The Champions of Khabar Lahariya

BY EDWIN KOO
May 10, 2010
*Special to asia!

Meet two young journalists of the award-winning newspaper and find out how they beat all odds, in order to pursue their dreams.

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Meera, 24, the assistant editor of the Banda edition, had come to the office on Sunday – a rest day – to clear some “computer work”. Accompanying Meera were her two daughters, Pryanka, 8, and Vandana, 5, both sporting boyish short-cropped hair and piercing bulbous eyes resembling their mother’s.

“I cannot devote enough time for the children. Often, the kids are asleep when I return home at 8 p.m. and leave for school at 7:30 in the morning. Sometimes, I don’t get to talk to my children for two days at a stretch,” explained Meera, who busied herself on the computer while her daughters amused themselves.

Meera comes from a Dalit family of farmers. The eldest of six sisters, she was married off at 12, while she was still in Class 7. Meera persevered against all odds to obtain a Bachelor of Arts in 2007. Unlike most other women of her community, who veil their faces at the sight of strangers, the assistant editor, barely 1.5m tall, carries herself with a steely confidence.

She had joined Khabar Lahariya in 2006 and helped pioneer its Banda edition. Three months later, she was promoted to assistant editor.

 

Meera, 24, assistant editor

Meera, 24, assistant editor


But the journey has not been easy. Her husband, who saw her higher education as a threat, once called journalists in Khabar Lahariya “barbaad”, meaning “ruined” women – a reference to the fact that several reporters have broken out of bad marriages. But Meera was patient and determined in defending her choice of career.

“Until this happened (becoming a journalist), I was known as someone’s wife, mother or daughter. But now, I have an identity of my own—I am a representative of a newspaper, and that means a lot. It feels great to be a journalist in one of the most backward and dacoit-infested regions of the state,” she said.

Meera recalls that a year after becoming a journalist, her status in the family changed – she was put in charge of her daughter’s birthday party. That had never happened before in her family, where, until then, all important matters had been handled by men.

“By becoming a journalist, I have succeeded in breaking down the patriarchal rule in my family, to some extent. I am now allowed to give my opinion about my children and their education and speak out my mind. My life has changed completely. I have gained independence, which is my biggest achievement,” she said.

Not only was she getting a monthly salary of more 3,000 rupees (US$60), her husband, previously jobless, now works as a distribution agent for the newspaper.

“Earlier, I was dependent on the men of my family financially. If I had 10 rupees in my pocket, I wouldn’t use them, but would keep them for an absolute emergency. Whenever I needed some money, I had to ask from my father-in-law. Now that I earn my own wages, I am more confident,” said Meera.

 

Computer phobia

Although India has become a global IT powerhouse, computer literacy in backwaters like Banda remains low. Every evening, it is not uncommon to see cyber cafes transformed into classrooms, packed with people eager to learn the basics of using e-mail and the Internet.

“At first, I was afraid of computers. Now I’m comfortable dealing with them. It is a big achievement for rural women to learn computer and Internet skills,” said the computer-savvy journalist.

Meera surfs the Internet regularly to scan through English-language local dailies such as Times of India and Hindustan Times. With what little English she understands, Meera would select the articles, then cut-and-paste them into Google so that they are translated into Hindi.

“I wanted to become a teacher”

Meera never really thought she would become a journalist. Her dream had been to teach – an impossible goal for a poor Dalit woman unable to bribe her way through the convoluted selection process.

“I wanted to become a teacher but soon after I started getting respect from this job, I decided this was the job I’m sticking to for good. In 2007, I applied for admission into Bachelor of Education programme. But eventually, I didn’t go for the entrance exams because I couldn’t bear to leave this job.”

Other than focusing on her journalistic work, Meera now wants to help all her younger sisters complete at least Class 12, or the equivalent of GCE “A” levels.

“I have seen the importance of education in my life. Education gives a person identity and self-esteem, so she doesn’t feel inferior to others,” she said.

 

 

Nazmeen, 21, simply crinkled her nose and smiled when asked why she doesn’t wear a burqa – a common practice among the Muslim women of Banda district. The 21-year-old university graduate doesn’t even sport a head scarf. Only a black shawl adorns her slender neck.

At university, Nazmeen had ranked among the top three percentile of her cohort. Soon after graduation, she joined Khabar Lahariya. Although the cub reporter is just three months on the job, she talks like a veteran when asked about her newspaper’s impact.

“Earlier, women in this area never spoke about their hardships or their problems. But when Khabar Lahriya came along, they are freely talking about their own problems and the problems around them. They even talk about domestic violence,” said Nazmeen.

“I am not saying that everything has changed but people are now thinking that if they do something wrong it might get published in our newspaper and this would spell trouble for them. This, in itself, is a big change.”

 

Nazmeen, 21, cub reporter

Nazmeen, 21, cub reporter

 

When she decided to become a journalist, her family threw their support behind her. Her mother and brothers were particularly supportive. Still, the more conservative among her relatives criticized her career choice and tried to talk her out of it.

“They said that journalism is ‘bad work’ for girls, and ‘good girls’ should just stay at home,” said Nazmeen.

She would have done exactly what her naysayers wanted, giving tuition to the neighbour’s children, if she hadn’t joined Khabar Lahariya.

Now Nazmeen is a prolific journalist, filing six to seven stories a week. She even illustrates some of them with her simple yet poignant drawings.

edwin kooEdwin Koo is a Singaporean photojournalist , who has been based in Nepal since September 2008. It is a labour of love to record down his experiences and fleeting thoughts , as he goes about photographing and documenting the fledgling Himalayan republic. You can also see pictures of everyday Nepal at his photoblog by the same name.