It was a pitch-dark winter night in November 2002. Sitting in the back seat of theTata Sumo I had hired from Allahabad (now Prayagraj), I bit my finger nails, as Ritesh drove the jeep through the thick Sal forest bordering Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, without lifting his foot from the accelerator for a second.
The bright headlights of our jeep could be spotted from a long distance away in the dark forest. There was absolutely no other traffic movement on the road. And that made both of us uneasy.
Just an hour earlier, the tribal community of Rohaniya Damar tola (hamlet) in Kachnarwa panchayat of Sonbhadra, which I visited to report on the high fluoride levels in the groundwater that was crippling tribal children, had requested us to stay back in the village church and not travel through the forest at night. That forest belt along the border of Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, I was told, was affected by Naxalism, and violent attacks on ‘outsiders’ were common.
But I had a train to catch from Allahabad to Delhi and needed to get back to office to file my ground report for the next issue of the magazine. I had hoped to finish my reporting before sunset and leave the village in time. But, as always, time flies in the field and reporters just can’t get enough of talking to the people.
Before leaving Rohaniya Damar tola, I had looked at Ritesh, who knew my travel schedule and train timing, to check what was on his mind. “Madam, aap chinta matt karo. Main hoon na, main aapko thik-thak pahuncha dunga and train bhi chada dunga (Don’t worry. I’m here. I’ll get you there safely and put you on your train too),” he had assured me.
I needed that assurance. And with that we had left the village, well past sunset, taking a big risk.
The two-hour drive through the Sal forest seemed like an eternity. While I bit my nails, Ritesh’s eyes were focused on the road, at whatever little he could see ahead in the dark forest, in the yellow light of our jeep headlights. We didn’t exchange a single word through that drive.
Finally, we got out of the forest, out of the Naxalism-affected zone, unharmed, and hit a state highway. The happiness and relief on our faces on spotting smoke-emitting trucks with blaring music was beyond words.
Ritesh stopped the jeep and got out of the Sumo. I was confused; I had a train to catch from the Allahabad station, which was still far away. I kept watching him. He washed his face, said what seemed like a little thank-you-prayer, got inside the car and pressed down on the accelerator. After the long silence of the previous two hours, I finally spoke, “Thank you, Ritesh. Hamesha aapki aabhari rahoongi (I shall always be grateful to you).”
He just laughed and kept stressing it was his duty, “Aapko Allahabad se laya tha, aur wapis wahan pahuchana meri zimmedari hai (I brought you here from Allahabad and it is my responsibility to ensure you reach back safe).”
That winter night, he ensured I boarded my train in time.
It’s been almost 18 years now, but I still carry a great sense of gratitude towards Ritesh.
In the last two decades of my journey as a reporter, I have had many saarthis like Ritesh. To each one of them, I owe gratitude as I could not have got all those stories from far-flung areas of the country had it not been for their confidence and support.
Ajit is another such saarthi, my shadow while I was reporting in Bihar. Thanks to my friend and an ex-colleague, Eklavya Prasad, I have regularly travelled to North Bihar to report on water issues.
Five years ago, during one such journey, I met Ajit, who always drives Prasad around in the villages in his maalik’s Bolero. Every time I visit Bihar, Ajit is there to take me to the field — across half-dry rivers, through muddy fields and on potholed non-existent roads.
Any reporter will tell you how once in the field, there are always more stories to be reported than there is time at hand. So how does one address this concern? Work through the day and travel through the night. And Ajit has never said no to my erratic travel schedule.
Once we travelled through the day to visit villages in Pashchim Champaran to report on high arsenic and fluoride levels in the water. The next day we needed to be in Madhubani to report on the floods — a distance of over 218km, or a five-hour drive. Ajit drove through the night, while most of us in the Bolero slept. I dozed off too and woke at dawn when our Bolero stopped at a roadside dhaba for chai. Ajit, I noticed, was lying on the bonnet of the Bolero catching up on some sleep.
Similarly, during another trip to North Bihar in 2017, this time immediately after the floods, on the way back from a village, Marjadi, surrounded by three rivers, Ajit’s Bolero got stuck in a river we were trying to cross well past sunset. He spent the next hour trying to get the jeep out of the river with the help of some local villagers. And he managed to do it.
There were countless situations in which he could have refused the idiosyncrasies of a field reporter, but he didn’t. I owe my stories from North Bihar to Ajit, my saarthi.
I cannot end this note of gratitude without mentioning Jhalak from Kathmandu, Nepal. In June 2016, I was in Kathmandu for work. After completing my work, I had some time to visit a few places. He had insisted I visit the Pashupatinath Temple.
We reached the temple to find it shut for an hour or so. I told Jhalak there was no point ‘wasting’ time waiting. But, he insisted. Reluctantly, I entered the temple premises. He sat in a corner of the courtyard and told me to walk around while we waited.
I started to drag my feet around and reached a spot that looked down on the Bagmati River (I love watching rivers flow). But, there was more than just the river flowing. Families had gathered on the banks of the river to say the final good byes to their loved ones. Priests were busy helping perform last rites.
A chill ran down my spine. I froze. I had never seen so many dead being given a final farewell. Men and women weeping, the head of the family holding back tears and putting up a brave front. Listless bodies covered in white, garlanded with yellow marigolds, resting on logs of wood. Incense sticks burning. Coins being tossed here and there. Multiple pyres on fire.
In those frozen moments of silence, and loss and grief, at the Pashupatinath Temple, I realised the futility and fragility of our lives. One minute we are the CEO of a multi-crore company, and the next minute we are dust. Our end is going to be the same. What eventually defines our life is how well we live it to love and support others.
Thank you, Jhalak, my saarthi, for insisting I visit the Pashupatinath Temple.
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