This afternoon Nandini, Kamlesh and I made the mandatory trip to the sand dunes that every visitor to Jaisalmer must make!! We drove the 40 odd miles towards Sam, and as has been our experience in this part of Rajasthan, the road was excellent. Along the way there were a large number of tent resorts, which are very popular with visitors. At Sam we made the transfer to a camel driven cart. We introduced ourselves and asked the driver his name. “Miandad” he said. “Javed?” I asked? (For non-cricket followers, Javed Miandad is a Pakistani cricketer). He nodded with a crooked smile. We hoisted ourselves with the help of a broken, plastic chair and settled down for a jumpy ride. The cart was nothing more than a flat wooden structure with an iron bar around 3 sides. And then when I asked the name of the camel, the answer “Michael Jackson”!!
So, we set off in the MJ pulled cart, over the dunes. This is a stretch about 2 km wide and 4-5 km long running along the road. It is no where near the “Reshma and Shera” created vision of endless rows of dunes that was I was expecting. And as my friends trundled on the cart, I decided to walk along side JM. In this small stretch of sand, by sunset there were a few thousand tourists on hundreds of camels!! And along with that all the trash they bring.
And over the next half an hour I learnt a little bit about the life of these people, our fellow Indian citizens. JM is a resident of the village of Sum, which is 5 km from the road and has about 5000 residents. The village is half Hindus and half Muslims and the two communities have always lived in harmony. JM said he was about 50 yrs of age, but his wizened appearance made him look a lot older. He has worked as a camel driver for nearly 20 years. Before that he used to herd sheep. He owns MJ, and there are about 1000 such camels engaged in the tourist trade. The camel costs about Rs 25,000 to buy!! And needs Rs 200 worth of food a day.
The tourist trade is on only for 4-5 months of the year, mostly Dussera to Holi.This is a part of the country where summer temperatures exceed 50 degree C for weeks. There is no monsoon to talk of, although the region has been seeing some rain these last few years. There is very little agriculture and the Government owns all the land. When the tourist season gets over, the men move to the local towns to search for daily wage labor. This is the story of a lot of our rural sector. But, in this area, the nearby towns have little to offer in terms of jobs.
JM is a Muslim Bhatti, and has 2 daughters and 2 sons. The village has a Government primary school and all further education is 40 km away in Jaisalmer town!!! How does a poor man like him even dream of sending a child to secondary school. His son is 18 and is already driving a camel. Both his daughters have gone beyond class 5 and are at home waiting for marriage. And his youngest, a son, is in class 5. He says that the teacher calls him bright and recommends his further schooling. But for JM that does not seem a possibility. In every sentence, he rues the lack of educational opportunities for the young and laments that another generation will have to continue life in the same way he has!
It is a hard life in the village. Although tube wells have been dug, they only bring out acidic water and the village gets trucks of drinking water from Jaisalmer. The ration shops seldom have anything for those who are not BPL card holders – and JM, although an OBC, is not entitled to a BPL card for reasons I could not understand. However, they do have electricity and watch television. And of course, the cell phone signals reached the village!!!
For us who live in the comforts of our urban existence, with 24 hour water and power supply, far from the the realities of India as they are, these encounters probably do little beyond disturbing us a little. But, the composure and grace with which Javed conducted himself and expressed his laments and hopes, impressed me. And, obviously they are not isolated as all that – after his camel was named Michael Jackson!!!