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Category: Our Land Our People

Khejri: the sacred tree of the desert

It was early on a hot summer day deep in the Thar desert. Chattar Singh — desert shepherd, farmer, my friend and guide — interrupted a deep slurp of chai to point out fruit to me in a far away tree. A wind whispered the boughs low before snapping them back upright sending oblong beans-like fruit into bright green shivers.

Voh dekho peD pe pakii hui saangri hai!”
Look there! That tree is full of ripe saangri.

It was pure love in his voice.

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A boatmaster reads 50 shades of grey

“This is a game of danger and courage,” the boat-master says in Hindi.

Does he mean “… danger and daring?” The word he uses, “saahas”, walks a tightrope between the two meanings.

 We are navigating up the Brahmaputra and the boat-master is reading the river.

The Brahmaputra is a moody river. The path we used in the morning has changed by the evening. Sandbars now rise where water flowed just hours prior. What was deep is now shallow. What was shallow is now deep. With this river, nothing is as it was or as it will be.

The Brahmaputra suffers from short-term memory loss.

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Our Land, Our People

When we’re on the road, in the field, on assignment, we meet people, hear things, see things. Some of these snatches of conversations and micro-portraits make it into larger narratives, some stay in our notebooks.

With “Our Land, Our People” we dig deep into our notebooks to bring faces, voices, experiences, snapshots, videos and sounds from the land to you. These are The Peepli Project outtakes, if you will.

They are also some of our best-loved, most memorable moments when #OnAssignment.

Find the series at this link under Menu.

Kaushalya, Joga village

Kaushalya said to me, “do ladkiyan hain toh kya hua?” (So what if I have two girls?)

We sat by a well in the middle of an oasis-field (a khadin) fed by harvested desert rain. As we spoke, Kalpana, her little daughter, pulled water from the well into a child-sized pot and balanced it proudly on her head. She loves bringing water in her own little pot, and insists on accompanying Kaushalya when she is not in school.

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Mr. Jadhav, Jonai Circle, Assam

“I do milk-work,” he said in Hindi with no Assamese accent. “Next time you come to the area, call me. Take my number.” He fished out a tiny 2″x 1″ booklet from his breast pocket. Hunted for the number, showed it to me, reading it upside down in English. Mistaking the 9s for 6s and correcting himself.

“Call me. I will make sure a meal is ready for you. I will feed you well. You must come and eat with me and my family.”

Then this milkman, this Bihari settler Mr. Jadhav, continued on his way, crossing sand and water towards his makeshift home 45 minutes away.

I learned later that he had, not two months ago, lost four out of six cattle, his farmland, and a homestead on the banks of the Brahmaputra to erosion.

Moinuddin, Dibrugarh, Assam

Early one morning, I asked my hotel manager for directions to the fish market. He sent Raju with me to find me a cycle rickshaw. An old man stood, one hand on a rickety blue cycle, at the end of the road. “Twenty rupees,” he said with a smile that revealed three fence-post-like teeth.

I climbed in. And from my perch, watched the inscrutable machinations of serendipity at work.

Moinuddin, once a fisherman, had been pulling rickshaws for 20 years, ever since the river went quiet and the fish disappeared. (Fish catches in this part of the Brahmaputra have fallen 85-90% over the last few decades). He’d watched the city exchange their wild catches for farmed alien species. He’d watched kids of humble fishermen grow up to become fish-barons, their riches feeding on the bland imports.

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The Messenger, Karanjade, Maharashtra

“Excuse me, do you know a woman named Lakshmi? She has three children. Her husband is not here,” asked the man who had travelled far from home. Golden light streamed through the wet clothes hung in the alley. He stood outside a concrete hut’s doorway, speaking to a woman inside. Two toddlers gazed at him from the room. The ground was wet. Flour dust hazed the air. The young woman lying on a khatiya jumped out of bed, and took two steps to reach the doorway. She wore a nightgown. “Why? What happened?” she asked.

Krishna then began the story he told every stranger who asked, and every person who didn’t.

“I’m from Karnatak,” he said in a rough language the woman focused on to understand. “My train journey began at four in the evening yesterday, and I reached Thane in the morning. I went to Khandeshwar to find her. But she is not there. Then I came here” – Karanjade, a village wedged between new buildings – “to find her.”

He had traveled over six hundred kilometres, asking the same question. He asked whichever person seemed permanent – the village totems who saw and heard everything – until a vegetable vendor remembered not only the woman, but where she now was. He took directions and walked to find her. Young mothers gathered around to listen. He brought something unique here; a misfortune that did not affect them all. He told them that he had news for her, but did not say what it was.

The man held a folded bill with prices scrawled outside. Within was the woman’s name, and her new village. The young mothers studied the handwriting. “Karanjade. This is the village, but there’s no Lakshmi nearby. What happened?” He wept, and they brought him a plastic chair and a glass of water.

Finally he told them. The first woman said, “You will find many of them here.” She further added, “women without husbands”.

Nobody thought she could be found without an address, or a number of some kind. They simply said it was difficult, and that he should try other lanes.

Three rakhis dangled on his wrist. Grey hair, front teeth missing, the rest slightly crooked. Large eyes. His shirt was white, with thin stripes and full sleeves, and a brown back that revealed where he had slept. His chest shone where the buttons were open. His slippers were a size small. When he talked to people, he sat on his haunches, his hands empty but for the vegetable bill. Not a thing else on him.

Away from them, walking along Karanjade’s narrow backstreets, his hushed crying caught in his throat. He stopped before each open door, looking for clues. The light bounced off shiny tile roofs and buildings with recent coats of paint, pitching houses with open doors into darkness. He studied the clotheslines, and if a man’s pants hung there, he went on.

Everyone’s answer was the same. Where was Lakshmi, then? Perhaps in the next alley, or the ones after. He looked at the ground for minutes at a time, unwilling to go further. The faces held no answers. Eventually he said he had to travel back to Karnataka by the last train out. “I have to go.” If she called her mother – his sister – they would tell her about her husband.

She would find out eventually.