Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Music in the Bikaner Desert

The Bag Piper in a remote desert village of Bikaner

I am back to writing this part of the story after a very long gap. It was the last evening of our desert journey. We pestered Maharaj and Raju for a dhani. We did not want an isolated dune or a farm. We did not want that uninterrupted silence. We wanted to be surrounded by the sounds of the village, to talk to farmers, women and children. At the same time, we did not want a big village, but just a small cluster of huts. Fortunately for us, it was that time of the year when the fields were being harvested. It was for this purpose that many huts were erected in the middle of the fields, called dhanis. Entire families had moved to these dhanis to water the fields, and protect them from the peacocks and the deer. The men would patrol these fields even in the nights to prevent deer from eating away the grain and destroying the crop. While we found them pretty and elegant, the villagers found them a nuisance, typical of the chasms between the insider and the outsider.

Our guides Maharaj and Babu resolutely led us to a village. On the way we saw peacocks and deer in plenty. Maize, melons, gavarphali and moongphali were being grown in the fields. We would stop on the way, pluck ripe melons from the field and eat it. Not all were sweet but the juicy flesh of the melon was soothing against the heat. It was October; the beginning of winter, but the day temperatures still hovered around 36 to 38 C. S was trying to photograph the peacock hoping that it will open its fantastic tail. They were both dodging each other. Soon we arrived at the village around 5pm, a cluster of four to five huts. I think they all belonged to the same family, cousin brothers farming separate sections of land. The children in the village got very excited on our arrival. I was a little unnerved by their aggressive behavior. Their only conversation with me was to demand either pens or chocolates. Obviously they had encountered tourists earlier and the memory of chocolates and pens lingered.

Soon, Maharaj and company set up camp, getting ready to cook the evening dinner. S and I walked around the place. Again the desert came up with its surprises. As we moved a few paces ahead there was a lake surrounded by old gnarled trees. That entire area was like a small forest, albeit a forest in summer time. There were peacocks and host of beautiful birds fluttering around. Some of the villagers were making their way from one village to another along this lake. It was twilight and a tranquil evening. Reminded me of on of those settings in the comic book Amar Chitra Katha. We were sitting on a rock, absorbing the surroundings. Upon the arrival of darkness we proceeded to our campsite and switched on the radio. It was pitch dark very soon. None of these areas had electricity.

Very soon the news on our radio began to attract the other villagers, many of them going to their fields for their patrolling duty. The radio always succeeded in creating a level playing field between us and them. A few of them, mostly men would squat around the campsite and wonderful conversations would ensue. They enquired about us and we enquired about them. We compared notes on irrigation, education, health care, transportation, weather, food and family, a wide range of topics. In the middle of one such conversation about marriages and celebrations, one of them accidentally dropped a juicy piece of information - in the adjoining huts, there lived a man called Shankar who played the baaja. That immediately piqued our interest. Soon there was an interest in listening to the baaja. Not just us but the villagers, our camp comrades and of course the pesky children. I think one of them sent word requesting the artist to play the baaja tonight. We were told that he just returned from work and that he would definitely oblige us. We also finished our dinner in the meantime. Maharaj, Mangia and Babu were sprawled on their backs, contently chewing their pan masala listening to the radio. We were also similarly sprawled, listening, talking and half sleepy. The full moon was glowing steady in the clear skies dispelling the darkness around us.

In this moonlit darkness pf contentment, we heard a distant sound of someone playing a musical instrument, obviously tuning his instrument. The notes were so strangely lyrical. The sound was coming from half a kilometer away. From then onwards it was a matter of listening to him as he began coming towards us. I cannot describe the magic of the night. I have been postponing writing this piece precisely because of the intimidation I feel about describing the ambience of this night: the music and the moonlight.

We were about ten people sitting in a circle listening to him in rapt attention. He finally arrived at our camp site. A polite, humble, poor bag piper. Apart from tending to his fields he occasionally played his baaja for weddings for a wage. But he said that it has become a rare occasion. People prefer recorded music to the baaja. He told us that it was a long time since he played his baaja. The instrument was rusty and needed quite a bit of cajoling to be tuned.

The music that he played was traditional music played in weddings and feasts. It was a deep, resonating, baritone music played in a halting manner. I am too poor with my words to describe that moment. I want to write a description that is beautiful and not sentimental or syrupy. My writing skills, I admit are too crude to paint that night. Anyway, soon Maharaj was so inspired that he began to dance to the music. There was clapping, fun and a camaraderie which gradually descended on this motley group of strangers. Maharaj then sang a beautiful bhajan, a bhajan in which all of us joined: Maharaj Gajananda aawoge, more sabha mein ranga barasaoge. (Maharaja Gajananda, please come and bring color to my court)

The Morning After

The following morning, we went to that forest like area and spent a lot of time clicking photographs with the children. There were about ten children who were with us, tending to their goats. The goats were their playthings. Some of them went to the nearby school. We also visited Shankar’s home where he lived with his aged parents, lactating wife and three children. We spent many hours chatting with all of them, curious about their lifestyle and their survival stories. We just didn’t know how time flew. Shankar’s wife had just delivered her daughter, less than one month back. She was already back to work, taking care of the elders, the children, making food etc. We were also offered rotis and a curry made of cucumber. Anything that we heard, ate or experienced there felt heavenly. Surely it was the newness of the place, the unfamiliarity, the rural ambience and the simplicity of the living. Nothing in their household economy was wasted. Every item was subject to recycling. The flesh of the water melons was eaten, the skin was fodder for the goats and the seeds were dried and sold in the market.

Shankar’s wife and I became great friends. I slipped in a hundred rupee note into her blouse, well hidden from the prying eyes of her mother-in-law. Again, such bonding is so amazing. It happens within minutes and crosses the barriers of strangeness. And most of it was non-verbal. There was an electric moment when she asked me to keep her baby and take the child away to the city. I was shaken by the gesture, almost wanting to spirit the child away on an impulse. She wanted to connect with me, give me something from her meager possessions. Soon, she pulled out a tiny vessel in which there was dried mehendi. She conjured up beautiful designs on my hands from that little mehendi, and left her presence on my hands.


The desert safari drew to an end. We were dropped at the highway where we could board a bus to Bikaner. We bid our goodbyes to Maharaj, Mangia and Babu and the camels. They were anyway getting ready for the next batch of tourists. We felt lost and disoriented getting back to dusty bustling Bikaner. Thankfully we had booked our accommodation in Bhairon Vilas Palace which was an oasis in the town. It was late afternoon by the time we reached the palace. That evening, we sat in the spacious courtyard of the palace, chewing on the treasure trove of memories alternately feeling sad and happy.

Even after a year as I remember the trip, I feel very nostalgic. There was certain simplicity to the holiday – traveling through the desert with the help of camels. The food was minimal but filling, the accommodation was tented, and that was it. It was almost an aimless wandering in the desert, gazing around, lost in thought and listening to the radio. The holiday became special because it provided such a radical break from the city schedules that we were so used to. It was no doubt a rugged holiday, with very few additional creature comforts.

That evening and the next morning we walked around dusty Bikaner town buying pickles and sweets for our friends. We had heard that camel leather was easily available in Bikaner. So we looked around for this shop and finally found a small shop selling camel leather goods. We bought some shoulder bags which looked rugged and weather beaten adding to the memories of Bikaner. It was also coming to terms with the dust and disorder of Bikaner as the town began to grown on us steadily. There was a small sweet shop (Chotu Motu Hotel) which made mouth watering puris and a pickle of fenugreek seeds. To call is heavenly would be an understatement. We also walked around the vegetable and spice market, the camel hiring market and many of the lanes and by lanes of the town. By 2pm in the afternoon we were ready to board the train for the long journey ahead to our home town.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

What is a desert safari

When I was recounting the travel story of Bikaner and the desert safari a friend of mine asked me in all curiosity the following question. “Is it not boring to travel for five days in a desert on the back of a camel and doing nothing at all”? I thought it was an interesting question and a useful way to begin the story of the desert safari.

Our original programme was to travel the desert through known contacts. S had a colleague/friend who knew people in Bikaner town. We had planned that through these friends we may be able to get a toehold in the surrounding villages. We dwelled on this idea for quite some time. But very soon we realized that luck played a major role in this elaborate chain and we only had a week’s time to spend in Bikaner. What if the villagers were hostile to us? What if we did not find the right village and ended up only traveling up and down? The doubts were getting to be a little nagging. In the meantime I began to search the net for travel diaries on Bikaner in particular and the Thar desert in general. The few travel diaries that I found were of people’s experiences of the desert through the desert safari. And some of them had very good things to write about the safari. Even though the accounts were few and far between it definitely piqued our interest. A quick search of Lonely Planet and the net enabled us to zero in on Vino Desert safari in Bikaner which promised to offer desert safaris. Now this seemed a good option of panning the desert. There was a promise of tents, dunes and villages which looked very inviting. A quick phone call to Vino also confirmed that the safari could offer us what we wanted and that too at reasonable rates. We promptly dropped our village belle’s contacts and settled for Vino’s desert safari. word about Vino. I must say that he was prompt and punctual in his responsibility towards us. We met him the day we arrived in Bikaner at the Bhairon Vilas Palace and settled the deal. We were to leave for the desert the next morning. Vinod has been organizing these safaris for the past ten to fifteen years and is very popular with tourists. Soon after meeting him we realized that he was serious about his job and also extremely efficient. He delivered what he promised. He promptly put us in touch with the guide, camels, cart and the men.

We reached the desert the next morning where the entire team was waiting for us. We felt a little sheepish that we had such an entourage following us. S embarked the camel while I was on the camel cart. The first view of the desert from atop a camel cart was stunning. S said that the view from atop the camel was even better. He said that he felt like a king. Silence all around except the small trinket bells on the leg of the camel, the sound of the moving cart and the occasional talk of our companions. It was a breathtaking silence. There were tiny dunes all over. Occasionally some people passing by. We had to reach the village Rashipur that afternoon for our lunch. It was the village of one of the camel men. Our first view of a desert village. There were no roads. Camels all over. Some old houses, mostly dilapidated. The village mostly had new houses. The new houses being a sign of the prosperity of the times. The villagers proudly showed us these new houses whereas we were intent on seeing the old ones. They took pride in their newness whereas we hankered after the old. We wanted a certain kind of village to greet us. It made us feel so selfish. It was a contradiction that ran parallel to our desires. We rested in an nearby house. The electricity was off. It was a still silent afternoon. Flies buzzing all around. The camels were resting under the tree, munching on the leaves. They had a certain peaceful coexistence with the flies. Children were playing under the trees around the camels. S was trying to capture it all in his camera. It was quite a harmonious moment.

We had four nights and five days. That evening we camped by the side of a maize field. The cook settled down immediately to cook the evening meal. It is amazing how the cart carries all the essentials. One can be stripped down to one’s basics. Basic food and shelter. The tent was set up. We then went and chatted with the owners of the field. The family was living there temporarily to tend to their fields. Some of them came to our camp site. We listened to the radio: the news, the songs and so on. The villagers drifted away and we finished our dinner. It was then lying on our backs and staring at the skies. It was a lovely cool night. There were no mosquitoes. Only dung beetles which were crawling all over. Not a very pleasant feeling.

Sleeping in the tent was a little unnerving. Throughout the night we were waking up to sounds of animals. In my rich imagination I thought it was jackals and panthers prowling around. But to my disappointment I was reassured that it was only stray dogs that were hanging around the campsite looking for tidbits and doing their own investigations.

The next morning we again set out after breakfast. There was really nothing to do. They would cook and we would eat. Then off we went to shit and pee in the fields. Having gone through the motions we set off for another day. The radio was our constant companion. Each busy with one’s own thoughts. We would stop here and there to speak to some villagers. We would pass villages where the camels would drink water from the troughs. It was doing nothing at all. The only important thought was a place to take a shower. Cool water on the head was all that I sought. Even as I am writing about it six months later, that scene is so vivid in my mind.

A word about our camp mates. Maharaj, Babu and Mange. Maharaj and Mange owned the camels. Maharaj was the local strong man with contacts far and wide in the villages. Mange also owned a camel an doubled as a cook. Babu spoke English and therefore the official guide for the team. His English was hilarious not because he spoke bad English. He had perfected the language as a response to the white tourists that he was constantly guiding. One of our nodes of entertainment was to make fun of his adaptation of English and to force him to speak in Hindi. Maharaj and Mange were the silent men, but locals in the real sense of the term. They earned their livelihood through tourism and also agriculture. The camels were a main source of their livelihood. A severe handicap for Maharaj and Mange was their language. They could speak only Marwadi and very little Hindi. That was how Babu showed his one-up-man-ship with them. By being part of such a camp, one has to acknowledge the subtle tensions running between them. At times I resented being a witness to it. But on was being drawn into it. We couldn’t be snobbish and look elsewhere. They were three and we were two. Not always we thought alike. Not always we liked what they did or they liked what we preferred. To come to an understanding in that situation was important.

It was 10 in the morning. The sun was still benign. We registered our request for a shower with Maharaj. He soon found a house in the fields where a Rajput family was living. I can never forget this encounter. The women were most interested in our arrival. Willingly they arranged water for a bath in their kitchen. They were so curious about my body, my clothes and the man that I was traveling with. It was wonderful to have a bath in a dark corner of their kitchen. They insisted that I wear my clothes in their presence. It was quite a sexual moment. I happily wore my clothes before their scrutinizing gaze. One of the women,a young Rajput woman with three children was the sexiest of the lot. She was a bundle of energy. I wanted to give her something to remember. I was not carrying anything extra apart from my clothes. I then pulled out my brand new panties from my case and gave it to her. I asked her if she wore them and then she showed the ones that she was already wearing. It was such a crazy kind of fun.

S was bewitched by her. Her head was completely covered. S wanted her to remove her dupatta. She also wanted to take it off but at the same time unsure about it. But I guess she finally relented and the outcome was a classical one. One of those beautiful women. Maybe S has to add his own take of that episode.

The safari thus proceeded from camp to camp. We camped four nights. One day was beside the maize field. He second day was atop a huge sand dune. The third day was in a scary shrubby field. Those dry white shrubs for miles around. The fourth day was again spectacular. We camped beside a small habitation. It had four huts, five families, about a dozen unruly kids and a pied piper. The story of that night requires a separate telling.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Mumbai to Bikaner

The journey from Jodhpur to Bikaner is quite fascinating as the region is desert terrain. It is 200 kms from Jodhpur and takes about five hours to reach Bikaner. In Jodhpur we were warned that we would nto egta ny food on the way. So we packed ourselves with lot of food in Jodhpur itself where the train halts for more than thirty minutes. From Jodhpur the train became progressively empty and the terrain more and more beautiful. Having the compartment all to ourselves we stretched ourselves in glorious comfort. I felt the true essence of my holiday beginning. Small railway stations passed by with people sitting in groups under neem trees. The roof of the railway station was the sprawling neem tree. There is something very beautiful about Rajasthani people maybe because of their colourful clothes and their turbans. They always look exotic to me. Maybe it is because of the way their images are sold by the tourist economy. Rajasthan in general and the desert in particular have a certain appeal to our senses. This is my second trip to Rajasthan and I admit to some kind of an attraction to that region, its deserts, climate, costumes, palaces and forts.

To sleep in a train on a not so hot afternoon with a half opened book, I would say is the favourite fantasy of any train traveler. To occasionally peep through the barren stations where the train pulls in and out, to drink the sweet tea, the head throbbing slightly, waiting for your destination and reading through a book are the essential ingredients of this fanstasy. For a long time running away from home meant a long train journey, sitting by the window and see the world pass by. A unkempt traveler with a rucksack on his back, a pair of glasses perched on his nose, a book crammed in his bag has been my fantasy man. Oops, how could I forget the music. The ubiquitous walkman in hand!!! This is somehow the icon of freedom, of running away, of a footloose life.

Bikaner as we read in the travel books was the north western part of Rajasthan. These towns are referred to as the desert towns. An hour before we reach Bikaner, the terrain becomes even more fascinating as the train cuts through towering sand dunes. One sees roads snaking through these yellow sands with very little habitation. There is sand everywhere and more importantly on the tracks. So as our train was going at full speed we had a sand storm effect inside our compartment with the sand being blown inside. There was nothing that we could do and very soon we were covered with sand. The passengers in the train then told us about the sandstorms which sweep through this region in the months of July and August. I was a little apprehensive considering my delicate respiratory system but then there was little one could do as we were already in the desert country. A beautiful part of this journey were some young singers who came to entertain us. They sang such hauntingly beautiful songs. As the train was chugging we had these singers singing local rajasthani songs. They came prepared with film songs but on our insistence they sang local bhajans and folk songs. Firm, strong male voices. Songa about the escapades of Meera. They were so beautiful. So haunting.

Soon the train pulled into Bikaner railway station. It was a not so large station, a red deserted building at that time of the day. Our train did not have too many passengers as they had embarked at the earlier stations. We had booked at Marudhar Heritage hotel earlier. As we entered the city I was appalled by the dust and dirt of the city. Marudhar Heritage turned out to be quite expensive and not so atmospheric. It was basic and clean. We quickly showered and set out for the city. On a holiday there is nothing more to do except go out, walk around, eat, drink and look forward to new sights and sounds.

My first impressions of Bikaner city was really a let down. It was crowded, dirty, dusty and nothing remotely atmospheric. There were forts and havelis here and there. But the overwhelming dust and pollution effectively chased away all touristy imaginations. The fort walls looked dirty and worn out. The massive gates of the fort was covered with grime. And one had to be careful of the sloshing drain water all over the city. The city which I had so much wished to visit was such a let down. I had expected a small town with lanes and by lanes, not this prosperous trading town.

As tourists we tend to build fantastic images of desert towns and so on in our own minds aptly supported by guide books like Lonely Planet. So when one actually descends into a town, one has to adjust and reorient to its current avatar. Rather than blaming the city, I will blame my own fertile mind which locates a region in a certain framework.

So the evening was some kind of coming to terms with these realities. S and I wandered across the busy lanes selling clothes, electronic goods, shoes and so on. We had read that Bikaner was famous for sweets. So we entered a sweet shop and ate rasgollas and jamuns. We also packed some sweets for our jouney. Following that we went to a pickles shop and bought some pickles too. The marwadi chilly pickle is really good. Green chillies filled with mustard and other spices. Our next stop was the provision store where we picked up Sangri, a typical desert vegetable. It looks like dried beans and even thinner than that.

We had decided back home that we will dine in the Bhairon Vilas Palace. In such cases Lonely Planet is a good guide and very charitable to the budget traveler. Bhairon Vilas Palace is indeed a beautiful palace. The rooms are decorated quite aesthetically if not a little crowded with artifacts. Maybe the latter was made to lure the foreign tourist. But I liked the guiding principle of the aesthetics. One of the rooms has been converted into a cozy bar with high backed chairs and a regal atmosphere. The food was terrible but the ambience made it up for all the existential problems. On enquiry we realized that the rooms were not too expensive and quite affordable. After a few beers and some food, we returned to our hotel.

The next day was Sunday and we would start on our five day safari. We felt good to be heading out in the desert. But I was cautious about my optimism. I wasn’t sure what new images and stories the desert would throw up. Anyway there was something to look forward to the next morning onwards.