I am a traveller between two different worlds.
In November 2019, right before the whole world was laid flat by COVID, I was in Jharkhand photographing and documenting the role of Gram Sabhas in Adivasi communities. I met a priest in a local hamlet who was as talkative as he was quiet. A tough balance for most of us, but for Goma Champia, it just seemed like he was born that way. We were walking through the forest one day when I asked him a question that I often ask people living in rural and tribal areas: "What does development mean to you?"
Typically, answers to this question range from boring to predictable. "Oh, urbanisation" or "Being able to buy a large TV". Goma, though, hadn't heard any of that. He just looked me dead in the eye and replied, "Raksha karna." "Preservation? What?" I started thinking to myself when he continued to add, "Development means preservation. Preservation of natural resources, which God has provided us, and this is what our ancestors were doing for generations."
To say I was floored is an understatement. How did he so confidently, and as I thought more about it, so accurately, connect the past and the future in one single pithy comment? I often struggle to connect the dots between the work I do and what's happening in the rest of the world. Sometimes, it feels like I'm traversing between two different planets. When I'm deep in the forests, sitting on a cold rock, drinking a thimble of tea, and talking to a village elder about the earth, I'm at peace, grounded, and my senses come alive. "Ah! But you're a jungle boy, Arjun," you'll say. And yet, when I'm back home in the city, in my very comfortable home, surrounded by every single gadget from the last 20 years, I'm just as happy. I've come to realise that this wayfaring between these two contrasting spaces and being comfortable in both is what keeps me moving and fuels my motivation. I yearn to tell both worlds about each other and learn from both. My joy when someone in the city says "wow" for one of my photographs is equal to when a tribesman says "oooh" over the camera that shot that photograph.
And here was Goma, connecting all of it on one neat thread. "For us, nature is God. God lives in every element, and that's why we symbolically pray to the Sal trees. It is Mother Earth, "Sarna Maa."
I think about my misplaced place in the world often when I'm on the road. Sometimes it seems to me that popularity is the true deity these days. Worship, prayers, faith, etc. have all been homogenised by the popularity hammer. It's not real if your neighbours are not doing the same thing. It all seems like a giant safe-zone bubble that we live in. But Goma taught me that the trees can be God. A rock can be God. A mound of vaguely shaped clay can be God. It's what you choose to do with your faith that counts, not how you express it.
That, to me, seems like a lesson for just about anything.