Defying the Elements

By Trishikh Dasgupta
Project Officer – Communication

Stories have a remarkable power. They can transport us great distances and deepen our understanding of one another. As a communications professional in the economic development sector, I have always been passionate about uncovering and sharing the stories of courageous and resilient people who overcome incredible circumstances in their daily lives.

On a recent quest for such stories, we were joined by our friends from Bodega Studios in New York City in the farthest corners of the Sundarbans mangrove forests. Situated in the delta regions of West Bengal in India, home to the Royal Bengal tiger, the stories we sought to find there would need to transport hundreds of guests at Trickle Up’s annual gala in New York into some of the remotest and poorest communities in India.

I stood anxious outside the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata on that pleasant Sunday morning to receive the film crew and embark on our quest to the water-world of Sundarbans in search of our story. The flight carrying the film crew landed, and after three and a half hours journeying by road, we reached the Godkhali docks. From there we glided across rivers on wooden boats, traveled though the islands on rickety handmade trikes and minivans, until we finally reached a secluded hotel on the river - our base of operations and shelter for the next three days.

Our first day began at 6:00 AM. Reaching our first location deep within Sundarbans posed great challenges. We crossed rivers and treaded uneven roads on back-breaking trikes while carrying heavy and fragile filming equipment.

On the first day we filmed the life and work of Arpita Mondal, a Trickle Up participant who overcame great obstacles to build a brighter life.

It was only three years ago that Arpita and her husband Brajen, along with their twelve-year-old son Babu and ten-year-old daughter Tithi, rushed out of their house on a chilly night of natural calamity. Dashing to higher grounds, clinging to whatever was at hand, the family and neighbors witnessed their small river-bank settlement being washed away by raging tides. This catastrophe not only destroyed their home and possessions, but also their dreams for a better life. Without a place to call home, how could the young family get back on their feet?

When Arpita joined Trickle Up’s program, she also joined the Baba Loknath Self-Help Group (SHG). In her group, Arpita meets weekly with women from her village to share advice, save money, and take loans at reasonable rates. But, for Arpita, the group was more than just a place to save, it was a support system during a time of crisis. In response to the collapse of their family home, Baba Loknath worked together to help Arpita and other families rebuild. They went to the local government to lobby for permission for her family and three others to build small living spaces on government land.

Working with Trickle Up, Arpita made a plan to start rebuilding her life by rearing chicks and goats.

Having no land to spare, she built an animal shed on the verandah of her new home. Training by Trickle Up on timely vaccination, proper food, and other animal rearing processes enabled Arpita to multiply her livestock, selling 30 chicks for INR 8,650 ($132) and eight goats for INR 15,500 ($236). She subsequently accessed a low interest loan of INR 5,900 ($90) which allowed her to buy a machine to make incense sticks. She was further able to cultivate rice paddy by leasing farmland. After 27 months of business, the family had earned around INR 50,000 ($762).

As we attempted to capture the richness of Arpita’s story, we encountered many challenging moments. Shooting under the scorching sun, constantly fighting for the ideal combination of light and shade to capture the perfect frame, changing locations, resetting up shooting equipment, and being sensitive to the curiosity of onlookers all posed challenges, yet were also some of the most enriching moments of our shoot.

On our second day of filming, we captured the life and work of Arpita’s savings group: Baba Loknath SHG.

To the 12 women of this group, it was a place of savings, a financial stronghold, a training ground, and platform to voice their concerns. It was an engine for their economic and social evolution. Here, we met Lakshmi, who had lost her house in a fire. Through the combined efforts and fundraising of the women of her SHG, Lakshmi was able to rebuild her house. Though we shot throughout the day, there remained so much more that we would have loved to capture of these amazing women’s lives and journeys.

On the final day, we met with a group of women who had been introduced to Trickle Up’s mobile technology pilot project with Next 3B, an initiative of Tata Communications. It was really remarkable to see how a mobile phone was transforming the lives of rural women living in extreme poverty, from communicating to raising livestock to farming, and how fast the women had become comfortable with a smartphone and its apps.

As I reflect back on those three days of the Sundarbans shoot with our friends at Bodega Studios, I smile remembering the village children running behind the hovering drone camera. I treasure the moments of interacting and explaining to the villagers why and what were we filming. And I can still feel the terror just thinking about crossing the river crossing on a human and animal-packed rickety wooden boat with all of our fragile film equipment.

In the end, all our efforts will be worthwhile when Arpita’s story inspires someone reading about her or viewing her video somewhere many miles away.