"Are you absolutely sure?" asked the
apprehensive voice at the other end of the phone.
"There is no fan, no air-conditioning, no fridge
& no cold water". I laughed at the very thought
that somebody would want an AC as part of their
'desert experience'. But apparently, some do.
After reassuring the very reluctant Gemar that I did
not want any of these, that I could tolerate the April
heat and would not faint midway, he agreed to let me
visit his home.
I'd been in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, for a few days now and wanted to explore the fringes of the Thar Desert. Gemar Singh lives in the village of Hacra (near Osiyan) with his family and guides visitors around the desert during cooler climes. Much as I wanted to, it was too hot to stay for a couple of days at his home; I settled for a day's visit instead. Though I had finally convinced him to guide me, I now harboured doubts about whether I would indeed survive the infamous Loo (hot desert wind, said to make you sick, sometimes fatally) without inflicting any embarrassing medical emergencies on Gemar. I steeled my resolve and packed for my summer day in the desert.
As I worked my way through breakfast the next morning, seated in my palatial hotel, Gemar arrived to pick me up, two bags in tow. Both were bursting to the seams with vegetables and other assorted ingredients. "For your meal", grinned Gemar. We set off without further ado, in a jeep, through dusty hot roads that gave me a taste of what was in store for me. A couple of hours later, we stood at a railway-crossing, waiting for a train to pass. Across the barrier, the road melded into sand. And, beyond the very same barrier, I had a surprise awaiting me - a camel. I was even more surprised when Gemar stopped the jeep and alighted, bag and baggage, and motioned for me to do the same.
Did I dare ride a camel? It definitely was more exciting than the jeep ride; besides, Gemar said that a camel ride would be away from the motorable road and would take me through villages. It was the local means of transport and if I wanted a taste of what it felt like to live here, riding a camel was an inseparable part of it. After reassuring myself that the camels seemed well looked after, I clumsily hoisted myself up and sat on the saddle; the only support to prevent me from falling off was a wooden piece jutting out from the saddle, in the front. As the camel stood up, I almost slid downwards and held on for dear life. Soon, we set off towards Gemar's home, the camels guided by their owner and Gemar. It took me a while to accustom myself to the gentle rocking motion of the beast, not unlike a ship. Once I overcame the 'sea-sickness', I began enjoying the ride. If you have a weak back or are worried about sore posteriors, this ride isn't for you. As we walked, Gemar, holding the reins of my camel, narrated stories - about the desert, about village life, and about his life.
The landscape was monotonous as far as the eye could see. Sometimes, the beige would be broken by the dusty brown of a leaf-less tree. At other times, surprisingly, we would pass patches of green, mostly thorny shrubs and solitary trees. A dash of colour would be infused by peacocks running across or a lone maiden in her bright saree, carrying water to her home. As the April sun beat down on me, I held on to my life-saving floppy hat, which was threatening to blow away in the breeze. I now realised that the ghunghat and the turban were not part of the locals' attire merely due to tradition; they were very much a climatic necessity as well. A lot of our traditional clothes do similarly stem from geographic needs.
Herds of Blackbucks sought shade under scrawny trees, grazing on dried grass. Villages with their thatch-roofed circular houses appeared at the horizon; these too were devoid of too many signs of life, what with people seeking refuge indoors, at this time of the day. A solitary woman in her magenta saree was threshing hay outside her home. I suddenly heard screams of "goro aayo", "goro aayo" and turned around to see village children running towards the camels. I inwardly smiled at their cry, which in local parlance meant 'the white man has come'; in this far-flung region of the desert, I too was alien to them, a foreigner. I smiled and waved back; soon, their cheerful faces and tiny waving hands disappeared into a speck. Before I knew it, we'd reached Gemar's home. Time on the hour-long ride had flown.
After the camels were given water and had settled under their favourite trees, Gemar busied himself preparing lunch. He lives in a traditional mud and stone home with his wife and kid, both of whom had gone to visit her parents for a few days. The house has a series of huts around an open courtyard. Some spaces are walled for privacy. Others, like the 'living room' are open on one side. We sat down on the mud floor in the living room. A group of boys, who were herding their families’ cattle nearby, rushed into the home, gaggling. Those herding cattle take shelter at this time, every day, in the nearest hut; such is the welcoming nature of the people here. As soon as they spotted us, they stopped short, unsure of what to do. Gemar suggested a game of cards and that broke the ice. Soon, the boys overcame their shyness, teaching us their favourite card game, guffawing at our mistakes, cheat-peeking at everybody’s cards and playfully fighting each other. Outside, a gentle storm had begun to brew, which soon turned ferocious. The whooshing sounds heralded the arrival of the afternoon Loo. I poked my head out of the window only to be blinded by dust and sand; I hurriedly retracted.
The fragrance wafting from the kitchen soon had my tummy growling approvingly in response. Between card games, I sneaked peeks into the kitchen and watched bowl after bowl fill up with goodies. The simple, hearty and traditional meal was so delicious that not a morsel was spared; we wiped the plates clean. A siesta threatened to tempt me and an inviting khatiya (traditional woven cot) in the room definitely didn’t help my already-drooping eyelids. I snoozed even as the others continued to play. A while later, a goat bleated repeatedly in what I thought was a dream. I lazily opened one eyelid and scanned around, only to be greeted by an amusing sight - two grown men chasing a goat. They smiled at my nonplussed countenance and declared that it was time for some chai (tea). And, the milk for this tea was to be fresh, straight from the goat; if she was willing to give any, that is! Here, no co-operation from goat = no tea. Soon enough, she’d been caught and tempted by some fresh, green grass. As she ate, Gemar milked her. Fortified by the tea and hastened by the dimming light, we bid adieu to the boys and mounted our camels again.
The Loo had disappeared as stealthily as it had arrived. The orange orb had begun its descent. The camels and I cast soft, evening shadows on the sand. The sand, which was earlier hot enough to roast peanuts in, was now alarmingly cold. The gold-tinged vistas of the morning had been replaced by a uniform blue tinge of the setting sun. What a contrast between day and night! Gemar gently guided my camel towards some sand dunes, from the top of which I surveyed the darkening desert. As I ran my fingers through the cold sand, I was overcome by an urge to stay and not head back to 'civilization'. A day had been too short and I told Gemar as much. He invited me to come back another time, during cooler weather; I could stay for many days then, without worrying about my health. I reluctantly plodded my way downhill; the sand making it even more difficult and slow for me to walk away. We hurried to the nearest road, where the jeep awaited me. A few hours later, I was back in my palace-hotel at Jodhpur, eating dinner at a table on a manicured lawn. The day in the desert seemed like a mirage.
It's been a couple of years since my visit, but, I still vividly remember that day. Sometimes, the simpler things in life stay with you for longer. We text each other wishes on Diwali, each year. Someday, I hope to text him to say that I'm visiting. And, my fingers are crossed hoping that nothing's changed there.