Into the Heartland | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
June 02, 2020

Into the Heartland

Text by Shalini Singh

As days of isolation stretch ahead of us in a locked-down world during the pandemic and we remain bound indoors, travel writing takes on its age-old task of memory-making. Award-winning journalist Shalini Singh — who’s covered the better part of the country and the globe to break stories on climate change, development and its effects on our environment — reminisces on the spiritual nature of her work and how being out on the field is actually a journey within

Once, while being interviewed for a film on solo women travellers in India, I had said: “When unable to travel across physical distance, I head to my favourite cafe in the city and travel in words.” The film’s subtitles, however, read that phrase as “travel inwards”. This mondegreen (a phrase misheard or misinterpreted as another phrase) fits well into our current locked-down world during the pandemic two years on.

Travel in the time of coronavirus is a different landscape. I sit at home and pen prose about hope or, with a press pass, drive around what used to be traffic-blocked intersections that are now lonely roads. I come across barricade after barricade lined with masked policemen, watch out-of-work labourers dotting pavements — reading newspapers or talking across the street to each other — or just sitting around in bewildered silence.

If ignorance is bliss, awareness is power. As a reporter, one holds a lens to society outside, and, as a soul, to the universe within. In my very first reported story, which was on child football-makers in Meerut (Uttar Pradesh) during the 2006 FIFA World Cup, I realised that the cost of the beer my friends and I would knock back while watching a match at a pub in one evening was the monthly earnings of an entire family for stitching footballs. The inequality felt stark. During 2008, when things were getting worse with the economic downsizing in my newspaper, I lost my father to a sudden illness and thence my ability to write. A basic yoga practice I’ve followed — along with the idea of “nishkam karma”, which means to dispense disinterested action — helped me observe the difference between the living and dead as, simply, breath. But as the novel coronavirus targets the lungs and our ability to breathe, we are now compelled to introspect on ways of living — and travel ‘inwards’.

I waded into writing on the environment following this personal tragedy because I’d felt I could breathe only by struggling back up to the ‘surface’. While growing up, I’d observed that same response in my stoic grandfather, who was a renowned science writer. That awareness, alongside the gentle stories I heard from my mother who’d point at nests in our garden and explain how bird parents take care of their young till they are strong enough to fly solo, set me free as I switched tracks from advertising to journalism after college — pushing to tell untold, unheard, ‘unpopular’ stories about those whose lives we privileged, urban folks are so disconnected from.

Traversing Goa Through the Betim Ferry (2010)

I stationed myself in Goa for two months on an environment fellowship in 2010, reporting on the coastal concerns of India’s smallest state. I went behind the scenes, lived like a local, used unreliable public transport, met activists, editors, got accepted among local reporters, and interviewed the then chief minister. But the big story came when I saw growing protests against mining. An academic shared information over delicious fish thali meals and connected me to a tribal activist who took me to his village in south Goa. I ate the watery dal-rice his family offered and slept with them on the floor, looking up at a starry sky. The sheltered city girl in the middle of a forest: I didn’t know what creepy-crawlies would feast on me that dark night. The next morning as we drove around, we saw the mining dust settled on leaves, like dried blood. Once back in Delhi, I interviewed ministers — as well as the top companies making more profits from mining than the entire state’s revenue — on the illegalities. From the ground up to policy level, I’d traversed all kinds of transport systems and perspectives in six weeks. The story was done.

The Betel Plants of Odisha’s Threatened Vine Fields (2011)

In a classic battle of development versus environment, the tussle between local communities and the South Korean steel giant POSCO took me across the country to examine the Forest Rights Act in Bhubaneswar a year later. The journey began with a customary heatstroke and, on recovery, the tracing of a controversial leader of the anti-POSCO movement living in the forest. On the long, sun-drenched trek through villages, where I was fed by a kind family in their modest hut, my photographer-colleague and I encountered lazy puppies, elusive baby lambs, hyper roosters and amused village folk. I interviewed members of the movement deep within the thick and sunny jungle and tracked the disintegrated members of the community living in transit camps. In our spare time, my Odia photographer-friend and I bonded over his hometown and culture as he showed me around popular city temples while we chewed on Odisha’s signature paan (betel leaf) and chhena poda, a local cheesecake. It’s rare to find a true-blue Odia without a betel leaf in the mouth, and, in the final round, fish and betel won over steel.

India’s Longest Train Journey Through the Thaan of Koli Aai (2014)

I embarked the Vivek Express from Dibrugarh in Assam — India’s tea city — where a visit to the sacred Koli Aai Thaan near the Brahmaputra river involved several cups of brew, a walk with amused little girls living around the thaan (a place of pilgrimage), and learning about the legend of Koli Aai (“black mother”). As the 2011-launched train (named after Swami Vivekananda) chugged along the entire east coast, we arrived at the southern tip of Kanyakumari five days later. Taking in a view of India’s diversity and inequality over a 4,000-plus kilometre stretch, I forgot about missing showers and nutritious food. Home became a berth in the two-tier AC compartment adjacent to the general ones where 200-300-odd migrants, travellers, students, and labourers were stuffed into a space for 70. Writing a socio-economic travelogue of this journey as a cover story for my magazine joined me in spirit to my grandfather’s long stint with the Indian railways and his book on it for children. A heartening reader response from a middle-aged official in Kerala’s health department (who phoned to say the story reminded him of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar) struck up a warm new friendship.

Ice Fishing at Lahti (110 kms from Helsinki), Finland (2012)

When five of us journalists were invited to a water management conference in Helsinki, the hotel’s housekeeping politely told us we could drink water straight from the bathroom tap. This was the kind of example Finland was setting with its water management systems. The capital of Finland had picture-postcard architecture and serenity, and a first-of-its-kind walk-through into the echo chambers of a music hall in the city of Lahti (where the traditional ice fishing sport is held at its restored lake). Here, during my first trip out of India, I felt brave enough to try reindeer meat, drink a bottle of Riesling every evening and sing rambunctious Punjabi songs with my companions while prancing downtown at night. It also connected me to my father’s sea-faring profession — Finland was the only country where he hadn’t dropped anchor.

‘Bicycle Diaries’ at the Charles River in Cambridge (2018)

A morning of many an awakening at the picturesque Charles river in Cambridge (Massachusetts) was part of a life full of breezy bicycle rides. I arrived at Harvard as a Nieman fellow with two packed bags and an open mind. As the “brown girl at Brown Street”, my days were filled with chores, dates, exercise, joyrides, classes, seminars, giving talks, sharing life stories…and “keeping space for serendipity”, as our curator said, with 23 other counterparts from around the world. A classmate joked: “Shalini’s bicycle is chained to her bed.”

The bicycle became an extension of my feet. But if this contraption that burns no fuel except body fat became one highlight of my year, the others included theatre classes, the nip of the autumn air and my trip to Mexico. While boating in city lakes, gulping chilli-rimmed street drinks, exploring architecture of the century-old post office, touring museums, listening to street singers and sampling street snacks, I found a bit of India in Mexico — generous sunshine, warm people and spicy food.

Love Regained in Canada (2018)

The key to unlocking the heart is love. This (he)art installation made out of different locks for those “hippy of the heart” was part of a walking tour on indie art and culture at Toronto’s Distillery District. Transformed by living alone in a new country, surviving a serious flu (and my cooking), studying theatre, falling in love, travelling solo… I took a longer detour through Ontario back to India. My aunt in Toronto invited me to spend a part of the famed North American summer with my cousin and her as I explored old family ties. Aunt cooked for us, read out her favourite Proust passages over wine, listened to my lament about lost loves, and shared family history. Seeing tears roll down when I bid her goodbye, despite her stoic persona, made me realise my journey was all about the heart — and perhaps that’s what matters in the end.

Coming Full Circle in China (2018)

If travel takes you away, food brings you home. Familiar flavours — piquant pani puri, Mom’s buttery stuffed parathas, masala dosa, Parle-G biscuits dipped in chai — comprised my welcome back in India from Harvard for several months. At the end of the same year, a week-long road trip organised by the Chinese government through Guizhou — less than 1,000 kilometres from the now-controversial city of Wuhan — awaited us 10 Indian journalists. The trip consisted of visits to China’s “big data industry park”, the Baling River Bridge, Huangguoshu waterfall, and museums showcasing history, culture, costumes. Traditional meals on display in a restaurant inside the Guizhou Intangible Cultural Heritage Museum, located in Guiyang, included fried insects, but we were also served pork, beef and fish.

A tightly controlled itinerary with no access to Google or WhatsApp plunged us into another world. The Chinese, as a way to remain fit, rarely serve dessert. They view food as medicine, consider red an auspicious colour, and believe in the full circle of life, a symbol that shows up in their round dining tables and work schedule formats. “We end where we begin,” a Chinese official told me rather sagely.

Back Home in Delhi with the Farmers of Yamuna (2019)

Deepened by a decade of travel, I would now come to journey in my backyard, with, as Proust said, “new eyes”. Travel brings new sights, sounds and smells, and reporting (or the art of listening and observing) deepens that experience. It was a revelation to discover disparate groups of farmers and stumble upon small patches of their fecund fields, right in the heart of India’s capital city. Delhi was historically known for its cultivation of sugarcane and watermelon, which have all disappeared today due to rapid urbanisation. I went into areas of the city I’d never been to before — some 10 kilometres, others 50 kilometres away — dragging a friend along at times as a token male companion in deserted or treacherous areas.

As the Fisherfolk’s River Blends into the Sea (2019)

In less than three decades, 80 per cent of the human-induced pollution in the entire Yamuna emanated from the tiny (2 per cent) part of it that flows in Delhi. Corruption and lack of political will are apparent in how Delhi has treated the river body that supplies a large part of its drinking water, and one that has sustained so many different communities over the decades. The damage done to the river, pronounced a “sewer line” by the authorities themselves, has not only killed aquatic life and fish but also decimated the livelihood of several communities around it. The river is said to be slowly recuperating during the lockdown.

This foray led me back to bond with the city where I was born and where I grew up as I delved into its history, documented its present and posed questions for the future. Without reporting, one would be no more than a tourist, and without travel, a writer would be desk bound. As a traveller, you become someone else for a while. Does that mean I’m not happy being who I am? On the contrary, different perspectives feed into my understanding of the self.

In a recent conversation, a friend asked, “Which is your favourite place?”

Me: “I haven’t seen the whole world to decide that.”

“Come on, there must be one place you love going to…?”

“You carry a piece of everywhere you’ve been to,” I replied, remembering what activist Naomi Klein had once said in a lecture — “Home is everywhere.”

I hope my 250-gram heart is strong enough to hold love for an entire planet.

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