Sunday, October 17, 2004

Bhubaneswar diary

A sudden invitation I have very happy memories of the one and a half years that I spent as a kid, in Orissa. So when an old colleague from an NGO I once worked in (in fact my first job some 10 years back) rang me up on Tuesday evening to say that they were organising a seminar with women artisans in Bhubaneswar, I immediately agreed to attend kill two birds with a stone, so to speak.

Déjà vu In Bhubaneswar I kept looking all around trying to locate places once familiar to me, landmarks now completely lost in the maze of roads and houses built in the last couple of decades. How often have I felt bored, irritated by people when they talk about places visited in the past with great fondness, which mean nothing to me. I am afraid I must have sounded like that. All excited I'd point out 'you know I went to school this way', with the happy rush of memories of me and R as young school kids (me in class IV and R in II) and a host of other memories. But it must have been terribly boring for my hosts. (Yawn, you went to school. Aacha). Luckily they were too polite to do anything but feign extreme interest! I couldn’t even identify that wonderful house we spent two summers in, as kids. It turned out to be the one just around the corner from the NGO’s office!

Other things hadn't changed much. When I started working in the NGO, I found that there was no schedule for anything although there was an enormous amount of energy for everything. Our train reached Bhubaneswar at 11pm, nearly two hours behind schedule. An entire troop was there to receive us at the station including my ex-boss and director on bikes, cycles and one car. He insisted on us dropping in at his office before checking in at our hotels. And once there, we had to talk the usual what is happening with the whole sordid affair of life kind of a talk and then tea, which took its time in arriving. I felt tired and hungry and a tad irritated at this disorganized state of affair. But then I thought that I was here for two days and I had come with the express purpose of meeting these people, most of whom I hadn't met for 9 years and my boss whom I had last seen 4 years ago when he attended my marriage. Here was my chance to catch up with these wonderful people. So I swallowed my irritation (which was partly aimed at myself for getting irritated in the first place) and the god awful tea (another standard fixture) and asked many questions. As is normal, nothing that was scheduled happened. The field trip was cancelled. A lot of things remained to be arranged for Buyer seller meet.

A Women’s World or is it? There was to be a buyer seller meet for products of rural women from Orissa – a governmental project, organized by the NGO. As happens with most affairs, lack of coordination is the main problem. Especially since the idea, the invitation and accommodation etc was done by government agencies. Each woman received 5 invitations, from 5 different agencies, to the very same meet. Most could barely figure it out. In fact some came empty handed without any of their handicrafts. Some came to the hostels they were to be put up in, some were found bewildered outside the five star hotel where the seminar was to be held, clutching their precious handiwork in odd bags and bundles. They turned up (much more than were expected) with very little idea as to what it was but so full of hope. And then they were told that nothing was to be sold here. It was to be only a product evaluation.

The NGO staff were up nearly till 2 arranging things for the inauguration by the minister who came accompanied by IAS officers and other officials. Then came ribbon cutting. Immediately, all the women started ululating in unison...the sound of which brought tears to my eyes. I had to blink hard to get rid of them. This was not just a tradition. But it was a sound of so much hope from these women who had so little, that they would find a buyer, a market, a way to earn a livelihood, a way to live life with some dignity, certainly more dignity than the seminar was giving them, I thought. Couple of hours later after endless cliched speeches, the women had to re-wrap all their stuff in pitiful little bundles...homeward bound, waiting till the next such meet?

The whole way in which it was conducted was very disappointing. But the post exhibition feedback session with the energetic and seemingly competent IAS officer in charge brought some hope to me that this lady means business.

A Rare breedI had got a ticket in the ordinary sleeper class for my return journey. Everyone else agreed that with some money, the TT would be more than happy to oblige especially since it was the puja season where most people ask for some sort of a baksheesh or the other. There were sure to be empty berths in the AC coaches. My boss had a big ideological problem with it. If there are seats, then it is within one's legal rights to ask for and get a better seat by paying the difference and it should be available without palm greasing. Anyhow, I was told to stand near my coach (at the end of the train) while they spoke to the TT, to try and do something for a lady.

The whole little scene no doubt repeated countless times, replayed it self slowly in front of me. Us officious, bending and talking with unusual docility, surrendering ourselves to the all mighty TT of the Indian Railways (the largest employer in the world). The TT, standing tall (this is his brief moment of glory), list in hand, looking us over, doing difficult calculations in his head and then saying uthey porun, dekchi (get in, I’ll see what I can do).The TT looked me up and down and then said, will a middle berth do? You are tall.

The TT came in a short while and upgraded the two of us who had ordinary sleeper class tickets, took the difference and left. Was it because a woman (my colleague) did all the talking, he couldn't he ask for some extra rupees or was he one of the rare breeds just doing his duty? If he was the latter, then here's to you Sir.

Last but not the leastDespite the obvious growth of Bhubanewsar, it still has this peacefulness about it. I guess its because its hardly populated compared to West Bengal and Calcutta. Rent is quite affordable; most houses have a bit of a plot attached to it, and full of foliage (unthinkable here in Calcutta). The sky I remember is still very clear and the stars are so big lamps shining in the sky. I felt happy, relaxed, lying in the hammock sort of an air. It would be nice to retire here, the land of 99,999 temples.

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