When your cab breaks down barely five minutes into the journey, you know that it's going be an eventful one.
As the replacement cab arrives, streaks of pre-dawn orange colour the sky and we rush to the Imliban Bus Stop. The bus to Mahabubnagar that we were scheduled to board left without us just minutes ago, surprisingly on time. Another one is ready and we soon leave.
We share an assorted breakfast - of strawberries, biscuits and puri. The changing milieu outside our windows keeps some of us engrossed, others fall asleep…
The rush upon reaching the bus stop at Mahabubnagar is in sharp contrast to the quiet of the journey. We are first ushered to the CPI (M) office. Pictures of former leaders adorn the walls, among them towers the garlanded image of the revolutionary Che Guevara, showing at once that he is of them, but also above them. While we take in the details of the room, others walk in and we learn about migration, water shortage, poverty and other problems that the district has been facing.
Guerrillero Heroico, the famous photograph of Che Guevara
Children outside the office
We scribble furiously in our notepads, a name here, a keyword there, trying to keep up with the flow of the narrative, eager not to miss out any vital detail. In so doing, some of us can already visualize the first drafts of interesting stories.
We travel in the shared autos, three at the back, two beside the auto driver in the front and reach the residence of our next host - Dr. V Sreenathachary, Assistant Professor at Palamuru University. We make ourselves comfortable as he tells us about his two world records. We are offered tea in steel tumblers as we listen, rapt. Our water canteens refilled, we are taken to the University. Organized here is an informal interaction with some faculty members and students who share stories of life and livelihood in the district. Their anecdotes give us interesting leads on our different stories.
Mahabubnagar was earlier known as Rukmammapeta and Palamuru. At another time, it was known as Cholawadi or Land of the Cholas. It was only in 1890 that its present name was accepted, in honor of the Sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mahbub Ali Khan Asaf Jah VI.
It is not necessary that place etymologies follow similar trajectories. The Pillalamarri, for instance, which is where we are going next. 'Pillalu' meaning children and 'marri' meaning banyan tree, it has been named rightly and the whole area of the tree extends over three acres of land. Under the shade of this majestic, 500-year old tree, we had an unconventional newsroom meeting, discussing the probable merits of our promising ideas.
Driving 20 kilometers from Palamuru, we reached Manyamkonda, to the temple of Sri Venkateswara Swamy where a folk ceremony – a jatra – was to take place. We were to witness the raw deal, animal sacrifices and all, and some of us were rather apprehensive about what we would see or experience, once there. Quite clearly, none of us expected a nonchalant ambience. The villagers had retired for the night, under tents in the temple courtyard, the ceremony being long completed. As the temple was located on a hill, we felt lucky to have even reached the top. We missed the jatra but the view of the town lights in the distance under an umbrella of darkness, more than compensates.
The Model Town Village of Hajepalli in Farooqnagar Mandal is celebrated for its sanitation. The sun had risen many hours ago, but the villagers were slowly waking up, close to noon; Filling pots of water as they posed for our cameras or answered our questions, asking some of their own. Whether it was because it was a Friday and the beginning of the weekend or because nearly half the day was over and hence the lethargy or every day is similarly relaxed in a village, it was difficult to understand.
As we cross National Highway 7, we see how it not only divides those who might earlier have been neighbors, but also cuts across the wilderness, as the only sign of Development in an untamed expanse. Along with the neighboring village of Mudireddipally and the tribal hamlet of Gundlagadda Thanda, Polepally is the site of an SEZ project, covering more than 1000 acres.
The villagers are happy to share their experiences with us. Most of us try to listen even if we cannot understand Telugu, but some of us are distracted by the cameras in our hands. Suddenly, the quiet group around us turns into a melee. The women seem to be disturbed by something, visibly agitated. Is it something we have said? But the conversation seemed polite, if not amiable. Then, was it something we did? We did take pictures without permission, I thought, guiltily. It wasn't that, either, thankfully.
They mistook one of our reporters for a supervisor of the SEZ project, especially one they had particularly disliked. It took the better of our persuasive abilities to tell them that our friend is only a doppelgänger, an innocent student.
Our stop for the night was in the village Atmakuru. We were a lively bunch during dinner, recalling the day's events and exchanging our observations. It was time for another newsroom meeting, this time, under a bright starry sky.
We stop at the Priyadarshini Jurala Project, a replica of the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam, 17 kilometers away from Atmakuru. The dam has more than 70 gates and five hydroelectric gates for producing electricity. There are many irrigation and hydro electric projects, which were constructed across River Krishna in the state but this project is the first one among them. Although it is located in Mahabubnagar district, it also supplies water for irrigation to thousands of acres of agricultural land and drinking water to many villages and towns across the state.
History is an odd subject. It attempts to bring us stories from the past, stories that need to be read and heard, but amidst the multitude of stories, it forgets that there is no correct story. Each story is vital to the teller, who then brings her own thoughts and perceptions in the telling. Our visit to the Gadwal Fort reinforced this idea.
The Gadwal Samsthan was ruled by a local ruler called Somashekar Ananda Reddy, fondly called Somanadri. The Samsthan developed around a fort built by the ruler. Our two groups came back with two intriguing stories about the Fort, two contradictory accounts. That the Fort was built by the king to safeguard his kingdom and a human sacrifice was essential for the purpose, was the common thread in both accounts. While one group was told that an impregnated woman was the victim of the sacrifice, the other group talked of an unmarried young man. Which story was true, we wondered. Perhaps that didn't matter because it could be possible that both were true. What of the possibility that there was an unheard third version, which could be closer to the truth than the two we had heard? What is this elusive thing called the truth and why do we pursue it so desperately and determinedly?
Parts of the Gadwal Fort are now used as Maharani Adi Laxmi Devamma Degree and Junior colleges. With about ten functional classrooms, this institution (affiliated to the Osmania University) caters to more than 2000 students. Students from nearby Alampur also come here to study, since there are no colleges in their constituency.
Remains of old cobwebs accommodating new ones, hang in the corners of the walls in the physics laboratory. The instruments are locked away in the cupboards, either due to lack of use or overuse, it is hard to tell. A part of the structure was renovated recently, I am told. The blue color of the walls is the only testament to that fact because apart from that, not much looks different. Patches of the previously blue wall reveal a shade of yellow, like an incompletely peeled orange. There are challenges to the revival of historical monuments, a teacher at the college tells me. I agree. Should the old remain as it was, in nostalgia of past glory? Or should we restore and maybe renew, because what's lost has been long gone, anyway?
We are going to the Mandal Office of Gattu Mandal, which has the jurisdiction of 42 villages. According to governmental records, these villages have the worst sanitation and lowest literacy levels in the country.
Getting lost, in space and time, would be very easy here. If you didn't have a watch, it would be quite impossible to tell the minutes from the hours; telling time through the length and position of shadows would be of no help either, since the sun is overhead for major part of the day. In the moving vehicle, I can feel the hot wind on my face; there are few trees but the leaves rustle on none.
As we cross this desolate terrain, I remember words from Eliot’s The Waste Land,
"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?
Son of man, you cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone, no sound of water."
The rural countryside is an ideal landscape to observe and study contrast. Driving through this drought-hit, semi-arid plain, we come across fields of paddy, so richly green, it's an eye-sore. We pass some unfinished modern structures, perhaps a school or an office, who can tell. We can see cattle grazing, rather fishing for grass under the rocks and boulders. The shepherd seems to be playing the game of hide and seek, and clearly, winning.
Finally, we see some shanties, makeshift dwellings with doors of wood, half broken, and thatched roofs, denoting a neighborhood. Motorbikes from Hero Honda are parked outside a few. We reach the Mandal office and talk to some villagers. We notice that every one of them, young or old, carries on his person, a cell phone. The paradoxes of necessity, the realities of modernity and of existence.
We start early next morning. The sun is rising in the distance, but when I look into the viewfinder of my friend's camera, mounted with a telephoto lens, I can see it much closer. The orange and yellow hues from the sun obliterate the darker stretches in the sky. Pleasant and cheerful, the continuous chatter of the birds and the chirping of the crickets - the elements of a memorable day.
We are taken to a sugar factory, to understand and appreciate the working of India Inc. Industry is the backbone of the economy, we've been told ad nauseam. But industries cannot be located in cities or other heavily populated areas, for very many reasons. And yet, they are indispensable. The alternative is to have them in remote areas, away from the city, in the countryside – the synonyms of villages.
The monstrous factories thus, stand sprawled on the rural land, blowing hot and cold.
As we wait at the Mahabubnagar Bus Stand, we have another journey that we must take, before our trip comes to an end. What follows, will be another set of stories. Perhaps life is a tale of endless travel, from one place, space and time to another.