Yesterday, after a gap of 5 months, I called Bhan didi (elder sister). On hearing my voice, she cried.
"I thought you had forgotten me,” she said, “I thought I had lost you."
I replied, "We are sisters. I can never forget you."
Yes, relationships are often born of love, affection and understanding. Also, heroes are sometimes ordinary people with extraordinary deeds. Bhan - whom I call my elder sister, is such a hero and we are sisters by the bond of love.
Two years ago, while working for a non-profit media group based in Goa, I was selecting a group of men and women from slums and villages of India, to train them into video journalism.
One of the applicants was Bhan – a woman in her 40s, who hadn’t studied beyond 7th grade, knew nothing about videos or web and had her application form filled up by someone else. But, she lived and worked as a grass root activist in Chhattisgarh where, for over a decade, Maoist guerrillas have been fighting a bloody war against the government. Every year, hundreds of people died here in encounters or ambushes. So, my first thought was, “any woman who works in that war-like situation, is anything but fragile.”
We met a few months later, in March’2010, when she traveled to Goa to receive her training in video making. Draped in a faded blue sari, she wore a pair of slippers that had seen better days. She had traveled for three days on a train without a reservation, had slept poorly and looked exhausted. But when we met, she broke into a smile that lit up the entire surroundings; she carried so much warmth within her.
A story of perseverance
Warmth, however, isn’t the only quality that defines Bhan. She also has perseverance, kindness, honesty and above all, courage.
Widowed in the eighth year of marriage with three children and no money, Bhan lived in a house full of poverty and suffering. But instead of tears, she chose to shed sweat and stand on her own feet.
She found a job in an NGO as a paid volunteer. Carrying the youngest child on her back, (despite the hardship, she continued to send two of her other children to school) Bhan would cycle for miles, visiting villages where she would inform on and help the illiterate villagers access new government schemes on poverty elimination and rural employment. At the end of the month, she would receive a small salary - just enough for her and her children to survive.
Founding Jurmil Morcha and more
It has been nearly two decades since Bhan crossed her first mile on the cycle. Along the way, she has battled starvation, sickness and molestation. But she never stopped.
In Chhattisgarh, mining – both legal and illegal - is displacing thousands of tribal people, forcing them to migrate to other states. Those who stay behind are mostly women who live in abject poverty. 4 years ago, with a few such women, Bhan started an NGO called ‘Jurmil Morcha’ (jurmil = working hand in hand, morcha= group). With these women, she now mobilizes the displaced locals, organizes meetings and rallies, thus fighting against forced migration, non-payment of compensation, and environmental crimes like drying of rivers by the miners by overuse of water. After learning to make videos, Bhan also started to highlight the same issues through her videos.
In one such video, she highlighted the plight of a village that was surrounded by a river but had no bridge on it. Children of the village, who went to school on boats, risked drowning every monsoon. While shooting her video, Bhan also advised the villagers to send a petition to the district administration, demanding a bridge. This was soon done and, a few weeks later, the administration began constructing the bridge!
All along, however, Bhan also had personal battles to fight. She struggled to pay the school fees of her three children. And then, there was her husband’s brother who had snatched away her property when she became a widow. Now, Bhan’s growing involvement in social movements worried him: would she demand her share of the land?
To ensure that didn’t happen, in November ‘2010 he went to the police and told them that Bhan was seen roaming around with a camera, taking pictures. Maybe she was a Maoist spy?
Standing by a fighter
In Chhattisgarh, the police often detain and torture social activists and journalists as ‘suspected Maoist sympathizers’. So, on receiving the complaint from her brother in law, they promptly summoned Bhan to the police station.
Fortunately, I had called Bhan the previous evening. ‘I have to be at the police station tomorrow,’ she said, sounding unsettled. We both knew, there was a real danger of the police arresting her.
That night, I emailed a group of friends – mostly journalists - and asked them to call Bhan the next day and to tell her that she wasn’t alone.
The next day Bhan received many calls. Some called the police station directly and informed that Bhan was an activist and a reporter they knew well and that there was no reason to treat her with suspicion. Soon after, Bhan was allowed to go home.
A winner, a hero<?strong>
It has been 5 months since then. Work and struggle for survival kept me too occupied to call Bhan.
Now, connected again, she had good news for me: ‘A few weeks ago, my brother in-law invited me and my children to celebrate Diwali (Festival of lights) with his family. I felt very happy!”
I smiled: here was a woman who always did a lot for others, but wanted just dignity and a handful of love for herself. She was someone who always got the worst deal from life, but overcame all hurdles without begging or borrowing or stealing.
And this is why she is my hero – someone I can relate to, admire and draw strength and inspiration from.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2012 Assignment: Profiles