The Many Faces Of Real India (Road Trip Diaries Part 1)

A photo feature from a 7,500km road trip to discover Bharat that has been eclipsed by India.

Leaving India, Finding Bharat (Part 1)

Ratna and Nadim Siraj


April 21, 2024: From mid-January to mid-April in 2024, Empire Diaries founding editors, Ratna and Nadim Siraj, were on a meandering road trip, spanning 13 states and covering nearly 7,500km. Delhi NCR was the start and finish for the three-month-long start-and-stop journey.

The route map roughly resembled a triangle. They started off in the north, then headed to the east. After a pause in Bengal, they headed west across central India, reaching Goa, before meandering back to the north, completing the triangle. They journeyed through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Bengal, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Haryana.

What was the motive and outcome of the road trip? To discover ‘Bharat’ that is buried underneath the more celebrated ‘India’. To get a sense of scale of the rural-urban socioeconomic divide. To collect compelling video-focused ground reports from the country’s rural heartland. And to piece together tell-tale photographs of the hinterland.

Here goes Part 1 of a photo series from the discover-Bharat tour (Click here for Part 2). It focuses on the people we met during the journey. This opening part features images from UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Bengal. Keep an eye on Empire Diaries for Part 2, to be published soon.

Part 1 (UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Bengal)

‘Take me home, country roads’ – but this cyclist’s ride to home can never be a pleasant one if the country roads are in a perpetual state of disrepair, which is the case with a vast majority of toll-free roads in rural Uttar Pradesh. This particular stretch of a broken road between Mardah and Ghazipur in UP is a prime example of what tax-paying voters have to put up with when they’re not using overpriced toll roads.
A quick, hot cup of tea brewed on a coal stove (‘mitti chulha’) is a common sight along state and national highways in India. It’s a welcome contrast to the expensive and Westernised monoculture cafes mushrooming in the country’s big cities. This tea seller and his little shack literally serves round-the-clock to commuters at a chaotic village crossroad near Gaya in Bihar.
This is not a lush green field or a beautiful meadow. It’s the dying riverbed of one of many tributaries to Sone River, which flows through Bihar. The perennial dryness has turned this stretch of the original riverbed into a grassy road, now routinely used by commuters on cycles and cars. Not much is reported in the media about the growing number of Indian rivers slowly dying out due to dams and so-called development.
Lucknow is not all about fancy and expensive boutique biryani restaurants. There is another Lucknow, too, a less celebrated one, where small, roadside shop-owners tickle the palate of daily commuters on a budget with their dishes. This small-time biryani shop near Bada Imambara in Lucknow, UP, is often ignored by boutique and elite foodies. But it offers food that is just as delicious as the prominent ones – crucially, at a fraction of the price that people from low-income groups can afford.
The youngest member of the family that runs the Lucknow roadside eatery, Alam Biryani House, scrapes out a plate for a passerby. Interestingly, across northern India, the quintessential biryani exists at both extremes of the food spectrum. At one end, it’s a high-profile and expensive dish that is a favourite among elite connoisseurs. At the opposite end, the no-nonsense roadside biryani for a budget is an essential meal for working-class people.
A mobile snack seller, commonly referred to as a ‘rehriwaala’, is on the lookout for customers near the Rumi Darwaza area in the heart of Lucknow in UP. The ‘rehriwaales’, or snack sellers on wheels, are the lifeblood of India’s heartland. They have been around for centuries. And they will continue to be in demand in the time to come, despite a surge in Anglicised junk food joints in urban India selling Western snacks such as burgers, pizzas, and French fries.
The onset of India’s much-loved mango season is evident as a makeshift shop owner displays his early-season wares at a traffic signal in Lucknow, UP. Unfortunately, in many parts of India, a desperate rat race breaks out between mango sellers and traders at the start of the annual mango season. Deceptive hoarders misuse that wave, rolling out in the market the previous year’s frozen stock, wrongfully labelling them as fresh from the orchards.
A snack seller is busy dry-roasting flattened ‘littis’, or chickpeas-stuffed flour pancakes, on the outskirts of Patna. ‘Litti-chokha’ is a popular roadside snack that is said to have originated from the Bhojpur region of Bihar and UP. In today’s fast-modernising India, the traditional snack is literally at war with Anglicised fast food, such as pizzas and burgers. In a country where large sections of the population struggle to make ends meet, the wallet-friendly dish of ‘litti-chokha’ will remain a crowd favourite.
Coconut water is the safest, healthiest, and most natural fruit drink that is easily available on the streets of India. It is far better than unhealthy, synthetic cold drinks sold by US cola companies. As seen here, coconut water is giving Coca-Cola (in the background) strong competition in this marketplace at a busy junction in central Patna, Bihar.
It’s a paradox when only male farmers are routinely projected by the press and government authorities as the faces of Indian agriculture. The reality is quite the opposite, as this photograph shows, clicked in a village in Jhargram district, Bengal. It’s usually women farmers who do much more of the groundwork in the fields as compared to men. A close scrutiny of vast stretches of rural farmland in eastern and central India proves this point.
Meet Jyotsna Mahato, an organic paddy and vegetable farmer in Gopinathpur, West Mednipur, Bengal. The self-styled farmer is a name to reckon with in her village and in surrounding areas of Binpur block. She successfully fought against one of her sons, who was adamant on continuing to use chemical fertilisers and pesticides on the family farmland. Jyotsna’s decision to stop chemical farming within her family and switch to natural farming has changed her son’s perception of the chemical-organic debate. Like her, he is now into natural farming. Jyotsna has motivated many rural women in Bengal to follow her footsteps.
The simple bicycle is the most preferred and most convenient vehicle for commuting between India’s villages. A villager here is seen ferrying aluminium cooking pots on his two-wheeler on a dry evening in the Lalgarh-Jhitka forest area in western Bengal.
Such scenes of village women carrying stuff on the head and walking miles is commonplace in rural India, as seen here in a village near the town of Jhargram in Bengal. In contrast to the big cities, elderly women in eastern India’s villages engage in hard labour and ferry heavy loads on foot without too much fuss. It’s no wonder that rural women in India are remarkably gutsier than urban women.
From paddy to be planted, to grass feed for livestock, to freshly harvested vegetables, to firewood – rural women in India’s heartland can be seen ferrying it all on the head, often walking for mile after mile, as seen in this snapshot taken in a village in West Mednipur, Bengal. Is this one of the reasons why rural folk are less prone to suffering from lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, thyroid, heart issues, and cancer?
Samir Rana, a farmer from Beladigri village in Bengal’s Jhargram district, takes a break from fieldwork. He grows rice, which is one of the main targets of foreign and domestic agribusiness companies that sell overpriced, unsustainable, and unreliable chemical inputs to Indian farmers. Even though Samir is into chemical farming, he is critical of artificial inputs because they’re too costly. “Poor farmers are being choked to death by companies selling chemical inputs and by governments” – those were his chilling words as he lamented the state of farming in Jhargram district in a candid chat with us.
Cycles are the most prevalent and convenient vehicles that rural girls use to commute to schools. Many others, however, prefer to walk up and down for their daily schooling. These two activities, apart from many other routine outdoor movements, keep village folk fitter, healthier, and more agile than people in the big cities. India’s urban schoolchildren are increasingly become overweight and illness-prone due to lack of outdoor activity or physical toil, especially since the invasion of gadgets and internet phones.
Maintaining cattle at home and arranging their food supply are not easy tasks. It involves scouting far corners of the village landscape to collect appropriate feed, collecting the post-harvest remains from the crop-fields, and then chopping and serving it to them. All this hard work is part of the rural folk’s daily lifecycle, as we can see in this particular household in Lalgarh, Bengal, where a woman is chopping hay for her domesticated cows to munch on.
In the rural world, there’s no Urban Company, or Zomato, or Swiggy at your service all the time! To fix things up at your home, you have to get your own hands dirty. This villager in Bengal’s Lalgarh area is using fire from hay to heat and mould a waterpipe he is installing in the bathing area of his house.
The quintessential bicycle is taking this elderly villager from one corner of Lalgarh forest area to the other. While the younger generation in rural Bengal nowadays aspire to ride motorcycles – a result of intrusive ad campaigns from bike companies – the earlier generation prefers the simple cycle for commuting around.
A farmer separates dust from the paddy at the side of a road near Beladigri village in Bengal’s Jhargram district. Across central India, womenfolk handle most of the farming workload, instead of only the men. But the distinct reality doesn’t get reflected in the press and popular culture in India, where it’s only the male farmers who get projected as the faces of Indian agriculture.

(Click here for Part 2)

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