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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

(Published in on November 2, 2011, retrieved from

The desolate road from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer is peaceful in its solitude; the sense is one of pastoral calm, not brooding melancholy. And it isn’t all barren wilderness either. Cows settle on the roads like bitter gossips, loath to get up even when goaded by a booted foot. Camels, contriving to look both regal and dim-witted at the same time, wander aimlessly down the streets, pulling low carts and frustrated owners behind them.

The first sign of change comes from the teashops – the thick, milky, sweet tea of the stalls around Jodhpur gives way to a thin, frugal brew – hot, sugary, and laden with spices.

Then, the quarries digging up pinkish brown stones that are used to build homes around Jodhpur are replaced by heaps of golden sandstone, lying unguarded in dry fields along the roads.

The trees begin to shrink into shrub, and the mud gets lighter. About thirty kilometres from Jaisalmer, where one begins to see signboards indicating the distance to the India-Pakistan border, the first cacti appear. They are slim, shrivelled varieties, dark green and long-thorned. As the sand gets whiter, they get fleshier and paler, the needles shorter and sharper.

The even plains of the fields, glaring up stubbornly at the blazing sun, melt into banks of rising sand, frozen in place by short trees. Those are the first sand dunes, the ones that dug their roots into the earth, not exposed any longer to the vagaries of the loo winds.

Little drops of rain begin to fall.

“There’s been an actual monsoon this year,” our driver says, as we take a detour, heading south-west of Jaisalmer to the Desert National Park. Pointing at the patches of green, he adds, “or you wouldn’t see any of this. You’re lucky; you brought the rain with you.”

But we’re worried about the rain spoiling our desert experience. Who wants to walk on a wet desert?!

Our driver laughs, “That’s why you’re lucky. You can’t walk in a dry desert. You wade knee deep in sand. And what do you think of the desert, anyway? A little rainfall isn’t going to make it damp!”

The rain doesn’t stop, though. It pours in blinding screens, swamping the parched fields by the road. A few minutes later, it yields completely, and the sun beats down again. As the final droplets of water are evaporating from the windows, the rain lashes back in a torrent.

Flashes of colour and the sound of bangles draw one’s attention to isolated shelters along the road. Women who look like they’ve stepped out of an Incredible India commercial, with bright clothes, heavy silver-coloured jewellery, and thick white bangles lining their arms run into mud houses with thatched roofs, and peep out at the rain. They’re tourist attractions too. Visitors to the desert stop over at random villages along the way, clicking pictures of groups of belles. The girls have mastered coy smiles, the men looks of grim nonchalance.

We stop at one of the resorts at Khuri village, run by three men who used to be guides. Signs of people ‘upgrading’ themselves, in a manner of speaking, can be seen everywhere. Camel cart drivers have bought cars or jeeps. A network of mutual back-scratchers has been established, and they strike deals quietly, working out commissions, as their clients avail of the hospitalities of one and services of the other.

Depending on when you arrive, and where you’re from, the owners of the resort advise you on the best way to look around the desert.

If you’re looking for Indian exotica, you can mount a camel and ride on a track, running through the alleys of a village, intruding confidently into the lives of the people who have been turned into showpieces for the purpose. Some are so happy to pose for the camera that they request you to photograph them and send copies of their pictures to the resort, once you’ve developed them.

If you want to live the life of an Indian villager for an hour, but are finicky about privacy issues, you can ride a camel cart, skirting the village and wheeling into the desert.

If you simply want to go straight to the sand dunes, you can hop on to a jeep.

All inclusive packages, taking care of transport to the desert, entertainment at the resort, and a ‘Rajasthani’ dinner, are available. Depending on where you’re from, a ‘special price’ is worked out. The owners of the resort will assure you they’re barely breaking even, invite you to enjoy their facilities, and tell you to pay them what your conscience asks you to.

If you arrive during the long, dry spell, you will find yourself sinking into the sand as soon as you step off the jeep/ camel/ cart. Struggling and skidding your way to the top of a sand dune, only to roll down the other side, you may want to stop fooling around a little before the sudden sunset. As the gloaming sets the sky on fire, it seems the land is rising fast, swallowing up the sun into the deceptively close horizon.

If you’re visiting during an ‘actual monsoon’, the desert is coated with wet sand. Shrubs have sprouted optimistically to the west, and the sun sinks over them, seeming hardly different from sunset anywhere else. 

However, the desert after a good wash has an ethereal appearance. Tracks of tyres and hoofs, and even the swirling banks of sand have been wiped out, and it feels like one is stepping into an old framed photograph, come to life. Walking along the dunes, leaving footprints in the featureless wet sand, one has a bizarre sense of being among the first people to tread the earth.

The man driving our jeep demonstrates what our driver meant when he laughed, “a little rain isn’t going to make the desert damp!” He asks us to dig at the sand.

To our astonishment, crusts of wet sand crumble away in our hands, to expose fine, white, dry sand underneath. Soft and yielding, it slips away between the crevices of our fingers. The grains are hard, and yet their texture is powdery, unlike any sand you may have seen by a coast or river bank.

Night falls suddenly, and the strangled cry of a peacock is heard.

“There are lots of birds in the desert,” the jeep-driver explains, and proceeds to name a few, including one which sounds like an expletive. A quick reference to our guide book, with the help of a torch, clears it up – he meant ‘The great Indian bustard’. Varieties of eagles, storks, cranes, and deer, as well as wolves, the desert fox and desert cat make up the other fauna.

As we stand around, taking photographs of the inky blue sky above the darkened desert, the jeep-driver says something about wipers and crates. We nod pleasantly, assuming he is speaking about precautionary measures in case of more rain.

Finally, he says, in a bored voice, “saanp (snake).

“Viper? Krait?”

Within seconds, we are back in the jeep. He laughs and says something about it not being the right season, place, or time. Apparently, fauna abound in winter, which lasts from November to March. We keep our eyes peeled for snakes flying at us, though, as we drive back to the resort.

Someone is lighting a couple of emergency lamps. A cable has tripped, and several villages are in darkness. However, the show will go on. A group of musicians sing, play the harmonium, clash cymbals and beat percussion instruments. Behind them, a tall man in a cobalt blue outfit, and a teenaged girl in pleated skirts, heavy jewellery and colourful veil are practising steps.

Soon, the owners of the resort improvise spotlights by gunning the engine of a car, and switching on the headlights. A little later, they figure out the headlights can be left on without the engine being on, and the music becomes more audible.

The girl and the man whirl around, pull tourists in to dance, and finally, the girl bends over backwards to pick up a note from the floor with her mouth.

Not to be outdone, the musicians announce that they will have a sawaal-jawaab without speaking.

The leader of the band, looking at three foreign tourists, asks, “Français?”

They look at each other, and shake their heads.

“Deutsche?” he asks.

“No. Colombia,” one replies.

“Ah, española!” he says, and adds with some regret, “no Spanish.” Relieved of the responsibility of having to translate, he explains in Hindi that they will use the khartal­ – a bunch of smooth slats of wood, about half the size of a man’s palm – to create ‘conversation’. Two of the players stand on either side of the harmonium artiste, their fingers flying through the air as they click the khartal. The sound is hypnotic, especially in the surreal atmosphere created by the headlights of a silent car.

As the owners of the resort begin to serve plates of rice and roti, with ker saangri – a desert curry made from dried beans and berries – and a sweet dish called jhajariya, made from corn, milk, ghee, nuts and dried fruit, the musicians pause to ask whether everyone knows the story of Kuldhara’s ghosts, and the spirits that haunt the desert.

Their intense expressions, the dim light, and the growing cold has already made the visitors wary of unseen eyes and ghoulish faces.

“Once upon a time,” the lead musician says, clicking his khartal almost imperceptibly, “it was a prosperous village populated since the thirteenth century by Paliwal Brahmins. But some two hundred or three hundred years ago, a terrible thing happened. The King of Jaisalmer had a glad eye, and one day, it fell on the most beautiful girl in the village. The news travelled as fast as news like this does, and one day, a man rushed to the father of the girl, to tell him the king planned to kidnap his daughter. The father of the girl was the village elder. That night, he ordered all the villagers to leave immediately. They packed their bags, and left for good. But as they were leaving, he threw a curse on the village – that anyone who came to live there would die a terrible death. Some foolish people tried to test the curse.” He pauses for effect, and whispers, “and every one of them died.”

Making eye contact with everyone in the assembly, he resumes, “Finally, the desert itself threw teebas – what you call sand-dunes – on top of the village, and hid it for good. But then, people dug it out. And they made it a tourist spot. But even now, amid the ruins, you can hear wails of women, you can see old people walking mournfully, children running through the sands, and even brides in slow procession, in all their finery. There are temples and houses, and baths and kitchens. And all these people, they look like real people, except their feet are in the opposite direction.”

Everyone laughs uncomfortably at the cliché.

Satisfied at the effect, the musician shakes his head, “but why talk of such mournful things now? Let me sing a sufi song.”

And throwing his head back, he begins to sing in a deep-throated voice that bounces off the walls about a man walking alone in a forest, where a bird was hoping to find salvation, and flew to the man. The man broke the bird’s neck. That line becomes the chorus, with his fellow-musicians joining in.

Looking out for snakes, spirits and sociopathic sufi singers, we eat quietly and nervously, under the glow of two emergency lamps, a pair of car headlights, and a luminous moon.


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