Tuesday, March 3, 2009

War to Wardha

Once we leave Bastar, Naraianpur becomes a memory. Feroze tells me a story about the famous photographer, Neil Leifer who was assigned by Time Magazine to photograph the top athletes of the world against the backdrop of the landmark of their own country. In China, he made the athletes to stand near the Great Wall of China. In India, it was Taj Mahal and in London, the London Bridge. The photographer went to Cuba and he could not find any landmark there. So he managed a picture of the athletes with none other than the legendary (former) President of Cuba, Fidel Castro.

In Narainpur, we don’t have a landmark. The only available landmark is none other than Pandiram Mandavi, the Muriya wood carver. Everybody knows him and he knows everybody. As I said in my yesterday’s diary, he can go anywhere in a loin cloth and turban. His smile is infectious. He smiles like poet A.Ayyappan, one of the legendary contemporary poets in Kerala, who live a complete anarchic life. Feroze again suggests that we should have a conference of these anarchists and Ayyappan and Pandiram should preside the conference. I find the suggestion interesting.

And Feroze who is comfortable behind the camera posed with Pandiram and the accompanying artist, Palak Raval captures the moment in her camera. He is happy to have this landmark of Narainpur preserved in his digital memory. However, Feroze has something to regret. He is not able to take a photograph of the Naxalites. At least he would like to have one photograph of those army men in combat fatigue who stand in alert on either side of the road that leads to Narainpur. In one point we see a few soldiers with their machine guns. Somu stops the car and Feroze approaches them with his ‘ready to click’ camera.

It is a shoot out point. Either Feroze would shoot them or they would shoot Feroze. The latter is the worst case scenario. Both the parties are alert and the soldiers who have walked past our car stop their march and come to us. An officer asks us why we stopped the car. I tell him that we are journalists and would like to have some pictures with them. He flatly refuses to pose and tells us that we would find his superiors a few kilometres ahead and they would pose for us. Feroze is crestfallen.

For a photojournalist, losing an opportunity to have a wonderful picture clicked is one of the devastating experiences. Feroze is sad after this. But providence has something interesting in store for us, especially for Feroze.

We are on our way to Wardha, the famous Gandhi Ashram. I am at the wheel. The morning is pleasant and the state highway that leads us from Bastar to Gadchiroli is really smooth. As it is a Sunday the road is rather empty. Summer has just started and the light of the day is very special. Palash trees near the road have blossomed. There is a riot of red everywhere. The sky seen through the blossomed Palash trees look as if someone has written a poem with blood on it.

I remember the forest fires that I had seen couple of days back while going to Bastar. I ask a local about these forest fires. He tells me that the fire is man made and it is made with a purpose. Generally, the dried leaves and twigs under the Mahua trees are set on fire by the village folk so that they can collect the Mahua flowers fallen around the trees. The village folks want Mahua flowers to brew a local liquor, which is also called Mahua. If the dried leaves and twigs are there, they cannot collect the falling flowers easily. Indigenous techniques and traditional know hows, I tell myself.

Sparse traffic helps me to drive fast and smooth. Suddenly, just before we enter Gadchiroli, a few army men wave at the car. I pull the car over to the side and park it under a tree. These armed men come to us and ask me to open the door. They ask us to get out and do a thorough search of the car. Then their superior officer who sits under a tree wants me to show them our papers. We show the documents of the car and impart our personal details.

While me and Somu are dealing with the superior officer, Feroze makes friends with the personals. Finally he asks the officer for permission to take photographs with them. His dream has come true.

The check up is a routine one. We are entering the Naxalite infested Gadchiroli district. Though during the day time, the ultras do not come out of the forests, at night they can do anything here. The army officials want to know whether we are pro-Naxalite guys. Once they are convinced of our antecedents and present, they let us go. I jump into the driver’s seat and start the car.

Feroze is a happy man. He tells me that his unfulfilled dream during the trip has now materialised in a way. I drive on.

After ten hours of drive we reach Wardha. Wardha is in Maharashtra. The first thing I notice is a sign board, ‘A K Gandhi Tyres.’ It should have been MK Gandhi Tyres, we joke.

There is a reason why we are specially alert to a sign board that advertises tyres. By noon, we find one of rear tyres broken and its steel radial wires torn apart. We need an urgent change. We get the spare tyre fitted from a wayside tyre shop. But he does not have new tyres for our Tavera.

We are in Chandrapur district, which is famous for its coal mines. The climate is unnervingly hot. We find a tyre shop and go for a tyre replacement. We buy a new tyre and wait for the mechanics to change it. Now with a new tyre we are ready to drive fast.

In Wardha it is prayer time. The Gandhi Ashram here is called Bapu Kutir Sevagram and it is located in the outskirts of the city. Mahatma Gandhi was released from the Pune Jail in 1936 and he wanted to work amongst the poor villagers. So he asked his friends to set up an Ashram in Wardha.

Gandhiji entered the Ashram in 1936 and stayed here till 1942 when he left for the Quit India Movement struggle. There is an Adi Kutir, where Gandhiji stayed in a rural ambience. Then there is Ba Kutir, where Kasturba Gandhi stayed. There are kutirs (huts) for Jamnalal Bajaj, who funded Gandhiji for his social works. Everything is preserved here in the same way Gandhiji left them in 1942.

Many Gandhians have come for the prayer. Some people spin charkha and some recite the prayer. The followers and visitors sing together. Feroze is active with his camera and he keeps his presence and camera minimal in order to keep the sanctity of the atmosphere intact.

One has to remove the footwear for walking around in the campus. I remove my tough shoes and walk barefoot. The small pebbles and sand pinch my soles. It is after a long time that I walk barefooted. I remember Maria, the protagonist in Paulo Coelho’s novel, Eleven Minutes, which I have translated into Malayalam. Maria experiences the limits of her endurance through sex. Her artist friend makes her to walk barefooted on cold sharp stones. Both the experiences take her to the spiritual heights. I feel my spirit as the sharp stones pierce my soles.

Maria experience is not a lasting one. I wear my shoe and head towards the car. Our next destination is Maganwadi, where a permanent Gandhian Exhibition is arranged. It is already seven in the evening and we are late. But the benevolent warden of the campus opens the museum for us. We move around and see different kinds of charkhas and other Gandhian items. I think of condom made out of Khadi. I am irreverent even if I want to be reverent.

Our accommodation is arranged in Maganwadi. We get a three bed dormitory for our stay. I go and look around the room and washroom. The toilets are really dirty and it is a contrast to Gandhian ideals.

I am really tired but I have to write my diary. Before I sit to write, I prefer to have a drink. We all go out for dinner and I start my search for a drink. I am told that there is no liquor available in Wardha as the city follows Gandhian principles.

“But if you want, I can arrange,” tells the man who sells Jaljeera, a kind of cold drink from his makeshift shop.

He gets into the car and I drive into an alley that he points out. There, from a pan shop I buy two bottles of beer.

“You want to drink and I know where it is available, I just want to help,” tells the man who accompanies us as I offer him some money. He refuses to take it.

“He follows Gandhian principles in this matter. He does a ‘service’ to the ‘drinkers’ like me,” I tell myself.

Back home I never write after drinks, but in Wardha, I drink inside the car and come back to the Ashram’s guest house. There I write my diary and Feroze lines up the photographs. But 12 at midnight we upload the site.

I float in a beer induced sleep. I think Gandhiji would appear in my dream. I wait for him. All I could listen was the humming of mosquitoes.

Tomorrow is another day.

No comments: