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The Peasant and the Mystic - Uncharted Rajasthan

By Rajat Chaudhuri

September 21, 2010


The young man who was sitting next to me and who had earlier in the evening pinched my chocolates, was snoring away to glory. I knew it was him, because it would be impossible for the guy on the other side to reach across the aisle and try to filch my Cadbury bars from the seat pocket without somebody at the back of the bus noticing. However I did not mind, hoping luck would be on my side for the rest of this journey, into the deepest interior of Rajasthan, that I had begun earlier that night. I was traveling along the National Highway 8 (NH 8) from Jaipur which is the capital city of this western province of India. We were heading for Jodhpur, a distance of about 330 kms, on the first leg of a whistle-stop tour covering 2000 kms in five days of dense summer heat. I was on a research assignment and working against troublesome deadlines that sat in a permanent crease on my forehead, as I rushed through big cities, sleepy towns and far-flung villages, packing in as much as I could, in each precious day.

The bus had settled into a steady pace and the singing tyres on the good road had put many of the passengers to sleep. This was the late-night air-conditioned bus I had taken, after a hearty meal at the Fort Chandragupt hotel beside the Sindhi camp bus terminus where the lal-maas (red lamb curry) had been delicious and the peat-smoked whisky memorable.

The air-conditioning was running at full blast and with many of the regulators not working, the inside of the bus had become pretty cold even though it was just the closing days of a hot desert summer. I was at the mercy of the AC when I noticed that most of the passengers had tucked in the loose ends of the curtains into the AC ducts and in fact the conductor was helping some of the others do this. Impressed by this shiny example of jugaad - sometimes translated as `frugal engineering' - I tucked in the ends of the rough blue curtain into the AC duct over my head and it felt much better. The new issue that now cropped up was that with the curtain out of the way, the light from the headlamps of all the return traffic was in my eyes and my hope to catch a refreshing few hours of sleep blew up in the air. And so when a tentative dawn peeped slowly over the Jodhpur horizon and the bus rolled into a still-sleeping city I was bleary-eyed and groggy. Yet it was a new day and a new city and so the lack of sleep was not a bother.

Atithi Devo Bhava - The Guest is God

At the main bus terminus, we were greeted, in the style - that is no more notorious but just a way of life for travellers in India - by the hotel touts and auto-rickshaw drivers ready to make a quick kill to start their day. It was apparent that the tourism department's spirited Atithi Devo Bhava campaign to inculcate a sense of hospitality towards guests, was failing, not only in Jodhpur, but almost everywhere else in this country. With some difficulty I shook off the greedy touts and walked a little way from the terminus where I found a gentle faced auto-rickshaw driver, ready to take me to a nearby hotel.

It turned out a decked up guest house instead, with airy rooms and balconies shaded by bougainvillea creepers and a glimpse of the Aravalli ranges with Kipling's `work of giants' the imposing Mehrangarh fort, towering above the city. Clean bathrooms with running hot water at last washed away the memories of the flowing toilet at a dodgy dhaba where the bus had taken a pit stop last night.

I quickly ordered breakfast that could carry me through till evening, if required. Butter-dripping parathas with aloo-matar and mixed daal is not a safe way to start a hot and humid day, when you have a few hundred kilometers of bus rides ahead of you in unfamiliar country, but greed got the better of me and I gorged without a care.

Bus to Barmer

My plan was to head for Barmer, 230 kms to the south-west of Jodhpur along the NH 112 and stop for meetings on the way. Getting a seat on the Barmer bound state bus was deceptively simple and thinking I had a little time, went to get biscuits and tiffin cakes for the road. When I walked back to the bus bay, my bus had left.

Trying hard to keep my spirits up, I looked for help. The man at the ticket counter of Jodhpur bus terminus was very forthcoming with advice and assured me that I could still catch my bus if I took another one which was leaving just then, which would meet my bus at the edge of the city.

The race to save my day begun, with a busload of curious accomplices. We rushed through the Jodhpur traffic with trundling camel carts, noisy auto-rickshaws, speeding two-wheelers and private cars. In half and hour we reached a bus-stop at the edge of the city where the other bus was waiting but by the time I could hop off with my rucksack, the bus revved up its engine and sped away.

Still there was hope. Helpful locals suggested I give the chase in an auto-rickshaw but this also proved futile. The bus was too fast for the auto and in ten minutes I knew, I had missed it for sure.

I threw away the ticket but still could not blame the helpful ticket seller at Jodhpur bus terminus who had suggested this chase. I could not blame him because he had tried to be helpful and one seldom comes across helpful staff at ticket stalls of busy bus-stations. In fact, I was impressed by much else I saw in Rajasthan. The LokMitra centres for instance: These have been set up by the government using a public-private partnership model, as one stop shops for people to buy bus and train tickets, pay phone and utility bills and avail services of various government departments under a single roof, all with smiling attendants and working computers.

My luck hadn't run out completely. Few feet away from where I stood, was a little ticket kiosk with the man inside telling me that the next Barmer bus was due soon. In half an hour it arrived and finally my Barmer trip was on.

Teej Gaiety Hides a Secret

The landscape changed fast as we traveled. It grew barren, vegetation thinned out and the headgear of the locals seemed to become increasingly colourful. In a few hours we were in parched country where dust blew over sandy desolation, small two horse towns popped up after long stretches to be engulfed again by the vast expanse of the approaching Thar. The keekar seemed to be the only tree that survived here and as all other vegetation disappeared we watched flocks of camels ringed around the lone keekar, chewing at its branches.

The sun was harsh at three and we were approaching the small town of Baytu where with the advice of passengers I got off the bus. Barmer was still an hour's drive from here and I was trying to save time. After much haggling with a driver, I hired an Indica to take me to the villages around the town of Karmawas, about 60kms to the east, where I wanted to meet some people.

The roads were good and the guy drove fast, often too fast, through the commercial centre of Balotra and through Samdari and then turning right towards the town of Karmawas. The road narrowed down after Samdari and all along the route we saw women and little girls in green and red ghagra-cholis and veils, glass bangles and flowers in their hair, walking in festive groups and this reminded me that this was the day of Teej, a major festival of Rajasthan, which celebrated the union of Shiva-Parvati (the Hindu God and his consort) and marked the onset of monsoon. But ironically we were driving into an area where the water table had fallen and where the land was failing to feed those who depended on it for sustenance. Though this had not dampened the spirit of Teej - it was in grand display along the road to Karmawas and in the little peasant villages that surrounded it - the lack of rainfall and falling productivity of crops had pushed some women of the area to sex work, a sad story that my driver revealed with a gleam in his eyes. I couldn't uncover in my short visit, whether some of the young men from nearby commercial centres were pimping these poor peasant women, but on my way back after the meetings, the driver suddenly slowed the car in a desolate stretch and out from the bushes lining the road came walking a veiled lady, wearing an eye-catching dress and green and blue glass bangles. Who was she and what was she doing there? He cut the engine and she glided up to our car and he spoke with her in whispers, in a language I could hardly understand. It was beginning to get dark and when I made my irritation clear, he reluctantly switched on the ignition and we were on our way.

It had been a long day and my mind was clogged with a mix of feelings. Evening in this desert country is beautiful but the beauty was marred by thoughts about the hardship of those I had just met. Up in north-west, in areas adjoining Punjab, the Indira Gandhi Canal (yes it had environmental costs) has transformed lives by taming the desert, but here, darkness had lingered.

Apparently there was a bus to Jodhpur that I could get from Samdari and in that case, I need not halt at Barmer for the night. Dusk comes late in these parts and as the Indica zipped through the last few kilometers before Samdari, I watched the amber light cloak the barren land. In that light, the fragile keekar trees with their delicate forms, looked like souls hovering over the parched earth. A melodious dhola song played inside our car but darkness had cut off the world outside.

A Sleep-Deprived Junkie

The Jodhpur bus was waiting and I easily got a seat. Stowing away my sack on the luggage rack I dozed off and didn't wake up till we were at the fringes of the city. It was raining in torrents and Jodhpur was flooded. I called the guest-house and they said they still had a room available and could get me something to eat.

When I checked in again, it was way past midnight. My new room was on the terrace and a boy, got me rotis, dal and a sabzi from some all-night dhaba. There was a cot outside my room where the boy slept, I didn't know when, because I saw him working again early in the morning. It was then, I noticed his dazed look, as he went about running from kitchen to guest rooms and back and knew that the poor creature had been transformed into a sleep-deprived junkie working long hours and getting little rest. In the towns and cities of Rajasthan there are government schemes like the Akshay Kalewa that provide subsidised meals, to the urban poor and back in Jaipur I had seen how people line up for this benefit. But this boy, whose toothy smile was sweet as any other kid's, needed time to play and read and not serve moody tourists who could demand a gin and tonic at midnight and heaven knows what else.

Deeper South

This day, I planned to take a bus to the city of Udaipur which will be my staging post for a journey into the southern district of Banswara bordered by Madhya Pradesh to its east and Gujerat to its south-west. So after a mild lunch at a vegetarian eating-house near the bus stand, I hopped into the air-conditioned coach, which would take about seven hours to cover the 270 kms to Udaipur.

It was already late afternoon, when the bus took a ten-minute stop at the district town of Pali, after which it swung into NH 14 and as the sun began to slant off to the west, the Aravallis closed in on us from the east: Green hillocks with a lone temple sticking out at the top, a muddy river in a gravelly course, a barren wasted hill, the skies blue with cottony clouds. The light began to go as we approached Sirohi from where we would cross a spur of the Aravallis to reach Udaipur. We had already gained some height and when we reached the halt at Sirohi, it was chilly outside and a sickle moon had risen in the sky. The bus stopped on the wayside and we took our tea and mirch-fries from the lone shop at a bend on the hill road. It was completely dark by then and the fresh air was bracing, so the passengers hung-on a little longer. We started in 20 minutes and after a slow and careful climb through the darkness reached Udaipur (1900 feet) around nine in the evening and immediately checked into a traveler's hotel near the bus stand.

`Seat is Wet'

Early next morning the Udaipur bus terminus was already humming as I searched for my bus to Banswara. The terminus was clean, the coffee kiosk was already in business and the cake and biscuits man was settling down in his shop. Passengers hummed around ticket-stalls. Buses were going from here all over the state and beyond, to towns in Gujerat and as far as Mumbai.

My one-night-stand with Udaipur was over. I left the city, once the capital of the kingdom of Mewar, in a rickety bus with a roguish looking conductor who had reserved one of the passenger seats for himself with a handkerchief and a lie. `Seat is wet,' he would tell anyone tempted to use it.

The road to Banswara (165kms) winds through strikingly beautiful countryside and as it had rained the night before, it looked more pretty. We stopped at the little town of Salumbar where I dug into good-looking samosas and sipped steaming tea as loud Bollywood music played in the breakfast stalls. Salumbar - this little Rajasthani town, was noisy, colourful and in-your-face India. A fine rain had begun to fall.

The southern reaches of the Aravallis were lit up in a green fire and the whole country looked fresh and fertile. Yet Banswara, where I was headed along the SH32, is one of the backward districts of Rajasthan with a poor human development record. Long neglected and still without a railway network or airport, the deprivation of Banswara was apparent, in the thin commercial traffic on the highways and the stricken nature of the roadside establishments.

Unfeted Archimedes

The bus stopped at a few more places, got more and more crowded and a little before midday reached the city of Banswara from where I hired an auto-rickshaw to take me to the Garhi block for some meetings. There is nothing much to say about the city - it has its share of noisy auto-risckshaws, flower-sellers, mobile-phone signs, small hotels for traveling salesmen and a surprisingly large fan following of Salman Khan, Bollywood's superstar bad boy - his posters were everywhere.

The auto-rickshaw took the road we had come by. The driver, Sunil was talkative and friendly. It was nice to have him but I was worried that he will get distracted talking to me. Sunil was also a genius, an unfeted Archimedes. When I told him that I was getting drenched by the lashing rain, he pulled over and promptly fished out a pair of detachable doors, complete with a working latch and a flap window, which fitted nicely on both sides of the auto. I thanked him as I was reminded of the dirty tarpaulins that serve as the only protection from the rains for a Calcutta auto passenger, while here in small-town India, someone has been so thoughtful.

A Mystic in Nuclear Wasteland

All through this journey we passed men and women of different ages - peasant families, labourers, city-dwellers, packing the auto-rickshaws, riding motorbikes or walking in groups. They were all headed north like us. Loud groups, loud and festive, colourful pennants fluttering from the vehicles, music blaring from speakers. They reminded me of football fans of a winning football team in Kolkata, returning home after a match and I learned from Sunil that they were pilgrims headed for Ramdevra near Pokhran -- India's nuclear wasteland, a distance of about 600 kms, to visit the shrine of Ramdevji - a holy man. `Some of them come walking from Indore and places even further,' Sunil remarked. I marveled, not only at the power of their faith, but more on learning that the 15th century Bhagvan Ramdevji or Ramshahpir has lakhs of followers among both Hindus and Muslims.

On that rainy afternoon outside Banswara, among the endless procession of the devout, trekking great distances to offer prayer at the shrine of a 15th century saint who was a pir (a religious instructor) to the Muslim faith and a deva (a deity) to the Hindus, I felt I had caught a glimpse of what keeps this nation ticking. The unflagging spirit of those travelling hundreds, the tolerance of their simple faith and the sense of community, is what has kept this nation together and what, one hopes, would keep it safe from lustful eyes.

Dreams of a Different Colour

Later that evening and after my interviews at Garhi, I took the auto back to Banswara and from there a bus to Udaipur and a connecting one to Jodhpur where I stayed at the same guest house for the night and saw the sleepless boy working in a daze. I had a beer at the Hotel Mapple next day before boarding the bus to Jaipur where after a night's rest, I was headed for Hindoli, Bundi and Kota on the creaking Hadoti Express with a dreadlocked ticket-checker at the gate and a colourful man at the wheels. Bundi was magic in the evening light. Blue-tinged houses, the lake like a mirror and the fort from another time.

On this last leg of my journey into the depths of Rajasthan, I saw fervour of a different kind. An energy whose sources and expressions were at many removes from the energy of the followers of that 15th century saint from Ramdevra, who had been a Tomar Rajput but had forsaken the trappings of a princely life.

At Hindoli and elsewhere the valorous Gujjars had been agitating for Scheduled Tribes status, which would get them reservations and other benefits of affirmative action. The State was in no mood to humour them and the police had been ruthless in the past. With deprivation in the interiors, a pressure-cooker situation had developed and as I journeyed through the area I could sense how quickly it could again take a turn for the worse. (Finally the government allowed a 5% reservation but that has got stuck in the courts). I left these parts with a heavy heart, on a night bus to Jaipur that reached a bit after midnight, where an alien sabzi and a passable kali dal was all that the hotel kitchen could manage at that hour. Before crashing out on the sagging spring bed that had memories of other lives and the cloying scent of perfumed hair oil, I remembered someone had said - `I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad'. And that was a nice and calming thought.

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