THE LIFE IN THE THAR DESERT RAJASTHAN INDIA (photo story)
Posted on January 22, 2013
…one day and one night with a typical indian family from the rural region of Jaisalmer. Rajasthan, India
The disappointment must have been visible in my face since my driver, Jeta Rom, warily asked me if everything was all right. I nodded, knowing there was no easy way to explain to him that the desert I was anticipating was not that which I saw before me. “The Great Indian desert”, as Indians proudly call it, could more accurately be described as a savanna with steppe-like vegetation, lightly hilly and in places rocky. In any case, far from any notion of what a true desert is. The majority of the Thar desert lies in the Indian state of Rajasthan, bordering Pakistan. At 200,000 km2, it is the ninth-largest subtropical desert in the world.
After roughly an hour of traveling into the wilderness, we reached a place called Jambora, some 60 km from Jaisalmer. The jeep stopped at a shelter the size of a ship cabin around which were seated several men and women as well as a teenager. They turned out to be relatives of Jeta who spend several months out of the year here tending a vast vegetable garden and a herd of goats.
Jeta Rom is a poor, 27-year old driver with a wife and several children who live in a run-down village near Jaisalmer. He makes 2000 rupees (approximately 40 dollars) a month, each encounter with tourists bringing him additional income and adding a few new words to his English vocabulary.
He is married and provides the “support” for his father and mother expected of him by society. He insists that he is happy, regardless of the fact that he himself did not choose his bride. The obstacles to communication between us make it difficult for me to discern, much as I would like, whether he is vexed by this custom and would like something different for his children, or if instead he plans to continue it with the same strict adherence to tradition. I also want to understand how he began to “like” his wife, if in fact he does, or if there is simply “no way around it”. Whatever the case may be, now Jeta cares not only for himself, but also for the wife and children thrust upon him as well as his parents, around whose shelter we would be spending the evening, night and morning.
When asked what would happen if he refused to wed, he replied that everyone would begin to think that “boy not good” and to avoid him, which would significantly reduce his marriage prospects. A difficult situation all around.
His father, Jalu Rom, is a good-natured elderly man, clearly proud of his son, giving him paternal pats on the shoulder whenever he is nearby. Jeta’s mother, Jmarati, is a visibly wise, brightly dressed woman with deep, intelligent eyes. I feel that I know her quite well. Near our villa in a village in the Varna region there lives a Roma woman named Maria who looks like her in every way. All that is missing is the brightly hued clothing. 42 generations earlier they could have been sisters. A kind of goodness radiates from her.
Jeta’s sister, Grawari, is an enchanting 30-something year old Rajasthani woman dressed in green. She is seated under the shelter and as becomes clear later, is primarily responsible for cooking for the family. Several children – it is unclear to me whose they are – and a grumbling middle-aged neighbor have stayed for dinner this evening.
We all sit on the ground and Grawari slices a squash-like fruit that she presents to me with salt and some kind of seasoning. Very tasty.
The family lives out in the open around a shelter made of dried shrubs. The shelter really just houses the kitchen, which consists of a small fireplace and a dozen aluminum pots scattered about along with a large, clay water jar. There is nothing else; no electricity, no radio and certainly no television.
Jeta claims that his family only has enough money for basic staples and absolutely nothing else. They were delighted by the flashlight, medicine and money I brought, and Jeta’s sister was sincerely intrigued by the antibacterial gel I gave her to rub on her hands. I think they were genuinely curious about my wet wipes as well.
Jeta’s sister is a beautiful woman who fled her husband, an alcoholic living with his parents at present. Almost the entire time she remained under the shelter, squatting beside the small fireplace and cooking. The few pots she uses are scattered all over in the dust, directly on the ground, in some kind of system that is not readily apparent. Grawari pours liquids and sauces from one pot into another with the precision of a ritual. Minimal, poor and simple, such almost surely was the household of Jeta’s great-great-grandmother and grandfather and 42 more generations before them. Only the flashlight betrays the century in which we are living.
The traditional food of the poor in the region surrounding Jaisalmer is bajra. The wealthier add flour, rice and fruit to their menu. Typical dishes include rabdi (porridge) and kheech. Some holiday recipes are dal-ka-halwa or sira, atta-ka-sira and others. We are eating rice with two or three stew-like dishes which when mixed with rice can be readily eaten without without making one’s eyes water.
I offer to light a larger fire, but Jeta says that there is no wood. However, his mother obligingly turns on the flashlight I gave them and mounts it over the shelter, thereby allowing us to see one another’s faces. I quietly eat while the others cheerfully chatter amidst the clinking of bowls. I alone am using a fork, perhaps the only one available.
Once we finished eating … we went to bed. The entire family and I spread out on the crude steel beds (one bed per person, of course), randomly scattered around the shelter, directly under the open sky, far from the animal pen.
I woke up several times from the noise of animals or flashes in the darkness. All in all, the night passed quietly. I slept in my clothes, as did everyone else. However, unlike them I slept wearing my shoes. I felt completely safe with these people, but I somehow instinctively did not take off my shoes. It was senseless. But how many senseless things do we do every day?
The cool morning awoke us. Each one of us went off discretely to the surrounding fields to tend to certain hygienic needs.
Jeta’s mother milked the goats while Grawari brought water from the nearby water source roughly 500 m from the shelter. Later she again commenced the long, monotonous process of cooking around the fireplace. When it was light enough, we sat down to a breakfast of biscuits made from a strange blend of ingredients that I had difficulty swallowing, unlike the previous night’s dinner.
The men ready themselves and leave. In the morning a rickety, old bus travels through the settlement that takes the men to work in town and brings them back in the evening. As a whole, the rural region of Jaisalmer along the border with Pakistan is not serviced by regular bus lines, which makes it isolated and difficult to reach. It rarely rains; the ground is dry and barren. The people here depend upon livestock, not only for milk and meat, but also for fuel, as they burn the animals’ dung. This compels them to lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle even in the modern day, forcing them to move from place to place in search of richer pastures for grazing.
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