In all of eight months that I’ve been here at the Asian College of Journalism, never before had I gone out for reporting without an interpreter. I’m not a south Indian and no, I don’t even vaguely understand Tamil unlike many of my colleagues here. So naturally, I’d always pitch stories that wouldn’t need translations.
On 7 March 2016, I was ready with scores of potential reporting ideas, but Radhakrishnan sir, perhaps had something else in mind. After suggesting five stories, I gave up since he was busy shooting them down like out for a hunt.
My assignment was to report from Chennai’s second largest dumpyard, in the Perungudi neighbourhood. I sprang to action and called up a friend, our rendezvous was fixed at noon the next day. He would accompany me to the dumpyard, since he was from Chennai and knew the place pretty well.
As fate would have it, he cancelled on me at 11:30 with no time to call on other pretending-to-be busy people, I left for the dumpyard alone. It was a bad day, I could tell. With the sun shining in all its glory, the initial signs didn’t look promising at all.
I took an auto who ripped me off by charging 150 bucks, naturally took the longer route acting completely oblivious to my repeated attempts to make him understand the GPS route.
He stopped infront of a school, which seemed totally out of place given it was barely 100 meters from the dumpyard. I walked towards the dumpyard, stood there had a good look and the trouble I was in sunk in within seconds. The place was bustling with trucks full of garbage and workers coming out shot looks I couldn’t decipher. I walked back, called my friend again; hoping for some divine intervention, but to no avail.
He was in a fix of his own, I abandoned the idea altogether and dashed towards the colony next to it and thankfully, the first man I approached could speak Hindi, his name was Santosh. “I joined three days back only, I repair the rollers that level the garbage inside.” He advised me to meet the supervisor before talking to people around.
The supervisor was of no help, he denied me entry without a permit from Chennai Corporation. Nevertheless, I took pictures of the garbage trucks and all the other not-so-important subjects; I needed something if not the garbage piles in my story.
After almost a dozen failed attempts of sign language conversations, I went inside a random house to ask for water and sought permission to click few pictures from their rooftop. They obliged but the view didn’t.
He was reading a pamphlet in English, the guy who helped me seek entry in one of the houses closest to the dumpyard. This endeavour yielded success as he along with his uncle helped me understand their ordeal, in almost all possible broken English phrases and dumb charades.
They helped me get on their water tank from where I finally clicked a few satisfactory pictures; enough to substantiate the story.
Bidding P. Shivaraman and his uncle adieu whose name I have shamelessly forgotten, I was stopped by some men who turned out to be supervisor’s informants or engineers; I couldn’t tell. Someone had apparently complained of my meandering ways and they were sent to assess the ‘damage’. Before I could jump the bandwagon of ‘ You don’t know who my father is’; (a trademark trouble-shooter for us Northerners) the one whose house I went last came out and handled them while I slipped out.
I talked to a number of people in those three hours and some even shared pictures of toxic fumes arising from the poles around and showed me their medical bills. Few asked me if this would change something, I wanted to say no; after all this was purely for my academic pursuit who was I fooling.
“It has to begin from somewhere, this is just that sir, ” this is all I could manage amidst those sunken eyes.
The day ended in jubilation, I went out celebrating for I had gathered a lot from my poor dumb charades’ skills.
It is amazing how paradoxical our existence and experiences our. Only a few hours before I was bogged down by their unfortunate tale and had left promising them of a change that might not come at all or might, dragging its feet which it has been for the past six years.