Author: Shefali Chaturvedi, October 1 2013 It’s one o'clock in the afternoon and I'm about five kilometres down a black muddy track, far, far away from the main tarmac road in the Rajgarh district of Madhya Pradesh in central India. I'm heading to a remote village called Basokha to gather stories and feedback for a radio programme called Khirki Mehendiwali.
The 15-minute show - whose title means 'Mehendi opens a window' in Hindi - is broadcast three times a week and aims to change the way people think and act about health and family life in a state with an appallingly high infant mortality rate.
The show interweaves the fictional story of Mehendi, a young woman who overcomes life's challenges to become a radio DJ, with songs and tips on maternal and child health from Dr Anita, Mehendi’s friend, philosopher and guide.
Mehendi lives in a tiny village just like Basokha - a place with no mains electricity and very little access to the outside world. And as I enter the village, the monotony of the constant rain is broken up by a line of umbrellas - village women in yellow, pink and blue saris standing out brightly against the downpour. They stop at a thatched house, with its courtyard of lime and dung and enter to sit down with a smile on their faces.
You might think they're about to perform a ritual or sing a monsoon folk-song together but then a young man enters and all eyes are turned expectantly towards his bag. Out of its folds, he produces a transistor radio.
But it’s not Bollywood songs or cricket commentary that have made these women brave the rain and leave behind their household chores. Mangi Bai, one of the older women, explains the strange scene to me, "It’s time for the Khirkiwali Bai (the sister who opens a window)," she tells me excitedly in her thick local dialect. "We are here to meet her and listen to her!"
The young man, a student from the village called Parbat Singh, goes on, "There are about 200 homes in this village. But you’ve seen how inaccessible this place is. We only get to see a newspaper once in about ten days - and only then when someone like me comes home from my studies elsewhere. So the four or five radio sets in the village are the only way to get information and entertainment. These people meet here regularly to listen to Mehendi Didi."
As if on cue, the familiar title song begins and the women signal me to keep quiet. They listen intently to Mehendi chatting away and Dr Anita giving advice on maternal and child health.
When the show ends, I challenge them a bit. I want to see what they really think about the programme. "What's so unique about this show that you have ignored the rain to come here and listen to it?"
The answer comes immediately! One woman says, "We love listening to Mehendi. That's why we finish all our chores so that we can meet here and hear the show as a group. If all couples in our village follow Mehendi’s advice, practice immunisation, give proper nutrition to their children and so on, things will improve a lot."
Another woman in the group, Balab Bai, says, "There should be a gap of three years between two children. We got this information from Mehendi. She knows our problems pretty well."
Parbat's mother, Geeta Bai adds, "Mehendi understands us. We feel if we listen to her and follow her path, things can get better for us. Because she is one of us and so she wants to see us happy."
Media can be oxygen in a world where people have very little information or links to the outside world. The women of Basokha now have a window they can open three times a week to breathe in some of that air.
Shefali Chaturvedi writes a regular blog about making Khirki Mehendiwali called Shefali-nama.
Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work in India.
Image credit: BBC Media Action
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