As I get up to leave her home, this woman without a husband touches my elbow. She asks, what are you going to do for us? Will anything come to us from your visit?
I'm not surprised, because I've been asked this before. Many times. People asked in Tamil Nadu after the tsunami, Orissa after the cyclone, Gujarat after the killing of 2002, Kutch after the quake, Dharavi after the 1992-93 riots ... and this time, it's in a Vidarbha village, this widow of a farmer. One of those farmer suicides, you know, 1300 and counting since June 2005?
And her questions: By now, it's one of those little realities of life, it goes like this. You write for a living. You travel in India in pursuit of stories, of things to write about. You sit down, you ask questions and listen to people. You can bet that somebody will ask you one question in turn. "What are you going to do for me?"
They want to know.
What do you answer? What do I answer? After all, I have no bank of jobs to distribute, nor a pile of money stashed away. That's even if I wanted to which I don't; even if I thought this was a good thing which I don't: the simple truth is that I don't have these things. So I say just that much: I'm not here to give you things. I'm here to learn about you, to understand your situation and write about it so more people understand. All I can do is write.
It's all I can say too. Like every other time, this woman too listens, as I say it. But also like the others, I don't think she is satisfied.
Tell you the truth, I'm not satisfied either. Yes, I write. Yes, I'm conscious of the power and reach of writing, aware of the times that something I've written has actually persuaded readers to do things. Like an article I did in the mid-90s: it generated a contribution that, I know, made the difference between malnutrition and good health for about one hundred tribal children in Orissa. Because it bought them one egg a week.
All of that.
Yet is that enough? Is it enough to go travelling to various parts of this country and write articles about my experiences? Does it really help those I write about, in any meaningful way?
I suspect I'll never find an adequate answer to those questions. There will always be people to ask, what are you going to do for me? I will always have to offer only what I do about writing.
And yet, there is something greatly stimulating in the challenge that's implicit there. How do I write to make people think about what I write? How do I write so that when I tell these people that all I can do is write, that takes on meaning?
Blogging, oddly enough, offers part of an answer. Before blogs, when I made trips like these, I would sit down at the end of each day, or every couple of days, and write notes in my diary. Much later, when I was ready to write articles about the experience, I'd consult the notes. Always, I found that the very act of writing those notes down had sort of cemented the events in my brain, made me think about any larger significance and commit that to paper too. That was the true value of the diary.
But I also found that with this not-quite immediate writing, I missed some of the detail and colour that's indispensable to journalism, and certainly to the way I write. All over again, it's the old story about the editor who would send his reporters out to cover something, saying: "Don't come back without the name of the dog!" Get the last detail was what he meant. Report it, use it to round out your writing. I've always known the worth of that, but depending on memory-fueled end-of-the-day notes is not the most reliable way to catch it all.
So now I carry a small shirt-pocket pad and a pen wherever I go. "Don't Leave Home Without It" indeed: these two tools are now fundamental to my work. I whip them out whenever I need to note down some detail.
And I couple that with blogging so that I don't lose the detail. To me, this is the value of blogging. So my blog reports carry the immediacy of my experience, captured before some of it leaks out of my mind. Being so, they are also necessarily rawer than I'd like. But that's OK. It's in my subsequent writing on the subject -- after I've had time to reflect and digest -- that I try to do the thinking, the drawing on other material, that's required for more substantial reporting.
So with pad, pen and blog, I find my writing has turned into a generally two-step process. This doesn't mean I always publish two reports on a given subject; it just means my writing does that two-step. One immediate. One more thought-through.
And the result is that I believe this process has made me a more thorough writer, a better writer, than I used to be. And while it still doesn't satisfy me, there's a sense in which that answer carries a little more weight today than it might have before.
What does all this mean? To my readers, or to the woman with whom I began this article, I imagine very little. Except for this: writing about the subjects I choose -- whether farmers committing suicides or the tsunami -- is all about credibility. If I hope that my writing will have some effect, that it will make some difference to that woman, my currency must be my credibility. My feeling is, the way I write these days is the way to stock up on that currency. And that means something to me. Not least because of this related feature: it gives people a voice where they might have had none. This is no light responsibility, and it serves too, to drive towards credibility.
Yes, the question that woman asked still gnaws at me. But yes, too, all I can do is write.