In Hope And The Lack Thereof: A Reporter's Diary From Amethi, Raebareli And Varanasi

As the Lok Sabha elections fill Indians with hope again, Outlook's Tanul Thakur traces his experience talking to locals in two prestigious seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Photo by Vikram Sharma/Outlook

Kharinja. If I’ve to sum up my reporting experience this election—something I’ve not done before—then it’d be that word. A word whose meaning I didn’t know, a word that deflated and angered the villagers of Raebareli and Amethi. When Rajmati, a farmer, told me that she doesn’t even have a kharinja, I first thought she referred to a farming tool. A grave tone, I thought, must correspond to a huge demand—it wasn’t. Kharinja, in fact, is a need so basic that many city slickers don’t even pause to ponder it: a side road.   

The villagers of Poore Hundaliyan, in Amethi, had complained about their kharinja for years. Nothing happened. When it rained, their lanes flooded. During medical emergencies, they had to shift their relatives to a different house or carry them on a cot, as the knee-length water forbade vehicular access. Living less than a km away from the house of the current MP, Smriti Irani, they slammed her indifference. They had gotten so starved for a sympathetic ear that the presence of a reporter—a listener—animated them. I began interviewing one villager, Satyendra Tiwari, but soon, several of them joined the conversation, sharing one problem after the other. And every 15 minutes or so, as if checking their own demands and desires, they said: “We don’t want a lot: just road, electricity, water.”   

Hapless Indians expect the bare minimum from their leaders—and they still get less than that. Such moments made me realise the monumental importance of Indian elections. That this great equaliser was their big chance, their only chance. Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” During Indian elections, a stranger comes to town. And that stranger becomes a symbol of hope: Here’s someone who will listen to us; here’s someone who can forward—maybe solve—our problems. So, several villagers asked me, “Sir, can you do something about it?” They opened their hearts and homes—and spoke and spoke: sometimes, it seemed, just to themselves, their answers functioning as a trauma response. 

It was impossible to remain indifferent to such situations. They constituted, for me, a ‘Swades-like moment’. Remember that scene from the 2004 drama, where a kid runs beside a train, shouting, “Paani lo, paani, 25 paise ka ek glass”? He keeps shouting; no one listens. He then sees Mohan (Shah Rukh Khan) and says, “Saheb, ek glass paani lo na.” Mohan looks at the boy, nods, buys water, and drinks it to the last drop. The train leaves; the boy disappears from his sight. Mohan remains seated, silent and frozen, and then, the tears trickle. What’s going on in his mind: despair, confusion, guilt?   

Even though I primarily write on cinema and pop culture, I, like most Indians, know the many misfortunes plaguing our people. But, over the last few weeks, numerous charged complaints made me see my country in a light I had perhaps not seen before. The elections intensified that feeling, as it’s a rare time that fills regular Indians with hope. And it was that hope—that fleeting feeling which even they thought would fade—that felt more heartbreaking than their despair.  


Some poignant experiences had nothing to do with the story I was chasing. Last month, in April, I was in Daalmandi, a Muslim-dominated locality in Varanasi, trying to understand the effects of the Gyanvapi controversy on the locals. Several of them refused to talk to me. I finally found an old man, wearing a kurta-pyjama and a prayer cap, who agreed. He was too deep in his own issues though—related to a familial property dispute—to talk about the city’s changing contours. But as he recounted his struggles (“I don’t even have a home, I’m also human”)—at around three in the afternoon, in a gully overflowing with buyers, shops, bikes—he wept. I stood there, numb. Should I comfort him? Should I continue to ask questions? Should I apologise? “Look at me. I don’t have enough money to buy a watch or a ring,” he showed his wrist, as if fact checking his own penury. “I can’t buy a mobile, I can’t buy good clothes.” I couldn’t help but apologise, then tried my best: “Tell me something: Are you chewing Banarasi paan? What’s so special about it?” The distraction helped. He smiled.  


Indian men, or men in general, don’t usually cry—definitely not in public. But like the old man in Daalmandi, Jaffar, in Raebareli, also shed tears describing an incident that got him jailed. It was a scuffle between the Hindus and Muslims on the day of the Ram mandir consecration in front of a mosque where, he repeated more than once, “I wasn’t even there, sir”. As the elections enter the last phase, these names and faces come back to me, like a series of snapshots flagging (basic) needs: a broken tap, a clean toilet, potable water, human dignity, a kharinja, a job. Hundreds of km away, I can do nothing but hope for them. I also hope to meet them again and hope that, unlike the last time, they are in a better place, in a better country.  

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