Shivdevi, glued to her mobile screen and strolling down the Nawab Tank boulevard, three kilometres from Banda city, Uttar Pradesh, at first glance seems like she owns the place. But this Shivdevi is very different from the meek woman she was almost 30 years ago. And her extraordinary journey needs to be heard and known across the country.
Back in 2011, this writer remembers Shivdevi amidst a swarm of women, dressed to the hilt and gossiping uncontrollably. That meeting was a reunion held after 20 long years.
It wasn’t a college or school reunion, but the reunion of students of a six-month intensive residential course for Dalit and Adivasi women, which changed all of their lives.
But as Shivdevi will warrant, it changed her life forever.
28 years ago, she had barely been married when the fights with her in-laws began. The disagreements and arguments were over dowry.
One day, she told them that she was off to enrol for a six-month course for Dalit and Adivasi women. Her in-laws told her that there was no need for her to return.
Shivdevi definitely hadn’t signed up for a violent and unloving marriage and to be thrown out and dispossessed of her rights in the marital home. Nonetheless, she wanted to take up this course, she knew it in her gut.
So, with taunts like ‘going to become the district magistrate, are you?’ ringing in her ears, she left her six-month-old daughter at her parents’ home and went to study.
Things didn’t change overnight.
Life was hard for Shivdevi in the years after she completed the course at the Mahila Shikshan Kendra in Chitrakoot as well. Her knowledge of words, of how her body worked, and why earthquakes and volcanoes occurred were, strangely, the source of friction with all around her.
In the rare instances that she met a friend, she insisted on needing to get out, and work, and stand on her own feet. She was a restless soul and had the restlessness that it takes to make a good journalist.
So it was serendipitous when her friend told her about Khabar Lahariya, the Bundeli newspaper run by a bunch of brave women, in her own district.
It was like being called home, finally.
When you’re as gritty as Shivdevi, small hurdles like not having the best writing skills or the best grip on politics are mere pebbles in your way. For years, she hid her notepad from the taunts of the people she went to interview, who scoffed at her speed and her own particular shorthand. This shortcoming was harder to obfuscate when she was face-to-face with her editors at the end of the week, but she managed.
More challenging was election season. Her first one was the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
But by then, she was already well-known as a Dalit reporter prowling upper caste mohallas, distributing a newspaper with stories about the hopes of Dalit voters.
A group of Thakur men circled her, snatched her copies of the newspaper and wouldn’t let her leave the village. Her camera was snatched, she was abused and accused of supporting the rival political party. She finally made it out and went to the police post, where her complaint was scoffed out of the station by the constable on duty.
But instances like these, after a decade of reporting the big stories in a small, corrupt and power-laden region, have made Shivdevi fairly fearless.
And this ‘never say die’ attitude reflects in her personal goals as well. Two years ago, owning a two-wheeler was a far-fetched dream for her.
Cut to the present, and just six months after mastering video-first reporting on her newly acquired smartphone (her escape from that personal nemesis—writing), Shivdevi was the first in the Khabar Lahariya team to put a down payment on her brand new Scooty.
Today, Shivdevi is a feared and respected reporter in the Tindwari block of Banda, a mother-in-law and the broker of a compromise between a marital family who tried to kill her—just so that the costs of raising three children could be shared. She is also the owner of her own bigha of land and—of course, her Scooty.
She chuckles as she recalls a time when she was too nervous to write in front of the official she was interviewing, or too scared to handle a mobile phone.
No small journey, this. If a poster woman ever was needed for the use of the pen (and the smartphone) in a harsh world of feudal patriarchy, she is her.