I stepped down from the Tirupati Satragachi Super Fast Express on platform number 5 of the Rajahmundry railway station at 5a.m. on an unusually nippy morning, rare even in winter in the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh. Rajahmundry bills itself as the cultural capital of the state, where on the banks of the serene Godavari the poet Nannaya Bhattaraka is said to have composed the first Telugu version of the Mahabharata.
I walked over to the riverfront and found an early dawn fisherman cleaning his nets at Kotlingala Revu. It’s a huge bathing ghat – in a state that prides itself in that sort of a thing, it’s said to be the biggest in the country. “Haven’t you gone fishing yet,” I called out but the whippy wind flung the words back at me. The fisherman noticed me and waded to the bank. We sat down on the tiled steps of the ghat for a chat as the first rays of the sun warmed the horizon. Potahabattula Nagaraju said he was a bit late today. He and his wife set out at 4 a.m. and return at 1 p.m. His prized catch is the bommidai, which is much sought after in the town. It’s a freshwater spiny eel Macrognathus panaculus. Today he hauled in 4 kg, an OK day.
Nagaraju said he hasn’t been making much lately, perhaps Rs 300 per day. What were his hopes for the new year? “If I get Rs 500 per day, I’d be happy,” he said. He has two sons, the elder one in school and the younger one a toddler. He said he wouldn’t allow his sons to become fishermen. “Except a better catch every day and a better life for my children, I have no other ambition in life,” he said.
Later that morning, I went into a college and asked a teacher whether she would let me talk to her students. They were an eager lot, excited to be talking to a reporter. Mahalakshmi, in her first year of BSc, spoke easily and disarmingly about her hopes for her poor family. Her father, she said, toils in the sand mines every day. She wanted to do well in the exams and get a job and support the family. I asked her if it was a hard life for her.
“No, we don’t miss out on our enjoyment too. I take part in cultural programmes in college and spend a good time with my friends,” she said.
In the college canteen I was introduced to a lecturer. I asked if it would be a good year. He poured out. “I’m a part-timer. We do a lot of the drudgery here. I’m paid Rs 10,000 per month. My colleagues are even worse off. They get between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000. Even a daily wage labourer earns more,” he said.
His animation attracted his colleagues and they contributed their indignation. “The
Supreme Court has said equal pay for equal work. Why should a UGC employee get Rs.1.5 lakh per month and a part-time lecturer only Rs 6,000? This is sheer nonsense,” said a woman lecturer.
“Write this in your paper,” she said fiercely as I took leave.
Back in town, I met a chartered accountant. V Bhaskar Ram’s discontent stemmed from demonetisation. It’s been shoddily handled, he said. “Demonetisation has increased our work because our clients want us to clean up their books. I think they should wind up the income-tax department and bring in a banking transaction tax instead.”
I asked whether that would be a good idea for auditors. “We’ll still have work,” he reassured me. “We’ll work as consultants.”
Later that evening I met a rueful doctor. Dr Y S Guru Prasad told me it’s become difficult to be a doctor these days, with patients not accepting that death is sometimes the inevitable result of ailment. “Earlier when a patient was brought to us in a critical condition, we used to do our best to save him. These days, we hesitate. That’s because doctors are being attacked if patients die, and the police only tell us to compromise by paying some money to the patient’s relatives. Soon we’ll have hospitals with bouncers,” he said, mixing sarcasm with lament.
Dr Prasad has a small practice, and he is particularly peeved with the new law passed by Parliament mandating what kind of infrastructure a hospital should have. “I will have to shut shop and retire from the profession. How will small doctors survive?” he asked.
I took the bus to Kakinada. It’s to be a smart city, one of three in AP, but the first thing I met on the concourse was a very large pig leading her brood to the gutters. Kakinada, I discovered later, is something of a haven for pigs. I saw the species everywhere. The citizens seemed to have learnt to live them. It was the sight of a boy and a girl deep in conversation that diverted my attention from the pigs of Kakinada.
They were siblings. Ruksana is a medical intern at Rangaraya Medical College and was hoping to land a seat for post-graduation. Dariya Vali is also a medical student at AIIMS Delhi, and he was visiting his elder sister. Two young people with much to look forward to, or so I thought as I got to know them. The boy surprised me. Dariya Vali said he was anguished by the strikes on Muslims in Syria. “Their unending agony troubles me,” he said. And his great hope for 2017 was there would be peace in Syria.
As I left the siblings wondering about the range of issues that might engage the mind of Indians in this midst, I saw an elderly man stuffing what looked like medical reports into the box of his scooter. I walked over to introduce myself. Mr Rangadham was a retired employee of the Cooperation Department. I asked him what the papers were about. “They are my medical records,” he said frustration clearly writ on his face. “I first went to a doctor who said my ECG showed something wrong. Then I went to another who said there was no problem at all. Now I am visiting a third.”
Leaving Mr Ranganadham, I said I hoped 2017 would prove the second doctor right. His smile lit up the street.
On the bus out of Kakinada, I spoke to the bus conductor, who turned out to be a very happy man. “Last year was very good,” he said. “I sold my land and built a house in Kakinada. It cost me Rs 10 lakh. Now I have a happy home. If only my bosses were a little liberal and allowed me leave, I could spend more time with my family,” said Tejeswara Rao.