Neelesh Misra | How I spent the year
What happens when you sell your house and use the proceeds to doggedly chase an impossible dream
It was an interesting face-off. According to the tedious algorithm of new ideas and the real world, we were destined, from the beginning, to fail. According to the simple mathematics of guts and passion, there was no way we would not make it work.
“It is a brilliant idea,” everyone said. “It will never work.”
That face-off was being tested for the first time on a grimy afternoon in August 2012, as we entered Bhauwapur village, in a remote part of Uttar Pradesh, where our car negotiated narrow mud lanes. Young and old men crowded around, craning their necks and trying to take a peek at the curious new animal we had brought along.
It was a rural newspaper. It was called Gaon Connection. It was our attempt to prove that ordinary people can start and successfully run a newspaper in India—without any outside resources, driven purely by editorial integrity, and with no political affiliations.
Months before India’s first professionally run rural newspaper was launched, we were sampling a dummy copy we had created for feedback from rural readers. The older men loved the farming advice and the stories of agriculture role models. The youth loved the stories on the increasing use of Internet on mobile phones in villages, and complained that there should have been more sports stories.
Goats sauntered by. Children exchanged secret verbal notes about us and laughed. Puppeteers prepared to host a show in our honour. And some distance away, as our volunteers distributed the paper, a group of women huddled around another woman who sat on a ledge, reading stories from the paper aloud for all.
Snapshots like these gave us the courage we needed in this battle between logic and passion.
Our initial team of two—associate editor Manish Mishra (no relation) and I—slowly grew as more and more people joined. Today, one year later, we print 15,000 copies of the weekly newspaper at The Indian Express press in Lucknow. Gaon Connection has about 15 employees and around 30 stringers who are also distributors.
We walked with our newspaper into small town schools and colleges, courts, and even bombarded markets with sample copies, often being mobbed and congratulated for finally bringing out a rural paper.
Gaon Connection is a 12-page broadsheet newspaper that is all-colour, printed on imported newsprint, and brings together reportage, interviews, agricultural reporting, rural issues, rural cuisine, rural culture and useful information—everything from make-up tips for women and men, to the precautions needed while buying insurance, and how to use new mobile apps. The columnists include Ravish Kumar of NDTV India, Richa Aniruddha, who has for long hosted the popular TV show Zindagi Live, gender writer Vartika Nanda, Chicago-based veteran journalist Mayank Chhaya (who writes the column Amreeka Diary), digital expert Osama Manzar (also a Mint columnist), and herbal medicine expert Deepak Acharya.
We completed a year this month, with our newspaper distributed by trains, buses and taxis to 48 districts across Uttar Pradesh, apart from western Bihar and Ranchi in Jharkhand. From the University of Texas at Austin, US, to the deepest recesses of Bihar, our readers call us after reading our print and electronic versions. Broadcast alliances are being put in place.
Brands and media buying companies are talking to us. We are now tying up long-term (a year or more) advertising deals with a national broadcaster, a top packaged consumer goods conglomerate and leading media buying companies.
Next year, we want to scale up by becoming a daily. We are also about to launch an audio newspaper on the mobile platform for millions of consumers, another first, and we have been commissioned by Doordarshan to produce a TV show called Gaon Connection.
And within 11 months of being in existence, we won our first journalism award. Editor-in-chief S.B. Misra (also my father) won the Laadli National Media Award for gender sensitivity in the Best Editorials category.
All this, of course, hugely affected my already chaotic professional life. Ever since I quit the last day job of my life (deputy executive editor, Hindustan Times) in 2009 and leapt into the uncertain world of the entertainment business, my life had transformed anyway. Far away from the 12pm editorial meetings, I now narrate stories on radio to 40 million listeners across 37 cities every night, do live storytelling performances and sing songs I have written over the past decade for Hindi films; write film scripts and run and mentor writers at Content Project, a writing company which produces radio, TV digital and film content.
To complicate this already complicated life, I had now decided to start a newspaper. My fixed deposits were (are) fast running out.
My colleagues in the Hindi film business were beginning to wonder if I had quit writing for films. At creative meetings about love stories I often talk passionately about Gaon Connection. I had to, with great difficulty, find professional recording studios in Lucknow, Kanpur and Agra where I could record stories for my radio storytelling show even while devoting time to Gaon Connection.
In the middle of this madness, my wife Yamini was hugely supportive, and took over a lot of the operations work. That’s the beauty of start-ups—in the beginning, the only people who believe in you and will work for free are your family and friends. My parents, long used to my crazy ways and creative adventures, grumbled in front of me and worried behind my back in the early months, but slowly came around—and how. When we completed one year, the first congratulatory call was from my mother (Nirmala Misra), of course.
Gaon Connection has attracted widespread attention because the mainstream media has long stopped documenting the extraordinary changes afoot in rural India. Journalists have stopped going where this nation is transforming—out there.
Out there, this is what’s happening, documented in some of the stories in Gaon Connection through the past year: Women in villages are flocking to beauty parlours, makeshift gyms are opening up for the youth, chowmein and momos are being sold on roadside thelas and eaten on leafy saucers (pattals). Dish antennae are penetrating deep into rural India, which means satellite TV and all its content—from saas bahu to Bigg Boss—is being watched by millions of emerging rural viewers alongside their urban counterparts. Girls are wearing jeans, breaking the earlier social taboo, and everyone’s on the Internet via their mobile phone.
Back in Bhauwapur village in the Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh, all these earth-shattering changes might not yet have started to manifest themselves. But you can smell the aspirations and confidence. There is a hunger for information about new careers and government schemes that rarely reach the outback.
A hunger that people in cities better understand rural India, erasing the time-frozen stereotypes that news and entertainment media have built about villages.
A rural newspaper is a small beginning to build that bridge.
Because India has a Gaon Connection.
Neelesh Misra is the founder of Gaon Connection.