BY AMAR MEHBOOB
Of all the changes that have taken place in Thar in recent years, cellular phones have had the most profound impact. They have connected communities separated by centuries and miles of sand dunes.
I could have sworn it felt like the carnival was in town, but the villagers of Sakri joked it was my wedding instead: “All these people have come to take a look at you, as if you were a bride,” smiled my guide Dilip Sodha, a bheel school teacher. “All you need now is aghoonghat.”
And thus started our journey. I was the bride that everyone was just ecstatic to see, the virgin who had not walked the Thar. Will he be able to do it? Is he crazy? Can he even walk a mile? Why does a man who can cross the desert in his jeep in a matter of hours want to walk with us, the penniless? Is there money involved?
But I was entering another dimension; this was my personal wormhole to discovering what the human spirit really entails. Is it about “conquering the final frontiers” or “boldly going where no one has gone before”? Or is it something more down to earth, about the indomitable will to survive and to persevere against the harshest of conditions.
Life in the Thar desert is mainly pastoral. An adequate amount of rain is required to keep up the state of the pasture lands. People also cultivate land for crops, but once again this is impossible without timely rain. When the rains are inadequate or untimely, the crops fail. And when there are no rains, the grazing range is affected. When the fodder dries up, people have no way to sustain themselves. They are forced to migrate to the canal-fed lands of Sindh, taking their animals with them.
The idea was to walk along with a group of migrating Thari families, and to film and document this journey every step of the way. To be part of a human endurance mission of the downtrodden, trudging forward with their meagre effects and laying bare everything that we thought was hidden.
I pulled up outside the village of Sakri in the afternoon of Feb 27, along with all the necessities that I thought would be essential for my sustenance during the trip. Only a few days earlier, we had finalised our migration party: two
meghwars (members of an ‘untouchable’ Hindu caste), Poonam and Sattoo, and their 30 drought stricken cows; and a kohli family, from a nearby village. Old man Bhoja was the head of their household; he was travelling with his wife Radha and their two young children.
Our destination was the barrage land; we had to reach the rural township of Nabisar, some 170km away from Sakri.
I had hired a camel to carry all my things. The camel jockey was a meghwar by the name of Poonja, who everyone called Bhagat. Dilip was also going to accompany us on this sojourn. Little girl Gowri was set atop the camel as she had been deemed too young to walk. Those migrating had locked their houses and barricaded their entrances with barbed bushes.
Our destination for the night was some suitable point short of Lunio Samma, a village situated on the Nagar highway, about 50km east of Islamkot. Throughout this journey, our night stops were planned in such a way that we would only have to walk about three to four hours the next morning in order to reach the next watering spot for the cattle.
We had been walking for some time now. Dilip and other members of our entourage had been getting calls from their friends on their cell phones eager to know my condition (more on how cell phones have changed lives in Thar later).
“Sir, people are asking if you sat down due to exhaustion, or if you have started riding on the camel.”
“Sir, are you not tired?”
These questions kept coming from everyone in our entourage every now and then.
It was a moonlit night. I could see the silhouettes of the desert bush and vague images of our party making their way through them. The cattle could be heard nearby, thanks to the bells around their necks. The scene was blissful. But there was no time to stop to enjoy it. The walking was constant.
When I finally glanced at my watch, it was 10pm — it had nearly been six hours since we started. Things were quiet all around. I had let the camel go ahead by some 200 feet. The kohli family were with the camel, their two children mounted atop. At times I could see their shadowy figures moving through the shadowy bushes.
Sometimes Bhagat (the camel driver) would turn on his torch to look for the way ahead. And I would spot them, making sure that I had not lost them. From time to time I would also turn my own torch on just to see them and make sure that I wasn’t following some figments of my imagination.
“How much longer do you think,” I asked Dilip, “before we stop for the day?”
“I think we should be stopping soon,” he replied, “… are you getting tired now, sir?”
I chuckled. “Not tired now, but I can definitely not go on all night.”
We grew quiet again. Another half hour passed.
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