failing to be kevin carter

As a group of young researches, we set out to rural Odisha, all excited to do ‘fieldwork’, having rigorously read ethics notes and guidelines and leading ourselves to believe what we could or could not do as researchers. All set, we start meeting people and their families—families who had suffered massive losses during cyclones, and deaths, and those who didn’t even need the cyclone to put them in the conditions they were probably in already and families who are struggling everyday in the anticipation of yet another wrath of nature they are hearing rumors about. We wanted to find out about what happens to those  families who are moved from their villages and homes where they had lived for years, to locations kms away in the hope of taking them out of harms way. And we met many heroes, those who have been fighting for themselves and their communities, and we found ourselves inspired by their courage. Each one opened up their personal lives to us. But of course, we being researchers stayed bound by our interview instrument, and even as we took copious notes, we stayed as disconnected as we ought to.

except today. today a mother lost a three day old baby. a baby who she had delivered herself, alone. in a house that is three houses down where we spent an entire day doing a ‘focus group discussions’ with the villagers. in a village full of people, of which none belonged to her caste. so no one touched her. or her dead baby. or her two other one and three year old kids who walked around with no clothes asking us with all smiles to take their pictures even as their mother sat with a dead being in her hands.

her alcoholic husband, who she had managed to bring out on bail after leasing a small piece of land for 10000 rupees, came visiting her this afternoon, and left soon after to a town close by as her wife suffered and cared for their coughing baby. Not having eaten much herself since the delivery two days ago, she decided to walk to the closest medical store to get some medicines for her child, only to find her dead when she got back. And yet the villagers stood around—as they did before with no action.

What would a professional do? Stay of course, to get a good case study in its entire truth, but not intervene to change the normal course of action. I would too, except that I couldn’t.

How could I just stand there and watch people wait for her uninterested relatives to come to do the last rites, as the dead baby decayed in her mothers lap. While we thought of all possible things that could be done, we could hardly really do anything! We stood there for hours, standing, waiting for her relatives, hoping someone would find some ice to keep her baby on. Someone to get her food, just so that she herself could survive (if not for herself at least for her two other kids). We had two cabs with other Odiya drivers, but could we offer their cars to this ‘low cast’ woman? Could we force them knowing or unknowingly to help her go to a hospital? Could we offer her some money, and leave her pray to more thieves, or leave some with some respected head of the village, who wasn’t even present despite all those hours? whatever though, we ought to do something. and something we did. still hoping it was for her good.

and now many hours later, i sit here and wonder if it would have made a difference if her cast was considered before moving her to this new relocation site? Would she be better off in the old village where she lived in a house much smaller and broken by the cyclone, but with her kins? what goes on in the decision making processes in archaic cultural context such as these? what are the various risks created and recreated despite all good intentions? how could those be avoided? While I have questions, i so far only sit and wonder…

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