Storytelling is a two-way street at PARI, with professional journalists mentoring locals with no background in reporting. This summer I mentored a PARI fellow, Stanzin Saldon, a Buddhist woman of indigenous background, on a reporting trip in Leh in northern India’s Ladakh region.
We were first introduced over email by PARI’s managing editor, who said Saldon had studied medicine and been a W.J. Clinton Fellow at the American India Foundation but had never done any reporting. We spoke on the phone and finally met over coffee in Delhi in the winter of 2016 to discuss her story ideas from the region. This was the first time I was acting as an editor or mentor; I had to help shape someone else’s ideas that would turn into full-length stories in the coming months.
I didn’t choose the topics, people, or settings for Saldon’s stories. I just asked her to keep to PARI’s mandate—everyday lives of everyday people—which she did. I found Saldon had a natural flair for picking general interest subjects, as I helped her link the local flavor to a broader context. For instance, her story on how an abandoned village in Kargil, in the conflict-ridden state of Kashmir, became a tourist museum would have wider interest if we contextualized Kargil as the region in which the last India-Pakistan war took place in 1999.
A few months later, PARI’s editorial chief Sharmila Joshi and I dug into our savings and excitedly made plans to travel with Saldon to help build her confidence in reporting and for us to get to know a new region in our country.
While Sharmila helped Saldon with scheduling, writing style, reporting discipline, and formats that suited PARI, I worked with Saldon on interviewing people, especially on sensitive issues and overcoming initial apprehensions. Huddled around bonfires in the cold nights, during long drives through vast stretches of mountainous landscape, we had informal chats covering everything from religious philosophy to our love lives. We discussed how to work around Saldon’s hesitancy to ask local women their ages or full names, details needed for her stories. I pointed out the advantage she had over a city reporter: Speaking to people in their own language and hence being able to more easily establish a rapport.
Even before I arrived in Leh, Saldon had produced a multi-media piece about 62-year-old Tsering Angchuk, a farmer from the village of Sneymo (population: 1,100). Tsering travels from village to village with his portable loom, weaving his signature fabric called “snamboo.” Saldon captured a smiling Tsering at work and wrote about their conversation over the local salty tea. She painted his love for the loom like that of a writer in solitude doing what he or she does best. “Tsering pours some hot Ladakhi tea for me and a small wooden bowl of chaang (local beer made from barley) for himself; a few kittens jump into his lap as soon as he sits down. He enjoys being alone in the winters. This is when he can concentrate on what he really loves—weaving.”
Among the stories Saldon reported during our collaboration were a heartwarming tale of two inter-caste women opening a tailoring shop in an old market, a piece about the feminist struggles of a local woman hailing from a royal lineage, and a photo essay on a women-run market in Kargil.
As a reporter, I found it illuminating to also look at stories through a cooperative, collaborative lens instead of in a competitive, regimented format. And since our first meeting in Leh, Saldon has gone on to make news herself—for, in spite of protests from family members and local officials, marrying a Muslim man. I am already proud.