A home of her own

Murti tells of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse she has faced most of her life during an interview on May 22, 2012. (photo by Anna Reed)

For the second time this trip, I escaped New Delhi and traveled up to Haryana with Scott for my second story. This time, only Anna Reed came with us to shoot photos and video for both my story and hers.

We interviewed a woman named Murti mid-afternoon on Tuesday. With no air-conditioning and no fan, Anna and I heard her story with help of Kumar Mukesh.

Her story is one of abuse.

Murti married at age 16, but eight to nine months later, her husband committed suicide. Her husband had two younger brothers and per Indian tradition, Murti married the second brother.

Between her marriages and during, she suffered much abuse from her in-laws. Her father-in-law delivered much of the abuse, going as far as trying to sexually abuse her. She did her best to fight back.

After some time, her second husband wanted a different wife. Murti then married the third brother, who was married to her younger sister Roshni. Both sisters suffered similar abuse.

During her third marriage, Murti had a son. But her in-laws did not believe her son, Manjeet, was her husband’s child – they tried to kill him when he was only a few months old.

Her in-laws made a powder out of an electric bulb and mixed it into the milk while Murti was working in the fields. When she returned, Manjeet was crying and passing stools frequently but because of the season, she assumed it was a fever that many children got.

But after a few days, Manjeet was not improving. Roshni insisted Manjeet be taken to a doctor immediately. It was at the doctor’s that they found out Manjeet had been fed something poisonous, the electric bulb.

Murti carries a bowl of cow dung on her head. She collects the dung with her hands to put in the bowl. The dung is dried and used for fuel. (photo by Anna Reed)

After constant abuse, the community stepped in. Murti and Roshni were able to move away from their in-laws into a small, one-room house and given one cow. The sisters had to still work in the fields, which is brutal work.

Murti talks with neighbors outside her home she shares with her sister. (photo by Anna Reed)

Murti and her sister own five cows for milking. They sell the milk to neighbors and in the market nearby. (photo by Anna Reed)

The sisters still live there with their sons, Manjeet and Amarjeet. Their house has expanded to three rooms, a barn area and five cows. In October 2011, the sisters gained the right to their land after their husband sold the land to get money for liquor. The community stepped in to get the land back for Murti and Roshni.

Murti milks on of her cows at dawn. (photo by Anna Reed)

Murti stretches to grab a stick to use to keep her cows tame while she milks them. (photo by Anna Reed)

Murti and her sister, Roshni, now share a home, after both suffering years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. (photo by Anna Reed)

Anna and I were able to interview Roshni and Manjeet on Thursday, which provided another view into Murti’s struggles.

Roshi, Murti’s sister, laughs during an interview with Frannie. (photo by Anna Reed)

Once we were done interviewing Roshni, we asked her if she had any questions for us. It was probably one of the best conversations I’ve had in India. Anna was declared the favorite because she’ll eat any food prepared for her, even the spicy food, and I was consistently called a sparrow. We promised to visit if we ever returned to India; Anna gave Murti her purple sunglasses and Amarjeet an American dollar as a parting gift.

Murti, Amarjeet and Roshi pose for a photo before Frannie and I left their home for the final time. Murti shows off her new black and purple knock-off Ray-Bans. (photo by Anna Reed)


Indian beauty, Indian malaise

Here’s what student journalists had to say about their host country and each other after two weeks in India:

  • I love the way I grew to be such good friends with my translators, Rishabh and Ekta. It was through their caring personalities and passion for journalism that I was able to continue fighting for my story. I couldn’t have gotten very far without them.
  • I love how Bruce honks the horn of the rickshaw driver repeatedly and then asks us our thoughts on how “insanely attractive” Indian men are.
  • I hate the way the water turns off in the middle of the day.
  • I love haggling with auto drivers over 10 rupees.
  • I love how, even though she had to spend a week squatting over a hole in the ground to use the bathroom, Anna is still the most upbeat person on this trip.
  • I hate how I can never find a temperature middle ground.
  • I love how Gupreet, our host in Titrum, Haryana, would always ask if I was feeling all right after being out in the sun before offering me tea or water.
  • I love the icy glare Dan always sends me when I tell him to get into the Yamuna River already.
  • I hate the way the heat forms a blanket around my body every time I walk away from the air conditioning.
  • I hate the annoying horns that are constantly going off … Yes, I know you’re right behind me.
  • I love how most everyone chooses Nokia’s default ringtone, and when the guitar in the ringtone begins on a crowded subway train, at least a dozen confused Indians reach into their pockets and frown when they realize it wasn’t theirs.
  • I love when Bethany tells me to slow down, the same thing every teacher I’ve had since the first grade told me to do, yet I still won’t do it.
  • I hate chai when it’s 115 outside.
  • I love learning Hindi cuss words from Ekta and her friends.
  • I love watching Bethany and Morgan try to imitate the walks of the guys in our group.
  • I hate being stared at like I’m not a normal person.
  • I love being stood up for an interview, only to end up playing cricket instead.
  • I love that every sari is different and there is always something new to see, everywhere.  Even if it is the same.
  • I love when Nickolai dances on Dan and he just does his Dan “head shake of shame.”
  • I hate when everyone complains about not having air conditioning for a few hours.
  • I love when the water, Internet, air conditioning, outlets and refrigerator are all working in our room.
  • I love the traffic jam heart-to-hearts I have with our driver, Surjeet.
  • I hate the honking horns. I hate the honking horns. I haaaate the honking horns.
  • I love going to the small, one-aisle grocery store at the end of the market strip and buying trays and trays of Tim Tams, knowing that I’m getting one hell of a bargain.
  • I love when the smile breaks on Brian’s face and he looks away laughing, letting me know that I have grossed him out more than he could me.
  • I hate how I walk outside in the morning and the air is already hot.
  • I love the relationships I’ve formed with Suneel, Mohan, Deepak, Sonu and other addicts who I’ve seen more briefly – people from a demographic that I would never have friends from without being here.
  • I love Tim Tams.
  • I love how uncomfortable Bethany is with feet.
  • I love that after I mistakenly chomped into the most ungodly spicy pepper of my life in the Zooby’s Cafe in Okhla and my eyes welled up while I laughed, the shopkeeper gave me his card and apologized, worried that he’d made me suffer.
  • I love that mashed potatoes, corn and chopped mango can be the best breakfast ever.
  • I hate that even the most official signs and pamphlets have spelling errors, a tiny symptom and symbol to me of a country trying to be something it perhaps shouldn’t.
  • I love that there are metro cars specifically for women.
  • I love that Nickolai seemed more upset about what was happening at the orphanage than he did that he wasn’t going to be able to continue his story.
  • I hate car horns.


I was idly sitting on a stone wall, watching one of my role models photograph a story about heroin addicts. He was on the other side of the square, where the addicts congregated during the day. He tried to achieve the overall picture to show viewers what the area looked like. It wasn’t much to watch so I began to look around from face to face, of all those addicts who sat and lay in the dirt, experiencing the high that bound them to this place.

I continued my sweep of the field of drugs from right to left. On the edge of the scene, as if in a spotlight, a man lay on a brick walkway in the sun. Earlier, Andrew and I had both watched him walk over in that direction with the aid of another addict, barely able to move on his own. Now, he was hardly moving at all, on his side with no one around. I called Andrew over, asking if he thought this was important to photograph for his story.

“Oh, shit. Yeah, probably.”

As he walked toward the man, I saw on Andrew’s face that this man was not sleeping. We both watched him for the second time. Then I watched Andrew. I was curious as to how he would handle such an intimate and serious situation. He would take a few photographs, pause, and look at the slowly surrounding addicts with compassion and genuine understanding. It was obvious how much these people trusted Andrew. The man lying on the ground struggled to roll over onto his back and raise his arm. That was the last thing he did with his life. I still haven’t stopped trying to figure out what his last thoughts and sights were.


Migrant train workers bath and wash dishes after a long day at work on Thursday, May 17, 2012 at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station. (photo by Kaylee Everly)

Being pointed and yelled at by the Delhi Police, I stopped dead in the middle of the tracks. Slowly I lowered my camera and walked over to meet them where my translator, Ekta, waited. She argued with them for several minutes before we were told to leave. This was the first roadblock. During the next two weeks we faced many.

Our next step was to acquire permission. We were told this would be easy. A friend of ours who was also a journalist knew someone in the station. After two days of trying to sift through Indian bureaucracy, we failed. We were left with the decision to push on and do our best to avoid the police or to call it quits and find something else. So like most journalists, we pushed our boundaries. We kept going back time and time again.

Toward the beginning, the migrant train workers flocked to us. We were a new form of entertainment, a distraction from the redundant, exhausting work these men faced day in and day out.

Finally, we attempted to get an interview with our main character. Digging deep into his personal life, we learned of the furry he has toward his mother. His father died at a very young age and his mother remarried. He was unwilling to tell us anything more. From then on, he wanted nothing to do with us. The camp turned against us, and our time there was over.

Pushing through this story was mentally and physically exhausting. In the end we were stopped by the cops a total of four times. These roadblocks helped me to gain patience and persistence as a journalist and to learn when enough is enough.

Enduring the Dew

“Sit down!” Sahera shouts. They are seemingly the only two English words she knows.

She hands 100 rupees to one of the children teeming at her blue, sheet metal front door. I can tell that the money she hands him is the only bill in her black patent wallet.

“Sit down!” she shouts again.

We oblige. I sit on a small, woven stool next to Ren, my translater, who is on an even smaller wooden block. Matt and Rajesh cram onto Sahera’s bed, which makes up half of the 10×10-foot room. We all sit quietly and look at each other, hoping someone else will know how to break the silence.

After about a minute, the boy runs back into the brick room carrying a liter-sized bottle of fizzy, yellow liquid. I drop my head. It’s Mountain Dew.

Sahera proceeds to bring out four towel-wrapped glasses. I can tell that they aren’t used too often. The first glass she pulls out is traditionally used for wine. Instead, she fills it with the liquid that’s so vile to me when I’m home in Nebraska and hands it to me. I take the glass with a smile. She watches me intently, almost as if she knows how much I detest the soda. I lift the glass to my mouth and take a big gulp.

It’s just as I remember—disgusting. But, I realize that this is one of the only gifts that she can offer. Besides her warm hospitality, Sahera can’t give us too much. So, I know that drinking this glass of horrible, but heartfelt, soda is something that I must do. For her.

She hands glasses to the rest of the group. No one else really seems all too happy to be drinking room temperature soda when water sounds 10 times more refreshing. But, they all take their sips, too.

We don’t stay for too long—just enough time to finish every damn drop of that Mountain Dew.


Saving pride

Photo by Sarah Miller

I remember crossing the train tracks for the first time toward their camp. Within a patch of overgrown weeds, a few men used a hose to bathe, with only their underwear to cover them as they washed the sweat and dirt from their skin. Clothes were hung up to dry between their tents made of tarps. Smoke rose from the small fires the men used to heat their dinners. And as these men carried on with their daily routine, passenger trains continued to roll by.

Photo by Sarah Miller

Coming on this trip, I was told to find a story that shows the hardships of living in India. I chose to focus on a group of migrant train workers. These men left their families for two to three months at a time just to earn money, only to end up in a camp where they slept no more than three feet away from railway tracks. With trains roaring by every five minutes, it seems almost impossible to imagine anyone living there. But in the middle of six different sets of tracks was a group of about 30 men all living, sleeping, cooking and working together.

A train worker bandages another man’s toe. (Photo by Sarah Miller)

The train workers at Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station are all just trying to get by – the way any of us do. I wanted to show that. But Indian pride is a Catch 22. Trying to get a group of men who speak another language to understand what I was trying to do proved more difficult than I thought.

Photo by Sarah Miller

I remember when I first went to their camp. All the men would pose, but they almost never smiled. It was always an intense, straight-mouthed look. I asked Rishabh, one of the journalism students helping me, why. He said they wanted to look powerful. These men, who had little more than their clothes, wanted to be shown with pride. They didn’t want to be portrayed just as poor men. What they didn’t understand was that I felt the same way.

Photo by Sarah Miller

Men haul a piece of train track. (Photo by Sarah Miller)

I wanted people to see them playing cards together huddled under a tent. I wanted to show the men cutting up vegetables and chicken together. I wanted to come back with pictures of men hauling 10-foot long stone pieces by hand, in a time when machines can do that work. It was a group of men who were willing to put in that kind of grueling work just to send money back to their families in neighboring states.

But the story was cut short. They believed we were just trying to bring back images of poverty to exploit them somehow. That was never my intention. But I wasted too much time focusing on a character in the group who wasn’t interested in telling this story, and that disinterest spread through the group. Now all I can think about are the pictures I wish I hadn’t been afraid to take before it was too late.

Haryana Hospitality

My leggings stuck to my skin as I wearily opened my eyes. Reaching for my glasses, I wondered how long I had slept. Above me, the fan spun rapidly. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and slowly stood up. I slipped my sandals on before pushing the curtain door aside.

Gupreet smiled at me and asked if my stomach was feeling any better, if I was feeling all right. I nodded with a small smile, letting her know I was just tired and needed rest from the heat. Asking one more time to make sure I was better, she offered to make me some tea.

Coming to India a couple weeks ago, I expected to find a story that would affect me and cause me to see the world differently. Instead I met Gupreet, a geography teacher in Titram, Haryana.

Gupreet was one of the reasons why the time I spent near Kaithal were some of my best days in India. While I was there, she helped translate my interviews with Murti’s sister Roshni and got up at dawn so Anna and I could observe Murti milking the cows. She helped us shop for Indian outfits to bring home to America. She made sure there was always something non-spicy for me to eat so I didn’t go hungry. Anna and I had a late-night discussion with her about social issues in America compared to India.

When we were all exchanging good-byes before heading back to Delhi Thursday afternoon, she said, “Goodbye, sweet sparrow.”

Her hospitality and kindness is something I will always treasure.

Eyes all around

Lined up across from each other, ten couples ready to get married sit on white plastic chairs, dressed in bright red and gold clothes. These couples were all very poor (from the Dalit caste) and they looked no different from anyone I had seen in Delhi before. I sat crouched behind one of the grooms, camera to my eye, zooming in on a bride about 20 feet away. This woman was about to be married to her husband that she met only once in a park. Yet she couldn’t keep eye contact with him. I don’t think they made eye contact more than a dozen times over the next couple of hours. She did however stare right down my lens to give a blank stare on more than a dozen occasions. I’m a white kid at a mass marriage for very poor people in Kaithal, Haryana, one of the most conservatives regions of all of India. All thanks to our fixer and friend Kumar that I was there. I was too overwhelmed to think. I didn’t even know anyone’s name when I showed up, but I was still working the scene, getting up into faces to take tight shots, leaning over railings on stairs to try to capture the chaos in the crowded, steamy tent.


Guilt and goodbyes

Suneel slowly walks down a back alley of the Yamuna Bazaar, after not injecting for five days. The pains of withdrawal got to him, and he used again two days later.
(photo by andrew dickinson)

We met Suneel while looking for another addict who I had planned on interviewing that day, along with another, younger addict, who was following us around. Kashan explained why we were there, Suneel seemed to like our goals, and we started walking away from the hectic injecting site to a more quiet, better lit area, to talk.

The other young addict followed us, too, asking for money or tea, as most of them do. Every time they ask, I feel guilty. I had about 600 rupees, or $12, in my pocket, but I had to say no. It’s unethical. I believe my photos will eventually help them more than a few dollars could and if I gave them money, odds are it would go straight to drugs.

Suneel was getting irritated with the young addict, and yelled at him to leave us alone. He was watching out for Kashan and I, as many of the addicts did once they got to know me.

But the kid wouldn’t listen, and eventually Suneel lifted his whole weight up on his crutches and, with his one leg, kicked the kid. I was shocked, and the feeling of guilt crept back.

They yelled at each other in Hindi, all gibberish to me, and the kid sulked away.

We sat down for the interview and Suneel bore his soul. He was high during the recording, which probably helped him to open up. I’ve noticed that the addicts are more emotional when they are near the beginning of their high.

He spoke about how he came to Delhi from Nepal for work, and that’s where he discovered drugs. He cried to us about his family in Nepal; how he’d never see them again. He told us how he lost his leg because of an infection due to injecting heroin.

Afterward, we walked back to the injection site. Suneel began singing a song to God, whichever one he was speaking to, and it felt like more than just a prayer. He didn’t look at the camera once. He was somewhere else. I crept closer, recording this video and audio gold.

He ended by saying, “God bless you, everyone,” and walking away, again without looking toward my lens.

I was on an adrenaline high the rest of the day. I felt like I’d kicked ass, and that this would lead me to make a great piece, which would convince people to care about this community.

I searched for Suneel the next day, and didn’t find him. I didn’t see him for another five days. When I found him near a crowded shopping area, he said he was sick; he hadn’t injected since we saw him last. He was trying to quit. But withdrawals were sucking his energy and health; he couldn’t even collect trash to get money for food. He hadn’t eaten in five days, either.

Two days later we saw him again, and he admitted he had injected. The pains of the withdrawal had become unbearable.

This was disheartening, but after seeing the situation of these people, I wasn’t angry with Suneel. I understand why people in these situations turn to drugs. Their lives are awful, plain and simple.

I feel a connection with this group of people. Suneel, Mohan, Deepak, Sonu and others. And I think that’s one of the most important steps toward the ability to tell a good story – caring for and knowing your subject. Understanding him and empathizing with him as much as a white kid from suburban Kansas can. I dove into this story headfirst, and it’s going to be tough to say goodbye.


An unforgettable difference

“Did he just hit her?” I thought. As I sat in the back seat of a car stopped at a stoplight, a man hit a woman on the sidewalk. I had never seen abuse like this before. It was happening in broad daylight and nobody was stopping it. Nobody turned around. Nobody acted like this was a horrible thing. “Did you just see that?” I asked Scott who was in the front seat. She ran across the street, made a left and crossed another street. I felt relieved. A couple seconds later, the man began his pursuit. “Oh no, he’s going after her,” Scott said. Just as the light changed to green and we began to make our left turn, the man reached the women and grabbed her. Nobody reacted. Not a single person acted like they cared. As they left my sight, I wondered what would happen to that girl.

This would never happen in the States in a crowded street at nine o’clock in the morning. If it did, people would stop it, have someone else stop it or at least look on nosily. It may be a difference in culture or religion but it’s a difference I can never take for granted again.