In my previous post on the “Summer of 1992“, I shared with you one of the reasons why that year was so important for me. I continue with another post on the same theme, but set in the winter of 1992. Once again, this involves travel for the purpose of study as part requirement of the Master’s programme in Geology I was pursuing at that time.
“Right. Everyone take off every single piece of metal on your body and keep it in your bags. No belts, earrings, chains, rings, loose change, metal rimmed spectacles, etc. You cannot carry any metal inside as it is dangerous. Also, no lighters or matchsticks or any combustible substance.”
I listened to these instructions carefully and started taking off the metal items on my body. My classmates did the same.
“Once you’re done, please keep your bags in this corner of the room. Don’t worry about its safety for the room will be locked and a security guard will be stationed outside.”
It took us a while to remove all metal and combustible items items from our person and pockets, put them in our backpacks, and then stow them in the corner indicated. Finally, we were done.
“Everyone done? Good. Come and collect these hard hats and headlamps from me. I’ll show you how to wear them.”
All of us lined up to collect out ‘gear’ and get ‘kitted’ out with a growing sense of excitement and wide grins on our faces.
“All set, everyone? Good. Follow me.”
And we followed him as led us down a flight of stairs going into the earth. Deep into the earth.
No, this is not a fantasy tale or a dream. It’s real. I’m narrating the opening scene of the visit of our second year M.Sc. Geology batch to the underground coal mines of Kamptee in December 1992. This visit was part of a compulsory 5-day study tour where we visited mines and organisations connected with mineral deposits in the area around Nagpur (Maharashtra), Balaghat (Madhya Pradesh) and Dongargarh (Chhatisgarh).
Till our visit to Kamptee, the study tour had been a disappointment as we hadn’t got to see any mine properly or experience mining operations the way we had expected to. For instance, at a copper mine we were asked to gather around the plate glass window in the manager’s plush AC cabin, while he spoke about the mine. The mine was visible as a speck some 500 m away ! In a couple of other mines, we were shown only those areas where mining operations had been abandoned due to flooding or collapse.
So when we arrived at the Kamptee Coalfield, it was with low expectations and even lower enthusiasm. The general joke doing the rounds in class was that we would be shown a pile of coal and and then given a lecture on how it was mined. But as things happened, we saw more than heaps of coal; we actually went underground to see the mining operations.
It was a long descent on fairly even steps and by the time my feet hit level ground, it seemed like I had been descending for ever. When I looked up at the entrance, it was visible as a pinprick of light far above my head. I had expected it to be hot underground, but it was surprisingly cool. The Foreman of the shift, who was also our guide at the mine, explained that this was because of air being circulated and water present underground.
As I looked around in the light of various headlamps shining in all directions, I could see tunnels branching off from where we stood. We were led into one of them which opened into a cavern. And there, I saw coal as nature had made it sandwiched between grey-coloured sandstone. The coal bed was about 4 ft thick and in the light of our headlamps seemed to undulate and ripple gently, almost as if it was alive. As we “oohed” and “aahed” over the coal, the Foreman said that though usable, this particular coal wasn’t of very high quality.
A group of men were digging away at the coal bed with thick wooden sticks. “Can’t use any metal here as this is highly combustible,” said the foreman. “This is one of the reasons why coal is so labour intensive and so expensive as well.”
Time passed in a blur as we explored the underground tunnels, saw different types of coal beds (some with the parent plant material still visible in them), bypassed the dangerous and closed tunnels, saw how the mined coal was collected in baskets and transported by a conveyor belt to the surface, went another level deeper… Wherever we went, we were greeted with enthusiasm by the workers and offered toffees and biscuits and plied with questions about who we were and where we had come from, our families, etc. They expressed wonder at seeing the women students in my class and called us “brave” for coming underground.
Back on the surface after a long, but steady climb, it was to find that we had spent nearly 3 hours underground and that one had to get get used to the sunlight again. As we collected our belongings, the Foreman guide invited us to his house for tea, which we gladly accepted. Once there, we were led to a hand-pump where we could wash off the coal dust before entering his house.
I was amongst the last of my classmates to wash up, and when I entered, the Foreman was regaling his wife about our class and our visit to the mines. He mentioned how times had changed with women studying about rocks and how soon there could be women managing the mines.
The wife was having none of it. “What is the need for girls to study so much? At your age you should all be married or at least getting ready for marriage. Enough of this nonsense. All you girls, come and help me serve tea and snacks to the boys here. They must be so hungry. That is what we women should be doing.”
I felt like I had been slapped, and felt the bile of anger rising in me. And also the realisation of the futility of that anger at the insulting and demeaning statement made by my hostess and someone I would not ever meet again. Besides, this wasn’t the first time I had heard comments like this. Such comments were not uncommon in my university department and delivered in subtle and not-so-subtle ways — like “Why didn’t you take up Arts?” or “Geology is not really for women”.
But I was young and I had brushed such comments away for those were heady days of university life, staying in a hostel on campus. It was the first time I was living away from family and it was a time of freedom, independence, responsibility… all mixed together. More than anything else, it was also a time of building future dreams and looking forward to the day the dreams would come true. The university was like a safe little cocoon to incubate those dreams and aspirations and nothing mattered. Not the big bad world that newspapers claimed existed (it happened to others!), and not the discrimination in my department (it was only a matter of time before that changed) — they were mere obstacles that would be overcome ! 🙂
Reality did intervene every now and then, but it was always pushed away. The comments made by the Foreman’s wife was the first time that I did not push away the anger, which was really culmination of months of putting up with the similar comments and remarks. I spoke about it with some of my classmates and close fiends, but it didn’t help, for they felt that I was overreacting.
It was an anger that seethed and boiled within me for a long time. It took me time to understand that the comments were not to be taken personally, for it was years of blind socialisation that led some people to make such comments. Not to mention their ignorance and insecurity at a society that was in transition, among other things. This was one more of life’s lessons in learning what to focus on and what to ignore. As the understanding grew, the anger subsided, though I must admit that there are times when I feel that it is still there somewhere.
I have mentioned in an earlier post that perspective and wisdom are always gained in hindsight and it was no different here.