I gesture with my open palm, sweeping head to toe, and tell the lady that she looks beautiful. She is the local village coordinator for the NGO that has set up a playgroup school nearby.
“What? Under this?” she replies, indicating the thatch covering that keeps the sun from the family cooking space. My compliment was genuine but I can see that she’s thinking that I probably say that to all the girls. I’ve always thought that Indian women, even amongst the poorest, have the opportunity to dress in some beautiful colours, and often they take it.
Her son suddenly appears from the two room single storey house where they live. Dressed smartly in his school uniform we ask if he is going to school, this being a Saturday.
“No,” he says, “ these are the only clothes I have so I wear them.”
We smile but it’s not really the right reaction. We had been warmly welcomed but our visit wasn’t going well. He asks if we have a spare pen with us. We fumble pathetically and eventually shake our heads. Not going well.
Deepak, our guide, is of the Jat caste, and grew up around here in a farming community. He knows these people well and has become more prosperous than most, first as a driver for the bigger tourist companies and then branching out on his own.
The results of the booming Indian economy, driven by it’s focus on IT and knowledge delivery, has largely benefitted the cities and those who can migrate there. Little has filtered down to impact the lives of the rural poor. Deepak sees tourism as a way out for him, his family, and the villages he is clearly fond of, and so now runs his low-key tours to the countryside.
Migration to the source of the nation’s wealth has become a serious issue for India. The primary aim of many young people is to graduate from school and head for the fountain, leaving behind parents and elders, often left to fend for themselves in their daily lives. Village communities were dying.
Indian PM, Manmohan Singh has set about building roads to connect these communities to the fountain-head, thereby hoping at least, to stem the flight and to facilitate an improved infrastructure that will keep these communities alive. It’s these stretches of narrow tarmac that we bounce along in Deepak’s “all AC Jeep” like refugees from an episode of MASH.
We stop near a man-made drinking water lake to take in the view. Deepak points to the horizon.
“See that ?” he says, pointing to the lush green foliage as far as the eye can see, “ it looks good but that is a weed. Draining the soil of nutrients and almost impossible to kill.” Prosipis juliflora, or Mesquite, as it is known, roots itself to the landscape, it’s flopping foliage, frowning and ugly like some horticultural Sideshow Bob. It has menacing thorns, 2 inches long, that I would later find to be very painful. It is everywhere covering thousands of Rajasthan hectares. It’s impact on the agri-economy obvious.
“There is nothing we can do,” he says, and we drive on.
The shepherd children are curious and happily show us their new family addition – a baby goat just one hour old, penned under an iron grill. They too, are probably dressed in their school uniform but we don’t check. Deepak chats with Grandma who has broken off from her sweeping whilst we nervously record the event with some pictures, unsure of the protocol.
For us “rich” Westerners, there is always the nagging sense of voyeurism in visiting villages like this. We are “rich” relatively, of course, but still, it is a jarring relativity.
Our welcome at the Dhalit village was utterly charming and put us at ease. In this small community only one family remains eking out a living from traditional weaving, others being forced into more direct means of labour to survive or in flight to the city. Weaving takes time and there is plenty of that.
Under a baking sun, though not yet noon, mother, daughter and grandmother sit creating small decorative items from scraps of material to sell at the market.
Bangles, beads and padded rings for load-bearing heads, all painstakingly crafted.
Inside the house pictures of Indian gods adorn the walls, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Vishnu, Krishna, M.S.Dhoni.
What we are witnessing is just a glimpse of routine.
An octogenarian Bishnoi couple, Bis – meaning 20, nai – meaning 9, for the 29 principles under which they live, including strict vegetarianism and no harm to living things, even trees and plants, are a profound example of the results of a pure life. Their bodies may be frail but again they are gracious.
We find the old man laying in the shade. He says nothing but hauls himself up, places his glasses on his nose, and sits as part of our group, somehow his own gesture of respect and welcome.
A family of “many daughters – no sons” has left them to fend largely for themselves as they grow older. Deepak provides company, food, shopping and medicines in his role of surrogate son.
The old lady tells Deepak that she is short or her asthma medicine and produces a foil pack with just one tablet left. “Do you have a knife?” he asks of us, and he grins as I hand him my mini Swiss army knife, usually kept for scraping nails clean and opening beer bottles. “Tourists usually carry Swiss Army knives,” he says, and saws the foil pack to show the pharmacist.
We felt honoured to visit this couple who have lived a pure and simple life and who now find themselves in their twilight years companions on a journey to who knows where. Too old and frail to work, their daughters having married and moved away, their neighbours looking in occasionally to check. Each other is all they have. It is a tale told across the world.
Moved and not a little saddened by the plight of all these communities that we visited we were left grateful for the opportunity and hopeful for the likes of Deepak, who sees taking tourists to see and share “the real thing” as a way of bringing their story to a wider world. And then somehow, there just might be some trickle-down effect of all this Indian economic growth.
( A few days after we left we learned that a Bishnoi anti-corruption campaigner from this area had been kidnapped and murdered by those he was planning to bring charges against. Arrests had been made and the chase was on for others involved. Just another indication that improving the lot of those at the bottom is going to be a long haul.)