Kolkata, July 21 (IANS) She almost took up an engineering job and would love to teach farming to village youth. Fate willed otherwise. Meet Shikha Mandi, 24, the first Indian radio jockey (RJ) to host a programme in the indigenous Santhali language who believes in taking negative feedback sportingly, upholding the unique treasures hidden in her tribal culture and entertaining her listeners.
"Strangely, people... tell you about the mistakes you make, but never shower praise when you do well. But I will thank those people who just had negative comments for me as they made me determined to learn the 'Ol-Chiki' script of our language," Shikha, hailing from Belpahari village in Jhargram, about 170 km west of Kolkata, told IANS in an email interview.
Her "Johar Jhargram" (Greetings Jhargram) show, broadcast on Radio Milan 90.4 FM, is targeted at approximately six million Santhali speakers spread across India, Bangladesh and Nepal.
People of the community were very excited to know about the programme in their mother tongue, and that was encouraging.
"I want to uphold the intricate details of my culture and want the people to know about it. We wrap the sari very differently; our marriage rituals are very unique. Dancing to the beats of our musical instruments is sheer madness. Our 'Chicken Pitha' (chicken stuffed rice meal cake) is a delicacy," Shikha said.
The journey of a farmer's daughter, born in a mud house with beautiful wall paintings, wasn't a cakewalk. In the interest of education, she left her parents when she was four and grew up at her paternal uncle's house in Kolkata.
"I left home, but my heart was with my parents. My uncle and aunty loved me a lot, still I missed my roots," she said.
"I love making friends, but shifting from a village wasn't easy. As a child, I was awed to see this new city, different people. I found them really pretty as I was a dark-skinned person. I felt very low, couldn't even love myself and thought that I couldn't make friends due to my skin colour. But then I realised the importance of doing something... apart from having a pretty appearance," she added.
Graduating from an Industrial Training Institute, Shikha was to appear for an engineering apprenticeship when she cracked her RJ interview.
"RJing is my dream job which I would always do... but then, as I love working in villages, I have done a short course in fishery management from Kalyani University," Shikha revealed.
Initially she was a bundle of nerves in the RJ's hot seat. But, very soon, she found it magical as it increased her confidence and she could speak Santhali fluently.
Having no formal training, she got immense support from her Radio Milan team.
"In the beginning, it wasn't easy, as people complained that I mixed Bengali words while speaking, which made me more determined to improve. Two of my friends helped me to polish my language," the RJ said.
Now she decides the programme schedule herself, and writes the scripts after discussing it with her boss.
Her research is based on a thorough study and the ground realities of the Santhals.
"I have joined an NGO. On Sunday's I move out and meet the local people. Interacting, knowing about their daily life and listening to their problems is helpful. The different lifestyles cannot be understood from a distance," Sikha said.
Cherishing the good response since her first broadcast in November, she said: "Making small impacts gives me tremendous joy. After one of my shows on traditional attire, a listener called me to inform how she had started wearing the sari on various occasions."
She finds Kolkata very colourful. Growing up here and coming across different personalities has been quite advantageous for Shikha.
"If I didn't get the opportunity to visit Kolkata, I would have missed the sunset at the Dakshineshwar Ghat, waiting for the traffic and crossing the busy roads, crowded buses, and people struggling for seats -- all this is thrilling. But the city lacks the peaceful atmosphere of the villages," Shikha said.
She feels she has delayed going back to her roots. Staying with mother and father would have brought her closer to the culture benefitting her today.
But according to her aunt, everything happens for a reason. If she never came to the city for education, maybe be her path would have led somewhere different.
"Who knows, maybe by now I would have become someone's wife," Shikha joked.
A girl who likes drawing, singing, dancing, reading and writing poems... and knows how to entertain people and spread useful messages at the same time. In her show, she discusses tradition, culture, love, sadness, comedy, relationships, and parent's trust, all for the Santhals.
(Binita Das can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)