The summer of 2004
I will never forget the scorching summer of 2004, while my colleague and I were travelling in Orissa (now Odisha). The heat pinned us down even as we attempted get out of bed and temperatures climbed impatiently up to 420C well before noon.
Odisha is a unique state of contrasts. Incredibly beautiful, incredibly divine, incredibly backward, and incredibly poor – divinity emanates from the temples that dot the countryside and the towns, while poverty and under-development co-exist cheek by jowl.
That year, that day
An air of tranquility washed over us as we drove through the state. I remember a feeling of peace even as the extreme discomfort of the heat bore down on me heavily. Our work involved travelling deep into the interiors of rural Odisha to research and write about HIV/AIDS interventions and we were told to start our days early and spend the afternoons indoors in whichever village we found ourselves.
The heat was intense enough to swoop down and tie you up in a steamy tent and make you breathless till you felt that life would swiftly go out of you. As a small concession, we were given an air-conditioned vehicle to travel from one village to another. At one village, I saw a man suffering from sun-stroke being brought out and buckets of water being poured on him to prevent him from being roasted alive. And this where drinking water was scarce. Should I have felt guilty about travelling in comfort when I was there to write about people like him? I silenced my conscience telling myself I hadn’t gone there to die after all.
Midway through our stint, at the end of a day which had been unbearably, stiflingly hot, we came to a village. Entrances to most Indian villages are barely enough for two bullocks joined by a yoke to pass through; this village was no different. This meant we had to stop our vehicle and proceed by foot. Passing the customary temple, we wound our way around the haphazard lanes, avoiding heaps of surface-dried dung and huge, well-fed flies. Scrawny children played in this filth, scarcely affected by the heat. I love Indian villages now, but back then, I remember feeling more than mild discomfort.
The coordinator of the HIV/AIDS project we were there to write about, whispered in my ear, “Ma’am, two AIDS patients live in this village. But we will have to wait till nightfall to meet them. Let’s look around till then.”
So we looked around – at the poverty, the emaciated old people who sat at the entrance to their homes, and at the women who looked strangely alone and worried. We noticed there were no young men in the village and asked about it. The coordinator said, “They all migrate for work in this season, leaving their wives, children and parents behind.”
Ironically, while the men were away, a meeting was being held in the panchayat hall to demonstrate the use of condoms to women. There were no men in the meeting and the women sat shyly, sarees drawn over their faces, as the woman volunteer held a ‘wooden demonstration model’ and nonchalantly drew a condom over it. None of the women even looked up!!
The seed for Journalists against TB is sown
Darkness fell, and we were furtively taken to an empty house outside the village, where three people, a man accompanied by his father, and a young woman had been ‘brought’ to meet us like two exhibits. The man breathed in short painful gasps. Skin-covered ribs stuck out starkly on his chest and his father spoke for him as he hadn’t the energy to respond to our questions.
The woman waited inside the house and looked up as she heard us enter. Very young, probably in her early 20s, she seemed marginally better than the man but we were told she was dying of HIV related TB as well. As I spoke to her, I looked into her eyes. They reflected several emotions – bewilderment that seemed to question why she was dying for no fault of hers. Anxiety because she knew she was dying and was going to leave two little children behind. Her husband had already died after infecting her. I also saw her wince from the pain of the fever and cough that were consuming her.
But most of all I saw her puzzled. She seemed to wonder why we were there. What could we do for her? Her despair got to me. I turned away, ashamed that I was even attempting to ask her irrelevant, impertinent questions about how she contracted HIV, who gave it to her etc. Questions had no place in her life now. In fact nothing had relevance; she was dying. What could I say? Could I say I would pray for her, giving her the impression that there was nothing else that would work for her? I stumbled out of the house finding it difficult to hold back my tears. The tears came, later in my room. But so did a determination that I would do something, if not for her, at least for people like her.
That day I hated the woman’s husband – a migrant, who had infected her. Today, I don’t. Because I know that he was ignorant. Had he been aware of the dangers he had exposed himself and his wife to, he might have been careful. His choices might have been safer.
For TB, the situation is even worse – because you don’t do anything to get TB. You just breathe. This makes awareness even more vital to protect yourself. My tryst with TB began back then. It wasn’t easy to negotiate media space for TB because it was such non-issue. Back then, other than people from the programme, very few knew about or spoke about TB. At least, with the advent of HIV, it got its place under the sun, albeit merely as a co-infection.
But I persevered and one day, in frustration, after several publications had declined to take a piece I had written on TB, I decided to start my own paper! It was easy because opening one’s own paper simply meant founding a blog and feeding it with news! ‘Journalists against TB’ was born, for what it was worth, and I had kept my promise to the nameless woman in Odisha, who is probably looking down at me from wherever she is. And it was never difficult to find space again to speak about what mattered.
The TB sector welcomed me with open arms. I have seen change happening slowly, but surely and TB getting the attention it deserves. We’re not where we need to be just yet, but there is hope because there are hundreds like me who care about doing something. And they will!
Note: Journalists against TB has never been and will never be funded, in order to stay completely impartial. Travel grants have been accepted from time to time in order to build knowledge for informed writing.