing, but the process of curation, the process of editing, the process of determining whether something makes the cut or not, I would say is far more rigorous. Cyberspace is the source of a great deal of creativity; it is also the repository of a lot of crap. So, people put up all kinds of rubbish. To steal a phrase, as someone wrote decades ago about the tabloids, their job is to separate the grain from the chaff and publish the chaff. PARI wants to preserve the grain.
Q – There’s a film in the people’s archive on a potter in rural India. That potter, more often than not, is going to be from a caste of potter – a Kumhar. So, showing a film on a potter, how the person makes it, doesn’t it play up the caste system?
Sainath – Our aim is not to make you look at his caste. Our aim is to make you look at his labour. And of course his caste does come into it, rural India is a lot about caste. The question is how you cover it. To pretend or to say that I will not cover caste or religion, that is really stupid. So then you’ve denied yourself 70% or 60% of the things that matter in rural India, because they’re one way or the other, connected with caste or class. If you say I won’t cover those, you have no story.
I said this – rural India has the beautiful and the exotic – it also has the ugly, the brutal, the barbaric and the regressive. Rural India is in the process of a gigantic transformation and unfortunately, the nature of that transformation is that it is the brutal and the regressive and the barbaric that is getting strengthened. While that which is beautiful and we ought to cherish, is crumbling. So the wonderful schools of weaving (which by the way, are not all caste based) and art which are disappearing, at the same time you’re seeing a strengthening of the most regressive institutions in caste. So you have some terrible, terrible issues of caste coming up. I think PARI would be a fraud if it did not cover it.
Q – What were the challenges in bringing all of rural India on one page?
Sainath – Honestly speaking, you can never bring all of rural India on one page. You can’t bring rural India on one chapter or one book; rural India is a continent within a sub-continent. In that sense, PARI is many worlds, one website. There are many worlds, some of them overlapping, some of them exclusive of each other, in rural India; to that extent, a giant endeavor and enterprise like this, will necessarily reflect some of the colourful chaos and anarchy of rural India also! It will! It should! Because that’s what the everyday lives of everyday people also involves.
How difficult it is… put it this way. They say, ‘nothing is impossible’. Here, ‘impossible is nothing’. The kind of stuff that happens in rural India, trying to capture that, in our lifetimes it’s not going to happen. We make a beginning. We make a start. The other thing about this is PARI can never be completed. As long as there is a rural India, there will be something growing and expanding and changing and revising on PARI.