Interview with Namita Waikar

    by Lavanya

    Lavanya: PARI is a living journal and an archive dedicated to the showcasing of everyday lives in Rural India. What are the kinds of stories you are looking for?
    What does the everyday look like for PARI?

    Namita:There are 833 million people in rural India. PARI publishes stories of the labour, crafts, skills, art, music, languages and lives of these people. We also look for the stories of villagers who migrate to towns and cities in search of work. For most of them, life is hard in the countryside and the challenges they face are about access to water, food, education, medical facilities and remuneration for their work and produce. Most of the things that the urban middle and upper middle classes take for granted are a daily struggle for the rural populace. Their stories are mostly neglected by the mainstream media – except when there is a natural disaster of enormous proportions. We cover them and our stories tell our readers how some of the government policies and machinery work and the lack of proper implementation of well-meaning schemes make impact the lives of rural people.

    Lavanya: Rural India is complex and diverse space comprising of multiple identities, linguistic identities, religious identities, occupational identities, indigenous identities and so on. How does a journal and an archive like PARI capture this diversity?

    Namita:Yes, that’s right, rural India is a very complex and diverse space. India is divided into 95 to 100 geographic and natural regions. PARI aims to place a fellow in each of these regions to bring stories of the multitude of diverse people from there. We have covered some areas in the four years since PARI’s launch in December 2014 – parts of Rajasthan, Manipur, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Ladakh, Karnataka, Sundarbans in West Bengal, the Char region of Assam, Kumaon in Uttarakhand, Vidarbha and Marathwada in Maharashtra, Telangana, Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema and so on. Some fellowships are also focussed on specific occupations and livelihoods like Manual scavengers or Pastoral Nomads. There are many more regions that we still need to cover and will do so in the coming years. PARI is run by a non-profit trust and we are dependent on donations from individuals, foundations and CSR funds to carry out our activities.
    Then, we have the FACES section that covers the facial and occupational diversity of India – bringing in a photograph of a woman, a man and a child or adolescent from every district and block/taluka/tehsil of India. Many college students participate in this project – thus giving these urban youth a chance to connect or reconnect with people from rural parts.
    About languages – through our translations programme, every PARI story is translated into about 12 Indian languages. We have recently also started work on a languages project where we capture every Indian language including those of the Adivasis in audio and video. This will have conversations, basic words, proverbs, poems, songs, lullabies in that language.
    Our fellows, reporters, authors, translators, interns and volunteers, are from as diverse backgrounds as the demographics of our country with half or more than half of them being women. We strive to award fellowships to reporters from the Dalit, Adivasi and other minorities.

    Lavanya: When choosing to archive the everyday lives of everyday people, why rural India particularly? Is there a fear of an erasure or perhaps a dilution of rural sub-cultures owing to agendas such as “development?”

    Namita:Rural India and stories of the everyday lives of people from villages are mostly neglected by the mainstream media – except when there is a natural disaster of enormous proportions. We focus on them and the processes that affect their lives. Our stories tell our readers how some of the government policies and machinery work and how the lack of proper implementation of well-meaning schemes impact the lives of rural people.
    Over time, we have lost and are losing most of our traditional skills and crafts. For example, the innumerable schools of weaving and types of pottery are dying out – so we try to record and document these. We also bring to our readers and viewers all that is beautiful but also everything that is barbaric and that must be stopped like the continuing practices of patriarchy and all kinds of discrimination including those based on caste.
    Often, what is “development” comes at the cost of displacement and loss of livelihoods of people. Our stories in the Resource Conflict category bring out these issues.

    Lavanya: A living, breathing archive of this nature requires a continuous engagement with daily life. Can you give us a glimpse into what takes place behind-the-scenes at PARI? Who are the (perhaps) unsung heroes who make PARI happen?

    Namita:I’m glad you asked this question. While stories have bylines for authors and credits for photographers and translators, the editors and the editorial team are the unsung heroes. Intervention by Sharmila Joshi, our editorial chief, ensures that our stories are of high quality in terms of journalism and editing. All the others in the team – Subuhi Jiwani, Samyukta Shastri, Sinchita Maji and Jyoti Shinoli work on publishing our multi-media stories and reports. Binaifer Bharucha, our photo editor, Vishaka George who manages social media and Siddarth Adelkar, tech editor at PARI also deserve mention. And keeping the admin and communications going is Zahra Latif, our community manager.

    Lavanya: PARI has worked extensively on the lives affected by the agrarian crises. Your own book too deals with the agrarian crisis. At a time when the crisis has become a political agenda, how does one journal and archive the humanity of it all?

    Namita:By directly showing what the farmers, agricultural labourers and those affected by the crises in the rural life and economy have to say. We tell their stories through their voice and words. On a regular basis we cover their stories. When some 40,000 farmers marched from Nashik to Mumbai in March 2018, our reporters and photographers were with them from the beginning. I must add that we were the first ones to report on this march and other media caught up as the march reached the districts closer to Mumbai. Our team also went to Delhi and some of our reporters travelled with them to Delhi from Maharashtra for the Kisan Mukti Morcha that marched to Delhi in November 2018. They demand a special 3-week session of parliament to discuss all issues of agrarian crises including those of women farmers who do not own land inspite of doing over 60 per cent of work on farms. This demand has now been extended to have special sessions to discuss the agrarian issues in the state assemblies too.

    Lavanya: What gives you joy? Do you have a favourite story or stories?

    Namita:There is nothing comparable to the joy of finding a story unexpectedly when you are working on or covering another. This happened once when I was doing a photo story on the way the students of a residential school of Kattaikuttu dance and theatre form in Kanchipuram district celebrate Dassehra. I noticed that the mridangam was played only by the boys and said so to the school director. She said yes, that was mostly the case everywhere, but they have two girls who play it! I scrambled to setup the camera and record how beautifully two girls under fourteen years of age played the two sided drum.
    My favourite story on PARI is by Arpita Chakrabarty. Of the families in Pithoragarh who traverse through risky terrain to reach the Satper meadow in Uttarakhand close to the India-Nepal border to collect the caterpillar fungus and sell it in a lucrative but illegal cross-border trade as it has an important ingredient used in traditional Chinese medicine.
    It is the story of human beings willing to take risks so they can earn enough to try and make their lives better.

    Elsewhere in this issue excerpt from the story The Long March by Namita Waikar

    Namita Waikar is a writer, translator, and the Managing Editor of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). She is a partner in a chemistry databases firm, and has worked as a biochemist and a software project manager. She’s most recently the author of The Long March, a novel, Speaking Tiger Books

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