Kutch - Volte Space

You could meet the Jaths tomorrow. Ali Mohammed, their leader, was here  yesterday, and they would have drifted, what, around 30-40 km from here,” Dhanraj Malik, the owner of the tourist resort in Zainabad where I was put up, and I were talking about nomads in Kutch over a post-prandial smoke. 

“Most of them are from Bhuj, but some Jaths occasionally stray across the border to Pakistan, and that’s when they come back with a fair amount of opium.”

The name Ali Mohammed conjured up a series of images – of a tall, rugged, turbaned leader with a penetrating stare, a secretive, vengeful clan, and of a caravan shuffling silently under a dark night. It was with a mixture of fascination and curiosity that I viewed these residues of our homeless past.I would surely love to meet him, I told Malik, who  promised to send a local along with me if I went in search of Ali Mohammed the next day. A thinly sliced Id moon, which had just been spotted that evening, floated in the sky as I walked back to my kooba (traditional Kutchi mud hut), and a hands-in-the-pocket chill settled on Zainabad, on its white-washed village mosque, the thatched-roof huts, and pale, leafless trees. Id festivities the next morning held up my safari driver and as village elders and well-wishers poured in to meet Malik, I took the Siena out for an aimless amble. The sun glinted off everything in this dusty, unkempt village on the edge of the Little Rann. If the glare from the brown fields was muffled and spread out, the early morning light bounced off the colourful three-wheelers with their diesel Bullet engines, and the mirrorwork garments of the semi-nomadic Rabaris who piled on them by the dozen. 

Mohamedan gents dressed in sparkling white hugged each other, the lower part of their lips ringed by crimson betel leaf stains, and excited little children ran about with sticky sweets in their hands. In spite of the activity, it was quiet here in Zainabad, after two days of near continuous moans from overburdened truck axles, and horns that stabbed you from behind on the road. My bright orange Siena attracted a lot of curiosity, especially at the local bus stop near which I parked the car for a cup of tea. 

“Where from?” asked a clean-shaven gent with thickly-oiled hair. He was from Ahmedabad and was on his way to Viramgam to meet a relative who was contesting the elections. Two Sumos with saffron flags grunted past the little shop, with tough-looking men in white sitting inside them. “I expect Modi to win. While I don’t like the fact that he incites the masses, I would still like him to win,” said the gent as he waited for the bus.“If he incites the masses, why do you want him to win,” I asked him. “Oh, these things happen. Come to Ahmedabad and you’ll find people roaming about at two in the night,eating ice-creams and all that. Come with me, I’ll take you to a Mohemmedan colony and we’ll be welcome there. It’s just that we fight sometimes, but eventually there has to be a rapprochement. After all, we’re commercially bonded,” he replied with great conviction.

The fear is of people getting used to such craziness. The Hindus already seem to accept the insanity all around, and it will be catastropic should the minority community also be forced to get used to the idea. “If you are going to Viramgam, I could show my land there. It’s fertile, though the drought has upset things somewhat this time,” he said with an agrarian pride much in evidence across the country outside the nebulous boundaries of our metros. I replied that I was put up at Zainabad, took leave of my Modi supporter and found Mehboob, my guide and driver, waiting for me at Malik’s with an old, topless Mahindra CJ. We set off immediately for a ‘safari’ into the Rann. The CJ’s faulty speedo quivered like a freshly caught fish as the vehicle made its way out of Zainabad, past shrubby land on one side, and cumin fields on the
other. What lay ahead of us was an ambivalent space of salt flats – 4,000 square kilometres of it – scorched dry in summer and flooded during the monsoons. And absolutely uninhabitable unless you are one of the desperate salt pan workers who inhabit the Rann during the dry season.

Once connected to the Arabian sea, the Rann was born out of tectonic disturbances which forced the earth to rise, first converting it into a lake and then, with gradual siltation, turning it into a seasonal salt marsh. The verticality of life steadily diminished as we drove further into a seemingly endless plain. The ground below our vehicle’s tyres was a parched brown, streaked with wayward lines and the only life we could spot were the Asiatic wild asses, their nervous ears constantly tracking our vehicle.

Mehboob stopped the vehicle and cut the engine off, while I got down and walked around, staring at the horizon on all sides. Light blue mirages rippled on the edges of the earth from behind a massing of dusty haze. The Rann, like a visual palindrome, looked the same from every angle, as it burnt in the mid-day sun. We got into the CJ and drove further ahead, around the little patches of raised vegetation called bets before turning around and heading off in the direction of the salt pans, small tracts of land filled with saline water pumped out and channelled through water pumps. A gnarled father and son duo peeped out from their adjoining hut as we walked on the ridges between each pan. Their faces were tanned and their feet shrivelled from working in the pans. A lone water pump gurgled nearby, pumping out salty, hard water, which would eventually and painstakingly be converted into rock salt.  The activity comes to an end by April, and after that, in a couple of months, the sea and the rivers take over the Rann, it’s harsh barrenness replaced by a marshy ambiguity.   

Mehboob came with me early evening as we set about to find Ali Mohammed who, according to Malik, would have set up camp at a village called Mera, about 20 km from Zainabad. The roads were empty, apart from the odd tractor and state transport bus, and Mehboob kept glancing at the empty, brown fields along the sides of the road, looking for Rabaris or other nomads who might have any news about Ali.

We passed through dusty villages, their inhabitants staring inquisitively at our car and its occupants, through windows, wooden doorways and from garishly painted shops. The texture of the land around us was constant; brown and dusty, and soaked in the golden light of the sun.

“Stop the car!” yelled Mehboob, all of a sudden. He’d just spotted a group of women gathering firewood. Jumping out of the car, he made his way to a nearby field with tent-like structures. A youth grazed a grazing a flock of goats and sheep, while the other members of his tribe were organising their belongings. The men wore white, and had sticks in their hands, while the women were attired in dainty red, with rings, bangles and thick necklaces covering every part of their upper body. “You know anything about Ali Mohammed,” asked Mehboob. One among the group replied in the negative. Mehboob persisted with questions about whether a camel caravan had passed their way yesterday, but the response was a very succinct no. So we got into the car and headed towards Mera. “These nomads are very secretive. They very rarely mix with
outsiders. For all you know, these people might have seen the camel caravan, but wonder why they can’t say so then,” said an impatient Mehboob.

We reached Mera after about 20 minutes and parked on the side of a sandy path that lead into the village. A group of boys playing cricket stopped their game and watched us.“Where is the camel guy and his tribe?” asked Mehboob. There were conflicting answers, but Mehboob decided to act on the positive one and asked me to drive further into the village. There were narrow sandy paths that lead into the village, with knee-high ridges of dry fields populated with weeds on one side and houses with flaking walls on the other.  There weren’t many people around, but Mehboob asked each and every passer-by about the camel caravan. After sometime, as the lanes got sandier, we parked the car and decided to walk it. A thin, scrawny teenager stood watching us from the edge of a field. “That’s Ali’s son, I know,” said Mehboob as we walked towards him. “Where is Ali Mohammed?” asked Mehboob. “Why do you want to know and why have you been enquiring about us in the village?” replied the teenager, looking at me with suspicion.

This was turning out to be good, I thought, my imagination going berserk. Would a couple of turbaned men with covered faces burst out of the fields and confront us? Would I be then led to their leader who had by now transformed into a mythical creature in my head... But the teenager relented when Mehboob told him that we came from Zainabad and took Malik’s name.  He asked us to go further ahead, still standing and watching us intently.

We finally came across Ali Mohammed’s group, which gathered in a clearing. There were four women, a boy, and an elderly Rabari who later told us that he was Mohammed’s guest for the night. We were faced with barrage of suspicious questions and a middle-aged woman, who seemed to be Mohammed’s wife, seemed less convinced with the answers. Ali Mohammed had gone to have his bath and we sat in the clearing waiting for him to return. 

The scene was depressing and my flight of fancy came crashing to earth like a clay pigeon. The middle-aged woman and her female companion were gathered around a pile of twigs and cut wood, preparing to light a fire, while a couple of others fetched water from a pipe some distance away. The whole area smelt of goats, which, many in number, fed on the weeds and shrubs on the periphery. A pile of cruddy clothes was piled up on top of a wooden table-like structure, and a couple of utensils lay beside it.

“And where is he from?” asked the middle-aged woman suddenly,  pointing at me. She was tall and graceful, with a large, silver  nose-ring that hung over the upper part of her mouth. A thick silver necklace hugged her neck and her face was like her ancestors, (the Jaths came from Iran) very un-Indian, lean and almost angular, with striking eyes.

Mehboob told her I wrote for newspapers and magazines and I would write about them, too. She looked at us uncomprehendingly. “Haven’t you heard of papers,” Mehboob asked, showing her a magazine I carried. She looked at it with great curiosity, but then walked away mumbling something.The sun was dipping now, creating an amethyst-purple band that emerged from the barrenness of the region. A thin figure walked towards us, silhouetted against the setting orb, of medium height and wet hair. So this was Ali Mohammed, I thought. Ali walked up to us and wished us Id Mubarak, and sat down next to us. He said he’d heard that two men from Zainanbad had come looking for him, and asked Mehboob to convey his greetings to Malik. He looked a lot older than his 35 years; his face criss-crossed with lines, and eyes a watery grey.

As Mehboob filled in the details of the purpose of our visit, I dealt with the debris of my misplaced imagination. We got talking after a while, Mehboob acting as the translator. Ali had been on the move across Gujarat as long as he could remember. Everybody in his family did that. Each year, apart from two months in summer, he and the members of his tribe would roam along Saurashtra and Kutch, looking for fodder for his sizeable number of camels and goats. Farmers along the way invited him to camp on their fields before the monsoon (his animals would take care of the weeds and add manure), and give him wheat and occasionally, money for the same.

“But don’t you feel like staying at home, building a house, and dispensing with the rigour that accompanies the life of a nomad?” I asked Ali, expecting him to talk about freedom, and answering in a way that corresponded to the flawed perspective I had of nomads.

“Oh, it’s the number of animals I have. Where can I find fooder for them if I stay at one place? 10 camels, 40 goats and sheep... it’s not possible... And what skills do I have anyways? Will you have some tea?” he said, getting hold of a goat to arrange for the milk. 

I nodded, my foolish idealism and perceptions about nomads taking going for an almighty toss. At close quarters, nomadism, especially after 5,000 years of rootedness, is an abhorrent, alien concept. As I sipped my tea, I thought about home, my tiny rented place in Mumbai; the only place where familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. As a writer once said, all travel is a long route home.

TRAVEL LOG

Kutch in Gujarat is the second largest district in India after Ladakh and covers an area of 45,612 sq. km. The region, comprised mainly of salty dry flats, bears a faint resemblance to a tortoise, which probably gave rise to its name – kutchua or kachbo in Gujarati. The Great Rann of Kutch occupies a major portion of the district, while the Little Rann is a wild ass sanctuary. Both the ranns (barren in Gujarati) are absolutely inhabitable and completely submerged by sea and river water in the monsoons. This ecoregion, dry for most of the year, turns into a vast shallow marsh during the monsoon. Areas of high ground (bets) provide dry habitat for wildlife. Wildlife enthusiasts will take well to the Little Rann. The handsome, chestnut-brown-and-white Asiatic Wild Ass, found nowhere else in the world, roams free in the Little Rann. Other species include the Black Buck, Neelgai, wolves, and jungle cats.

The area also abounds in birdlife and is a popular breeding ground for flamingos. A large number of waterfowl, waders, raptors, and grounded birds such as larks, Sand Grouse and the endangered Hubara Bustard.Kutch is also known for its prominent tribes – the Rabaris, the Bajanias and the Kolis – and for their intricately embroidered clothes, and silver jewellery.

The route
To visit, you have to first get to Zainabad, which lies on the edge of the Little Rann. Zainabad is 104 km from Ahmedabad. From Ahmedabad, head towards Dasada. Zainabad is approximately 11 km from Dasada. Mumbai to Ahmedabad is 545 km, and the NH 8 is mostly smooth, though, as a result of highway upgradation work undertaken by the NHAI, you’ll encounter frequent diversions. While Mumbai to Ahmedabad is a day’s drive, the best option is to make an overnight halt at Vadodara, 122 km from Ahmedabad.

Places to stay
The Little Rann is surrounded by villages which are yet to be overrun by the tide of tourism. Which means that apart from the odd seedy-looking joint with irregular water supply and soiled sheets, and government guest houses, there’s no decent place else to stay apart from two comfy resorts at Zainabad.  Desert Coursers’ Camp Zainabad has 17 huts (koobas) with all modern amenities and helpful staff. It also provides exclusive wildlife and cultural tours in and around the Little Rann. 

The camp is ideally situated to make day excursions to the Sun temple at Modhera (50 km), and the Royal Black Buck Range at Nalsarovar. The acco is cosy, while food is served buffet style.

Desert Coursers charges Rs 850 per person per day. The charge is inclusive of acco, breakfast, lunch and dinner and a safari  in the Little Rann. Desert Coursers, Camp Zainabad, Surendranagar District, Gujarat 382 765. Ph: 02757-41333. E-mail: zainabad@hotmail.com website: www.desertcoursers.com
Vadodara, should you be looking to make an overnight halt, has a fair number of hotels. Hotel Aditi [opp Sardar Status, Sayaji Gunj, Ph: 0265 361188, Rs 650-1600] is a popular choice. Hotel Alpha [7th Floor, Phoenix Complex, Sayaji Gunj, Ph: 0265 363555, 56, 58, Rs 350-1150) is a cheaper option.

(Prices and contact information are subject to change.)