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The rhythm of the road

Akshatha Shetty and Piyush Goswami

Akshatha Shetty and Piyush Goswami Photo: Special arrangement  

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Akshatha Shetty and Piyush Goswami travel across rural India to meet people, document stories and understand cultures

Two people. A camera and a notebook. And countless journeys across India. Akshatha Shetty and Piyush Goswami, the founders of Rest Of My Family, speak about their project to rediscover the connection with the ‘human family’. Excerpts from an email interview:

Tell us how it all began.

We are both engineers who met in college. After working in the corporate world for two years, we realised that our passion and interests lay elsewhere. So we gave up our home and everything we owned to dedicate ourselves to the cause we believed in. Since then, we have been travelling to rural areas, understanding, experiencing and documenting social issues and human interest stories. As we started travelling and meeting different people and documenting their struggles, over time, we realised that documenting alone was not enough. Hence, we felt the need to do something more substantial. Rest Of My Family was officially launched last month. This project sprung out of a very personal journey and necessity. We wished to make a strong social impact through our work and medium of expression. We could not just do these stories and move on, knowing fully well that the lives of these individuals and communities we were writing about remained the same.

How is a typical day in your life?

Well, the days vary based on our travels. While some days are spent on the road, others with communities. With communities, the entire day usually goes in meeting people, bonding with them and understanding their situation. We share our joys and sorrows together. When we first visit these places, we are often considered as outsiders, the urban travellers who have come with their fancy gadgets. But gradually, we become an integral part of their family. When we are travelling non-stop, we drive for hours sometimes passing endless fields, barren lands or the hills. We often take detours into unknown territories to meet different people or just relax by the lake or under a banyan tree. There’s an element of uncertainty in our travels and that is a big part of our journey.

What are the tools that you use to document people/stories ?

We use writing and documentary photography/filmmaking to share the stories. We use our blog and other international publications like RYOT News to get the stories as much attention as they need.

How is it to be on the move most parts of the year? What are the challenges?

Being out of our comfort zones can be emotionally and physically exhausting at first, but after a while, you get accustomed to the rhythm of the road, and you reach a point where wherever you are is home.

The challenges we face with every community are unique in their own way. For instance, when we went to visit the Malasar Tribe in Nelliampathy, Kerala, at around 11 p.m., we were taken to the police station and interrogated for 45 minutes because we were asking questions about the tribes who have been suffering for more than a decade owing to land displacement. In the pretext of confirming that we might be aiding Maoists or terrorists, they discouraged us from going to the tribal settlement. In the end, we decided to visit the tribe and understand their situation.

Please share one or two of the most interesting stories you encountered.

One winter evening, we were travelling to Tso Moriri in Ladakh and got stuck in a snow-blizzard. We somehow managed to pull our vehicle out of the snow and sought shelter in a Tibetan refugee village called Sumudhu nearby. We met an old man who offered to help us and gave us shelter for the night. At -25 degrees, we sat around the fire as Namgayal told us stories of his past. He was from Tibet and his village was close to Mount Kailash. He has been living here for the past 60 years and has still not applied for Indian citizenship because he hopes that someday he would be able to go back to Tibet.

In Nelliyampathy, the jeep we were travelling in almost toppled and we were badly stuck in a ditch. It was raining cats and dogs and we were stranded in the middle of the forests. It was almost time for sunset and these jungles are thriving with wildlife. An autorickshaw stopped before us and the locals helped us get the jeep out. They even offered to buy us some tea and snacks. One of the men whose name was Thomas, he said, "I may not understand your language but I certainly understand the language of the heart. Maybe we were destined to meet. It was a sheer coincidence that we were passing by. And, I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the eye if I’d not helped you. I might be poor and I don’t have much but it’s the least I can do to keep my humanity alive."

In Rajasthan, we spent some time with the Kalbelia tribe who had travelled on foot for a month to reach the Pushkar Mela. They had three generations travelling together. One of the teenage boys, who called himself Ram Jaane, confided in us that he wished his life was better and that it was different. “We have no life”, he said. To him, the idea of a better life meant living in the cities. The elders, on the other hand, felt quite the opposite. His grandfather said, “We have the best life. No one lives a life of happiness and freedom as we do. We sleep where we want. We eat where we want. We are the masters of our own destiny. We aren’t answerable to anyone. We have all the freedom in the world to live a life without any worries.”

What are the challenges faced by the people based on your travels?

Most of these problems stem from extreme poverty and lack of infrastructure. In many cases, there has been an exponential rise in the number of people migrating from the villages to cities in the hope of leading better lives. However, they end up doing menial jobs and are barely able to make ends meet. As a result, the villages are slowly being abandoned by their people.

The social divide and delusional hierarchies we have created for ourselves will only result in the downfall of our society. Even though the rural population and their hard work form the backbone of our country, their lives and their problems have been largely ignored by the policy makers and the urban population who have the resources and the means to give back to them.

As we travelled, we met such beautiful human beings who still kept their humanity alive in their hearts. They strived really hard to treat everyone with kindness and love despite their own personal struggles. The fragmented view of the world we saw broke our hearts. And, that strengthened our resolve to continue doing what we are doing and in the process de-fragment the world through our own little ways by connecting the people we meet to the rest of humanity.

You have mentioned creative tools to tackle issues such as poor sanitation and education. Could you elaborate?

Our creative tools are our mediums of expressions — the visual and literary mediums. When we began may be capturing beautiful looking photograph/videos, essays were enough to make us feel content with ourselves and our work. But over the last 4-5 years our use of these tools has evolved and today we constantly strive to make a social impact with the use of our tools or mediums of self-expressions. To be able to tell stories of individuals and communities we meet and to be able to extend necessary support to those that need them is the main driving force that continues to shape the direction that our work is taking. We are also in talks with musicians and other artists to bring various different forms of art to help us tell the stories in new ways.

What's the most important lesson that you take back from your journeys?

We understand and believe that indifference breeds on ignorance. And over generations the population of our country and world has exploded and people have forgotten the relationship we all share with one another. Today we live in a highly fragmented society where most people feel alone in their corners of the world and in their struggles. People in Uttar Pradesh feel that Nagaland is a very unsafe place and people in Nagaland feel that Uttar Pradesh is quite a dangerous place. When the fact of the matter is that people are the same everywhere. Everybody irrespective of their race, colour, creed, sex need the same things out of life - yet we have been divided to a point where we feel we are all different from each other. We are not. We are all same. We are all one. This is one of the most important lessons we have learnt over the years travelling across different regions of the country.

How have your travels changed you and your perspective of life?

Through our own inner journeys and internal reflections, we realised that more than often we tend to draw a circle of ‘me’ and ‘my’ around us and consider only certain people, places and things as our own. As a result, by the very design of this paradigm, the rest of the people, places and things in the world fall outside this circle. We feel that this is one of the root causes of the issues plaguing our society today.

The people we met, despite all the hardships they were going through, treated us like family. We were so overwhelmed by the kindness and compassion shown to us by these folks. To us, these people we were writing about were not merely names or faces. They were family. We formed a strong connection with each and every one of them.

What are the other projects you are working on?

As a part of the first leg of Rest Of My Family, we will embark on a drive through rural India, for a year, covering social issues. We are running a crowdfunding campaign to help us start and sustain the first leg of this project called Drive For Change. We have already managed to raise almost $11,000 and are hoping to meet our target soon. As a part of the project, we will follow up these stories by extending necessary support to individuals and communities we write about. And, these will become separate projects altogether.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2018 11:43:14 AM | http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/meet-akshatha-and-piyush-of-rest-of-my-family/article7698410.ece