One state. Five days. Twenty-four villages. Seventy-five kilometres.
One state. Five days. Twenty-four villages. Seventy-five kilometres. Modes of transport: foot,tractor,and more foot. Agenda: listening and talking to the invisible people,creating awareness of government policies,chronicling the strengths and the pitfalls of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA),mobilising labourers and farmers to create NREGA unions and demand universal pensions.
As a member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS),this was my first pad yatra,a practice the organisation has followed for the past 23 years in Rajasthan. At the start,I thought I would be the one spreading awareness,through the heart of the state. But I returned,acutely conscious of the daily struggles of people in the villages,be it the obvious lack of sanitation and drinking water,the oppressive caste,feudal,patriarchal hierarchies or the tyranny of the powerful.
Yet through it all the people I met taught me how to be generous and trusting of strangers. They shared their baatis,chaach and fresh milk with us. They allowed us to bathe under their hand pumps. They spread mats on the terraces for us to sleep. They made us feel at home,when all we had to offer were words and a message.
On the first day,under a cheerful April sun,we walked to Mota ka Kheda village via Koodiya village,around 280km from Jaipur. We heard the complaints of people who had not been paid for more than a month under NREGA and we helped register a complaint on the NREGA helpline. We headed for a hand pump at the village chabootra. In the line we met two girls. They were between nine and 11 and both were married. In the villages early marriages are like engagements,a way of reserving brides in advance. At 18,she will head to her husbands house. In India,irrespective of class,caste or location,for the poor,choice and choosing partners are unreal concepts.
As we set out at 6am the next day,we met a community called Rangaswamy. Interestingly,they belong to Rajasthan,even though their name sounds south Indian. They wear white pagris,beads around their neck,and are known to be soothsayers,who read your fortune in your stars or your palm.
At Miaflas ke Kheda,we had a meal of potatoes,baatis and chaach. The baati had a lovely fresh coal flavour and the potatoes were cooked in garlic,onions and powdered chilies that leave you with a runny nose but longing for more. The chaach,made every morning,cools the burning,but satisfied,stomach.
It was 45 degrees in the sun,with a little splatter of shade under the famous thorny babool tree. We longed for shade. Brown arid land stretched for miles,interrupted occasionally by a few burning rocks and thorny bushes. The only pleasant site was that of the khaakra trees (flame of the forest) that stood naked without leaves and with bundles of orange flowers. Boulders of granite were spread across miles. We walked mostly on kuchcha roads. We often got lost as there were no signposts and few metalled roads.
At Gundli Khera village the travesties of the caste system showed its ugly face. A feudal landowner spoke to us,but refused to face the lower caste,showing his back to them. We came across the house of the Bhils and Kaalbeliya tribes at the edge of the village. Kaalbeliyas are traditional snake charmers,with a dwindling role in society. Ever since the ban on their profession,they have taken up begging or selling semi-precious stones that are astrologically linked to the stars. You might spot them living in makeshift tents in cities selling semi-precious stones or pretending to be astrologers. The Kaalbeliyas keep pet dogs,not a common practice in villages here. One of the Kaalbeliyas,Sardar Nath,told us about a recent clash between the Gujjars and the Kaalbeliyas. The Gujjars wouldnt allow the Kaalbeliya groom to mount a horse for his wedding procession through the village. So he decided to get an elephant instead!
At Rael,a small village with approximately 40 houses,of mostly labourers,we went to see a government school. There,we met a very dedicated teacher Madan Lal Acharya. He taught in the school even though there was no building,let alone a blackboard. About 30 children study under a tree or on the neighbours rooftop or in someones house on a daily basis. The teacher lives almost 40 km from the school but still comes every day,including Sundays. It takes him more than an hour to reach Rael. He humbled us with his dedication.
We then made our way to Siriyas. We had been invited by Bhanwar Meghwanshi,a Dalit intellectual and activist,for the inauguration of the Ambedkar Bhawan,which he hopes will be a space for learning,research and social justice. I met a very interesting preacher there by the name of Antaanand,who is anti-religion and anti-caste. He wonders what kind of religion would insist on making people slaves or untouchables. This concept of religion is a sham, he says convincingly. He is 97 years old.
It rained through our third night in the desert. Conventional electricity remained elusive. As lightening struck the desert,I realised I had never felt such love for darkness. It reminded me of Guy de Maupassants lines from Moonlight,Why had god done this? Since the night is destined for sleep,for unconsciousness,for repose,for forgetfulness of everything,why then make it more charming than the day,sweeter than the dawns and the sunsets?
At Bhubhana village,which we passed on the fourth day,I asked the women to come and sit on the hathai a raised platform in the shade. The men grew vehement at this insult to male superiority,and said,Women cannot and do not deserve to sit here with us. Fifty per cent of the sarpanches in the state,might be women,but the traditional roles remain unchanged. After the meeting,the men offered us food,we chose to eat with the women instead. I tasted a new chutney here,made of garlic,dried red chillies,and ground on a stone with tamarind and cumin. The baatis broken in half were served with a heap of chutney. It was spicy and made me sweat. But it made me drool and still does when I write about it.
At Roopura,we met many women who hadnt been paid under NREGA,despite having worked for 90 days from January to March. I understood their frustration and wondered how it must feel to work and not be paid. How does one survive when you work in the field all day and there is no food to eat when you return home?
We spent our last night at Dhaneri at the home of one of our old supporters. I woke up at 4:30am and saw a crescent moon staring at me,with a million stars keeping it company. It was a beautiful sight. The next morning I walked to a town called Katar to take a bus back. My pad yatra had come to an end and so had my camera batteries,but I was charged with life.