2013 was a lean year in Surguja. Nobody wanted to talk to us. I could hardly blame them. How often have I wanted to respond to a survey, after all? But I really needed somebody to talk to my colleagues and me. Anybody. Preferably people who had spoken to us two years previously when we had first visited but, at this point, I was not choosy. It was turning out to be so lean that I was spending half the day walking around the villages with people sending us away, and the remainder resting under mango trees. The best shade is to be had under mango trees but some caution is in order to avoid the large, vicious ants.
Eventually, to encourage people to talk with us, we decided on photographing people who we had interviewed and giving each household five printed photographs. This worked surprisingly well.
I first met Rukmaniya on a hot May afternoon when I sat down to interview her husband. I didn’t know he was already a little drunk when I started talking with him, but I could see he was getting steadily more so as we spoke. But it was my first interview of the day- although not my first drunk respondent- and I was not returning home without one. We spoke. It was simultaneously annoying and amusing, with Sukhram in such a tearing hurry that he was answering my questions before I could ask them. He had an equally drunk visitor who had promised to buy a chicken to be shared between them, and Sukhram was understandably impatient to get going. But I was equally stubborn about getting my answers, so when Sukhram told me to hurry up, I retorted sharply that I would do so if he would put his mind to answering. I did not usually make it a habit of retorting thus but I was determined to have my interview.
It was around this point that Rukmaniya emerged from the house and saw us. Usha, my colleague, translated from Kurukh as Rukmaniya shouted at Sukhram “what are you doing?” He replied “talking to this woman”. I asked him the next question “how well do you get along amongst yourselves?” Having overheard me, it was Rukmaniya who spoke. I twisted around to listen to her. Sukhram’s faint answer that they got along very well indeed was drowned out by her reply “look at him, he has been drinking! How do you think that we can get along when he is like this?”
I was surprised. At her vehement interruption, her evident distress, and her very public proclamation. Her reply compelled me to listen. Keeping half-an-eye on Sukhram, who was seeking any opportune moment to run, I replied to Rukmaniya that I wanted to talk to her- would she wait while I finished talking with her husband? She was silent but agreed when I repeated my question. I rushed the remaining interview with Sukhram in five minutes, which was about as long as he remained comprehensible.
We waited now for Rukmaniya to finish her household work and eventually settled under some trees to talk to avoid Sukhram who was inside their house. She was by now quiet- which I suspected was her natural demeanour- and veered between this and an indignant tone, almost as if she expected me to challenge her narrative. She teared up as she described how difficult it was to manage and then, embarrassed, would laugh to cover up her emotionally charged statements. I worried that Rukmaniya’s speech would come to a halt when a neighbour settled herself down to listen. Instead, in reply to her neighbour’s query about who we were, she said simply that we were there to listen to her sukh-dukh (joys-and-sorrows) and continued.
I had to smile as she described her sons. Gone were the quiet, indignant and embarrassed tones of earlier, replaced with intense pride tinged simultaneously with worry and hope. When I took out my camera to photograph them afterwards I asked whether she would like to be photographed alone, with her family, or a couple of each.
“I’ll call my sons? Can you wait?”
I was used to this hurried scramble at the end of interviews, as people gathered their flock to this makeshift ‘studio’- an opportunity not to be passed up especially in the more remote villages. “Of course, I’ll wait.” Nobody heard Usha or me say “take your time” as she shouted to her sons to wash their faces and put on clean shirts.
The family stood in a straight line, faces almost grim in the wooden stillness of their pose. I had, by then, encountered this gravitas with which people approached this event on numerous occasions. As I started to pull the camera down for a minute to lighten the tenor of the moment, Rukmaniya gestured with a turn of her head. Her eldest son scowled. She gazed at him steadily till he sighed, swallowed, and shaking his head, went into the house. He emerged a minute later, jaw clenched, resumed his position, his back ramrod straight, now gazing ahead almost unseeingly. I waited, camera halfway up. Sukhram emerged. The liquor had won a battle with his shirt and he was now bare-chested. At Rukmaniya’s shouted instructions he returned inside, and again emerged comically struggling to button his shirt which was askew in the constant breeze of this hilltop village. It was difficult not to smile at his antics but I was watching their son. I didn’t need a translation to understand the muttered words and faint distaste he directed at Sukhram.
I raise the camera, mistakenly clicking before everyone is quite ready. Sukhram, smiling, looks towards the already ordered group, still pulling together the flapping edges of his shirt. Rukmaniya, at the far edge, the end of her saree wound tightly around her waist and tucked in the front, stares straight at me, expressionlessly. Directly in front of me is their young son, struggling with the effort to smile.