Living in cities, we walk like tourists, unmindful of the hellishness of others’ lives, until it actually hits us

The quest for the truth about the mythical Abujmarh leaves two reporters battling for life.

By Shoma Chaudhury

May 26, 2012 in Columns
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Tarun Sehrawat (1 Jan 1989 – 15 June 2012)

SOMETIMES, LIFE forces a pause. Sometimes, life ransoms you to ruminate, when your impulse might be to rush on with other things you deem to be the urgent cycle of your day. This week, even as Parliament shames itself with a knee-jerk unanimity against scholars and cartoonists; IPL is exposed for its furry feet; Home Minister P Chidambaram is accosted by the Opposition; Air India employees are denounced for asking to be paid; and the economy tanks further, circumstance demands that this column speak of something else altogether.

In many ways, journalism should always be a reminder lesson in humility. Just because “news” has come to mean the accident of where we happen to train our attention as reporters and editors, we forget that massively significant events and tragedies play themselves out unnoticed. But for the accident of our attention, these events could have — should have — been the headline news.

As I write this, two TEHELKA journalists lie in hospital. Tusha Mittal, principal correspondent, is just recovering from a crippling two weeks of high fever and severe stomach infection. Tarun Sehrawat, TEHELKA photographer, is lying comatose in intensive care. Tusha’s fever remained unexplained, but Sehrawat has been hit by a frightening cocktail the human body is not really equipped for. He has cerebral malaria, typhoid and jaundice. His body is bloated and yellow, his liver and kidneys have collapsed, his brain is infected and his lungs invaded by water. Tusha is 27; Sehrawat, who is first-generation educated and very gifted, is 22.

At one level, this is a glorious story of courage and commitment. Two weeks ago, these reporters had gone into Abujmarh, the unbreached citadel of the Maoists, walking 40 km on foot into remote and hostile terrain. They had nothing but a few bottles of drinking water and some packets of biscuits. But they refused to turn back when water and food ran out. They refused to turn back even when they saw notices from the Maoists warning of mines and traps ahead. They wanted to bring back first-hand accounts of life in the villages there and they stayed their course till they got the story they wanted.

But that’s not all their journey speaks of. What Tusha and Sehrawat found in Abujmarh was a complete news blip: there was no drinking water for miles. No hand pumps, no tubewells. Only small streams where buffaloes bathed and people drank. Even when they boiled the water, it was a vile yellow and floated with evil-looking sediments. One time, Sehrawat got so desperate with the heat, he drank straight from the stream. Most nights, they slept in the open, no protection from insects.

Falciparum malaria — the dreaded strain that has ridden Sehrawat thrashing from high delirium into an unreachable silence — is rampant in Chhattisgarh’s tribal regions. People here routinely die in epidemic droves, unreported, as this and another dreaded fever caused by insects — rickettsial fever — wracks their brains. Severe malnutrition, jaundice and typhoid are common here. When Tusha and Sehrawat were frisked by Maoist outriders, the only thing they were really interested in was medicines.

There are hardly any healthcare centres in all of Abujmarh — or indeed in most hinterlands of India. When they do exist, there are either no doctors, or almost always, no medicines. Living in

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