On Monday, I received a call from someone whom, I am ashamed to say, I had completely forgotten about. Her voice was pleading on the phone: “Amritha, what happened? I have no electricity, the heat is unbearable, and I have nowhere to go. Please, let my story be heard by someone.” My heart sank. This woman did have a place to go, but she was stubbornly subjecting herself to this kind of torture and was asking me to do something about it.
When I was at IBN, I had filed a story on an elderly woman, who refused to leave a tent she had set up in West Tambaram, until the government gave back the land on which she had established a school and her home. The problem was that she didn’t have a patta (legal document) for the land, so officials demolished the school and home, leaving her only rubble and remnants of a playground.
I had filed the story my last week at IBN, packaged it, and sent it off to Delhi, with the hopes that it would be played during the subsequent weekend show. I guess it didn’t get played. And now 74-year-old Muthammal Das has called me to have her story heard so she can get justice.
But to be honest, Muthammal is not impoverished or homeless. The government took back land for which she didn’t have proper documentation, and because of her previous jobs, she receives a government pension monthly. Her son in Bangalore and her daughters in the U.S. have invited her to come stay with them, and in the meantime they have been sending her money as well. She refuses. So sure, that makes a great story, but not the kind that Muthammal wants told to the
Yet, I’m ambivalent, because when I spoke to her in February, she said she would stay under the yellow tarp until her death… and she claimed to give herself until April. Today is April 2, the clock is ticking, and Muthammal is, at her will, sitting in excruciating heat with no electricity, limited water, and no sanitation, waiting for the government to grant her documented land to rebuild her home and school to teach the local village children.
As journalists, we’re told it’s our job to give people a voice, but we’re also told to be objective. If I were to give Muthammal a voice, she’d continue to tell me she is the victim in this ordeal. If I were to come back to the newsroom and be objective, I’d have to mention Muthammal’s other options (very appealing options), which she refuses to take.
I’ve decided to write the story, to get it off my own conscience. If it’s a voice she wants, then Muthammal can have it. But, I’d be failing in my duty as a journalist if I didn’t fully describe her circumstance though. So I’ll do my part, and leave it up to the editors (and ultimately the government) to decide.