Saturday, 6 October 2012

Travel: Jaisalmer ~ Camelback communique

With Ramu, at the dunes outside Jaisalmer, 1999

The Rabaris, also called Raikas in Marwar, are the breeders of camels. They assert that their ancestor was brought into existence by Lord Mahadeo in order to take care of the first camel, which was created by Parvati for her amusement.

~ Rajputana Gazetteers, Vol. III, by Major K D Eerskine, Calcutta (1908)

His name is Ramu. Deoram, astride the second hump of a seat behind me, tells me so. His gait is awkward and lurching. Tending towards a ramble. Or even a shuffle. One step backwards for every two forward ~ or that’s how it feels to a novice rider like me. I seem to be astride a moving hillock ~ and I’m trying my best not to fall off. And when he’s on a canter, while I teeter precariously atop him, it is quite a dizzying experience.

Ramu’s snout is abuzz with sandflies; he snorts frequently to persuade them to go away. But they return to bug him. So, he trots and frets and tosses his head wildly, while I grit my teeth and clench my teeth, clinging onto the ropes that swing from Ramu’s snout to my hands. I don’t fancy a dramatic toss onto the sparkling desert sands of the Thar in Rajasthan.

 My companions on the camelback adventure share my feelings. I’m one of five amateur riders on an hour’s camel ride from the outskirts of Jaisalmer to the Sam dhani or dunes at the edge of the Thar desert, known as the site of spectacular sunsets.

We start out by jeep from Jaisalmer en route to Sam (pronounced S-a-a-m), 42 km away. As we drive along the smooth asphalt from the desert city, which boasts of a golden sandstone fortress and exquisite havelis, babul shrubs teem by the roadside. The early evening sun dazzles our eyes, attuned to mile upon mile of bright wasteland. There are few dwellings in sight. Nothing seems to move or grow or thrive.

A sudden screech of brakes. The rubber sears the road. The jeep halts. And we spot the reason why.

A family of camel-herders stand by the wayside. They strike up a conversation with the jeep driver in Marwari, the regional language around Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.

Our driver returns. Would we like to ride to the dunes, he asks. These are honest men, he assures us, adding that he has known this foursome of Rabaris for years. “It’s just Rs.100 per head ~ all the way to Sam, a ride of over an hour. And they will drop you back to the jeep after sunset,” he tosses in a bonus. It is an offer we cannot resist.

Deoram, who owns Ramu, encourages me to jump astride his kneeling camel. Ramu tosses his head disdainfully and goes hrrrrrumph! The snorting so close to my ear is unnerving. 

As Ramu sways, rides and lurches skywards on his spindly legs, I shriek with fear. Around me, my companions are on camelback, but two to a camel for moral support. I could do with some, too. So, Ramu kneels once more and burly, moustachioed Deoram, who’s 28 ~ clad in a weather-worn white dhoti and kurta ~ accompanies me on Ramu. Before he gets on, I notice that he strips a branch off a desert shrub and twirls it.

Don’t hit Ramu, I say, fearing the worst.

As our caravan of four camels strides towards the dunes, I overhear a breeze-wafted conversation from atop Bijli, who strides alongside us.

“Have you been to school?” the tourist from Gwalior asks Pirdan, Deoram’s younger brother. He is bright-eyed and lively at barely 20.

‘Yes, I’ve studied till Class X. I’m the only one in our family who has studied so far…”

“Are you married?” the tourist persists.

“I got married four years ago, at 16,” Pirdan replies. “”I was engaged when I was seven. She’s from our community.”

“Child marriage!” exclaims the Gwalior man. “How could you allow it?”

“It’s part of our tradition,” responds Pirdan. “I’m proud to be a part of it… We even allow widow remarriage.”

What does your family do, I ask Deoram.

“We’re Rabaris, camel-herders,” he responds in Marwari, which sounds like a first cousin to Hindi. “We rear and tend camels. We’ve been lived this way for generations, perhaps centuries.”

Has he had Ramu for long? “For 12 years now,” Deoram says with pride. “I bought him at the annual cattle fair at Pushkar, near Ajmer.”

My curiosity gets the better of my manners. How much does a camel cost?

“About Rs. 15,000 to 20,000,” Deoram’s voice is gruff as he uses his makeshift whip to gently spur Raju to a canter, for the other camels are setting a lively pace.

How does his family live around the year? “We sometimes hire our camels out to draw carts,” Deoram’s mama or maternal uncle replies from Mayur-back, as he trots ahead of Ramu. “During the tourist season from October to February, we charge Rs. 100 per ride to the dunes. We have four camels, so we make about Rs. 400 per day. This is a good season for us. But times are not so good in summer…”

A dry season in every sense? “It’s tough to feed the family then,” Deoram, who has studied upto Std. VIII, picks up the thread of the conversation. “My parents, my mama, my brother and our families, we all live together. Since we aren’t farmers, and the land is so parched, our meals then are very frugal…”

Hrrrrrrrrrumphhh, says Ramu, lurching along, contributing his mite to the small talk. The sandflies buzz on and on about his snout.

Does Ramu respond to his name? Deoram laughs, “Of course. When he’s out grazing and I call his name like this  ~ Ramoooooooo ~  he stops wherever he is. Then, it’s easy to find him…”

Ramu tosses his head and grunts at this point, as if in assent.

We cross mile upon mile of sun-bleached scrubland. The caravans before us have carved a path through the arid waste. So, Ramu follows Bijli and Mayur without missing a step.

“Do you know,” Deoram suddenly breaks into a torrent of words, “the oonthwalas or camel-herders of Sam are thieves? They take you for a ride of just 10 or 15 steps and charge you Rs. 100!” His voice peaks with indignation. “Then, they stop and refuse to go another step unless you pay Rs. 75…They cheat everyone. And they’re Muslims…”

(That seems strange when, later, I hear from a schoolmate in Jaipur that the Rabari community embraces both Muslims and Hindus. She even knows of Muslims in Rajasthan with Hindu names).

As Ramu shuffles on while I careen from side to side ~ I’m told the speedy camels of Jaisalmer can cover 100 km in a night ~ Deoram periodically waves his arm to indicate the dunes in the distance. Time seems to blur as we weave, sway and stagger our way towards the horizon.

Over a hump in the land, in a split second, time comes to a standstill. Wave upon wave of golden curves, breeze-kissed and vegetation-free, spell a magical ocean of golden grains. Amidst the rise and fall of the dunes are caparisoned camels in stately procession, their riders mere silhouettes at that height.

The radiant sun is still overhead. It singes the sandy slopes in the background orange. Flames shade the edge of the horizon, where the sky fuses with the landscape.

The stillness of waiting is pierced by bhopas or folk minstrels, singing the plaintive strains of Maro Desh Marwar (my land is Marwar). Colourful safas or turbans on their heads, embroidered mojris on their feet, playing on a ravanhatta (Ravana’s bow), they offer a vocal votive feast to the glorious sunset.

As their voices stream from song to song, the skies respond as if ablaze. Fiery oranges blend into passionate reds, mauves vie for skypower with burnt pinks. Prussian blues appear at the edge of the aerial canvas ~ until both the sunset palette and the eye drown in a star-drenched sky.

Within a half-hour, dozens of camels tread the timeless desert sands on their way back to tents, hotels or vehicles. We wind our way back to Ramu and Mayur, only to find Deoram and his brother rivetted by alien rites of courtship. All tall foreigner reaches for the hand of his girlfriend behind a dune.

Gora kitna harami hain! (The foreigner is a rascal)”, exclaims Deoram. Pirdan responds with, “Dekho, gori to chher raha hain! Besharam! (Look, he’s touching the white girl. Shameless”)

Neither the constant tourist traffic in the Jaisalmer area nor the passage of time nor thousands of sunsets have tinted the lives of the Rabaris. Theirs is a world wrought aeons ago.

But we, who live today, have to re-tune ourselves to the present. I get onto Ramu once more, this time with less trepidation, and trot all the way to the jeep without toppling off. A solo trip this time.

Off the camel trail, after a special evening thanks to Ramu and his ilk, we return to Jaisalmer.

We carry with us memories of a glowing sun merging into a dazzle of stars, and shoes filled with pure gold ~ of Sam sand.

(Sunday Herald, Bangalore, January 1999)

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Travel: A Kaziranga dawn safari on the wild side

The Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros we spy

The alarm sounds like a distant drone in our room at the Bonhabi resort in Assam in March 2010. Krittika and I shake ourselves awake ~and bolt into the darkness outside, where our guide (now our friend) Mirza waits for us. 

Krittika’s German husband Markus and his friend Christopher decide they need to sleep-in. Or else, what’s a holiday about? Besides, we have already done the jeep safari around the Kaziranga National Park the previous evening, their heavyweight, sophisticated lenses ready to shoot at sight.

But Krittika and I feel the adrenalin surge of an adventure ahead. So, we’re shiny-eyed and bushy-tailed, even at 4.30 am. It is pitch dark outdoors. 

Krittika, Markus and Mirza clown after the jeep safari

By the time Ratul bhaiya drives us to Kaziranga in his Toyota Innova, we find dozens of beautifully-dressed ladies from Nagaland milling around. They giggle shyly behind their hands. They nudge each other playfully. They have all the bubbliness of truant schoolgirls sans an escort. They queue up and settle into seats atop tame elephants, six to each mount.

On a parallel soundtrack, Mirza tells us of the retirement benefits for the elephants at Kaziranga. They are allowed off-duty at the age of 60 (or is it 65?) The elephants are given shelter and food for the rest of their lives, according to Assam Forest Department regulations.

The Naga ladies are all set to go. There is just one elephant left ~ Babu. He seems sleepy, like us, but tame enough. Our seat is different from theirs: two of us face the front, one faces the rear. An elevated platform allows us to clamber onto Babu easily enough. We have a forest ranger with a gun with us. Just in case of an emergency, we are told.

Babu sways, tosses his head, then joins the queue of elephants lined up for the crack-of-dawn safari. How different will this be from the jeep trip the previous evening?

Very different, as we learn over the next hour or so. As we head into the tall, bristling elephant grass, we’re told not to reach out for it. Its sharp edges could cut our hands.

En route, Krittika and I joke with Mirza. About the green, orange and white chutneys we get at a traditional dinner at Guwahati. About the drunk local youth who comes up to me afterwards while we wait for Ratul bhaiya to bring our vehicle closer, with the puzzling query, “Australian or what?!!” Who, me?

From the simple wooden howdah atop Babu, we scan the grass. What will we sight? When?

“Look,” whispers Krittika. A grey shape looms ahead as Babu pushes through the grass. It’s a Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros. Kaziranga is home to two-thirds of the world’s population of these animals.

It has its huge derriere turned towards us. Turn, turn, turn, Krittika and I whisper to it silently. The rhino declines. Later, we see a group of rhinos. One faces us. Click-click-click, go Krittika’s camera and mine.

Statistics hit me in the face later on. For the rhino’s horn is prized as an aphrodisiac in Asian cultures. As a result, between 1980 and 2005, 567 Kaziranga rhinoceroses were killed by poachers. Despite armed patrols and legislation including Assam Forest Regulation of 1891 and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 2002, 18 more died in 2007.

A group of gaur or Indian bison

As Babu sways from side to side, our mahout Raju puts his finger to his lips. We need to chatter less in the wilderness.

We scan the horizon. No tigers in sight. The only elephants we see are the procession of tourists who lead the way ahead of us. We spot some impressive gaur or the Indian bison. I’m not trained to identify birds, though some perch on the swaying grass, others fly overhead.

Suddenly, we come to a standstill. Babu puts his head down. He pulls up a clump of elephant grass. He chews. Slowly. Meditatively. With rapt attention.

A minute goes by. Two. Five. Babu continues to chew. Raju is impatient now. He prods the elephant with his pronged metal prod.

Babu flaps his ears. He continues to pull up tufts of grass. He chews some more. He seems disinclined to move ahead. The last of the elephant procession with other tourists have long vanished from sight.

Raju is irritated now. And impatient. Even angry. He prods Babu’s head. The elephant brushes him away.

The mahout tries once more. And yet again. With the same result.

Raju prods Babu’s head hard. Once. Twice. A few times. Krittika and I want to scream. Blood appears on the elephant’s forehead. We gasp. It hurts to even watch.

At this, Babu trumpets. He rears his head. He rises up, briefly on his hind legs. He shakes us from side to side. Quite unexpectedly. Even violently. We clutch the wooden bars of our seat in fright.  

Long minutes tick by. Raju goads him some more. More terrifying sounds emerge from the elephant. He sways from side to side. Babu refuses to give up. The prod pokes the bleeding spot once more.

Please don’t hurt the elephant any more, Krittika and I plead.

Mirza suggests that perhaps Babu should retire from these safaris. Maybe he is too old? Or hungry at this hour?

After what seems like aeons to us, Babu reluctantly rambles through the grass once more. We spot more bison. The odd rhino or four.

But all we mull over is odd thoughts. What if we had fallen off the wooden seat? What if Babu had tossed us off? Would Mirza, Krittika and I have turned into the tricolour Assamese chutneys underfoot?

 What if we had a closer encounter of the rhino kind? Despite their bulk, they are known to charge at upto 50 km.p.h. We are grateful that we are able to shrug off the fear ~ and laugh once more.

Krittika and I watch Babu make friends with his mahout again

Once we dismount after the dawn safari, we find that Babu and Raju are friends once more. The elephant gives his mahout a trunk up, so that he can clean his wound.      

On our way back to the Bonhabi resort around 7.30 am, Krittika, Mirza and I stop at a little roadside shack.  The sun is now a red ball of fire in the sky.   

Settlers of Bangladeshi origin man the shack on National Highway 37 between Kuwarital and Tezpour in Assam. Clad in a coarse cotton sari, she cooks us hot parathas and potato sabji for breakfast. Her man, in a checked lungi, looks at us with sleepy eyes.

We try to read the unasked questions behind his cloudy eyes. Who are we? Where are we from?  We do not belong in their midst, for sure.

A fiery post-safari sunrise at Kaziranga
I have not shared this story often. But it all came back in a rush of late. I thought of Raju early in 2012 when unprecedented flooding of the Brahmaputra took a toll in Kaziranga. Over 540 animals, including 13 rhinos and numerous hog deer perished. 

The safari on the wild side was rekindled when our friend Mirza visited me in Bangalore just last week. Over cake and limoncello, we re-imagined Babu vividly from the standpoint of almost ‘tricolour chutneys’ who survived.

Where is Babu today? Is he safe? Does he still take tourists on Kaziranga safaris across its 378 sq. km. at dawn? I wish I knew the answers.


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Crafts: The call of northeast India


AT first glance, Bangalore’s ANTS store seems like a mere crafts outlet. It offers cane-handled Tangkhul Naga black pottery and Manipuri kauna reed mats, traditional dai knives in a sheath, elegant Bodo weave wraparound skirts, even coral-turquoise jewellery. But beyond its sunny cafĂ©, where conversation flows easy over cake and cappuccino, lies an invisible but potent mission. For this outlet in upmarket Indiranagar, is more about people than products.

Its intent? To create illuminated entry points for mainstream India into the Seven Sisters and One Brother (Sikkim) states of the often-misinterpreted, little-visited northeast.

This was apparent at its recent festivals of Meitei and Tangkhul Naga food, celebrating the universal language of food. Sourcing ingredients like fermented bamboo and delectable shelled snails from Manipur, the former was cooked over two days by Meitei students and IT professionals. Over 2000 of them live in the IT hub. Biting into Paknam, a savoury pancake of steamed herbs, spices, dry fish and gram flour, we mull over how little Bangalore knows of the Meitei.

The million-strong Meitei are the major ethnic group of Manipur, whose seven clans trace their written history back to 33 AD. Such inputs catapult us beyond familiar connects, such as Manipuri dance, director Ratan Thiyam’s famed Chorus Repertory Theatre, and the iron-willed dissident Irom Sharmila.

Tasting Shingju salad of cabbage, raw papaya and fermented fish, my thoughts race to a March 2010 group exploration of Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. The journey left us full of questions:

When the biodiversity-rich Aruchanal mountains are latent with tourist promise, why is there but a single infrequent helicopter flight to Tawang from Guwahati? Why are Assamese highways the only connections between eastern and western Arunachal? Why are Indian soldiers (not police) allowed to beat up handcuffed suspects in a public jeep in daylight in Assam? The answers are hardly as sweet as the kheer of purple-black rice, grown only in Manipur.

Issues apart, our trip left us memories to cherish. Of women weavers at traditional looms under their chang ghar on stilts on Assam’s Majuli island. Of a Khasi church service dedicated to us in friendly Mawlynnong in Meghalaya. Of the grandeur of Tawang monastery against the snow-steepled Himalayas. The journey only whetted our appetite for Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram and Sikkim.      

Such positive stories from the northeast are the foci of the ANTS store, committed to Fairtrade and Craftmark values. Trichao Thomas, a Naga from the Pomai tribe of Manipur, coordinates its programme to ‘northeastize the mainstream.’ How? Through initiatives like food festivals, readings from ‘Neti Neti,’ a novel by Shillong-born Anjum Hasan, even a mini Naga cultural festival. Unfortunately, historian Ramachandra Guha’s talk on the Naga peace process was cancelled due to the July 2008 Bangalore blasts.

ANTS, launched in December 2007, is an offshoot of the Action Northeast Trust ( Like her counterparts on Majuli, this store showcases weaves by Bodo women like Bongaigoan’s Sheena Basumatary, 38.

In 2002, design student Smitha Murthy from Bangalore’s Srishti school asked Sheena and four others to create samples of traditional motifs as part of a ‘Weaving Peace’ project. Sheena agreed because her husband, a driver, did not earn enough to support their three children.

Three years later, Sheena joined Aagor Dagra Afad, registered to empower Bodo woman weavers. Today, as its assistant managing trustee, she guides 200 others. And Smitha, who reinterprets Bodo weaves as sleek cutaway blouses in sync with urban India, is both ANTS designer and an Aagor trustee. Over the past nine years, Aagor has distributed Rs. 65 lakhs to its 102 weavers (soaring to 400 in response to larger orders), by “crafting livelihoods for the poorest, harnessing strengths of the weakest.” Its sales have touched Rs. 2 crore.

Sheena, who studied only upto Std. 2, says, “The money I earn from weaving has given me self-confidence and control over my life. I’d never imagined that I would one day make important decisions for such a big organization.”

Every product at ANTS couches an unvoiced story from the Northeast, often visualized by mainstream India as an unfathomable, troubled region. This pilot store in Bangalore hopes to use “soft power to mould minds.” Even if changing mindsets takes years, NGOs and the Bangalore intelligentsia can now reach out to the local northeastern diaspora of over 65,000. Perhaps New Delhi and Mumbai will respond as empathetically one day.

For those who long to explore the northeast, ANTS is currently engaged in talks with groups like GypsyFeet, engaged with community-based tourism and local home-stays. Perhaps that will keep hope alive within Awon, Athing and Mimi, the Nagas from Manipur who staff ANTS. For they dream of a united India, sensitized towards the  distant, tantalizing northeast.

 (The Hindu Business Line 2003)