Politics of air-conditioners
So, the furtive guy in the room down the corridor, the shady receptionist, the leery watchman, would think twice before pulling their stunts. It was precious advice I never forgot
I've never liked air-conditioners. I don't like how "A/C cold" feels on my skin, though I've learnt to enjoy the cold at the Berlin Film Festival, when I go on assignment each February. Till date, I don't have an A/C at home, just fans—I'm trying to live lightly on earth. Only when I invite guests, I'm mildly embarrassed and offer them cotton wads dipped in refreshing, cold rosewater, to dab their faces—like those "refreshing towels" we were once offered in planes. I trust the conversation, beer, khana and song to carry the evening, rather than the temperature.
One of my early assignments, way back in 1999, was interviewing Munda tribals in the forests of Ranchi, Bihar, that I enjoyed so intensely, it has set me off on a parallel career in developmental issues—gender, water, health, education—for the last 20 years. The Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) had sent me to write about their work there, which was excellent. I was then at the Times of India, and happily moonshined (moonshone?) on weekends or on leave, working on development issues, as that was so much more satisfying than journalism.
It was heart wrenching to meet tribals in Tiriltola village, who mainly lived off forest produce and did not even use money, 52 years after India's independence. They bartered lac and honey for salt and matches, at the weekly haat. But, the FPAI put me up at a posh, four-star hotel in Ranchi. I realised the four-star hotel was primarily for my safety, as a single woman travelling in Bihar. Still, I was outraged that so much money was being wasted on me, when it could have been spent on the tribals instead. I had to figure out an alternative, but immediately switched off the air conditioner, to start with. "Madam, air conditioner garmi ke liye nahin, machchar ke liye hai," (the air conditioner is not for the heat, but the mosquitoes) a minion explained, with impeccable Indian logic.
Tiriltola village was in a forest area, two-three hours away by rough roads; we bounced about violently in a jeep. FPAI smartly believed that "development is the best contraceptive", and I saw their multi-pronged approach: a water and sanitation project, providing nutrition and vaccinations for infants, and popularising health education, among the tribals. They also had a pop-up, sterilisation operating theatre and recovery rooms—where doctors did sterilisations, when people realised they were better off with smaller families, and requested the operation. After a long tiring day of interviews, I had more interviews from 9 am the next day at Tiriltola.
There was no way I would bounce six hours to Ranchi and back. There was nowhere I could stay in the village either, I was told. Bloody hell, I decided to sleep in the post-op recovery rooms, as the sterilising camps were long over and not currently in use. I told Palas Sharangi, FPAI project manager, to immediately cancel my hotel booking for the rest of the days, and ensure the refund went towards the tribals. The beds and bathroom were ultra clean; they organised a lovely hot breakfast and chai, and I was ready to start. I stayed there for two-three nights, and got a lot of work done.
Years later, I read an account by a senior woman working in development issues in rural areas, who advised women to "always take the best a/c room" when travelling. In rural India, the air-conditioner means power, she wrote (I paraphrase here). People assume you're a boss-man type, probably knowing mantri-minister-IASwallahs. So, the furtive guy in the room down the corridor, the shady receptionist, the leery watchman, would think twice before pulling their stunts. It was precious advice I never forgot.
Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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