Thar: Walking miles in their shoesArchive
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 a ghoonghat.”
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.
Finally, Bhagat stopped on top of a dune. I saw the camel un-mount. By the time I caught up to them, everyone was quiet. Bojha, the old kohli man, was lighting a fire. His family was sitting close by waiting to get some warmth. The others gathered around the fire too.
Half an hour later, the cattle arrived along with the remaining two gentlemen. It was now time for dinner. For the first night, they had packed home-cooked food. Sattoo, one of the two cattle herders, reached for his sack and brought out roti.
“And curry?” I asked.
“No curry, sir,” replied Bhagat. “We will have to do something else.”
Sattoo pulled out some onions from his sack. “We have these...”
“Can you eat roti with onions, sahab?” Bhagat asked.
I was taken aback a bit, but my hunger was going to have none of it. “Haan, challay ga.”
We were done with dinner by midnight. “You are a bhagat, so you must sing bhajans too?” I asked Bhagat.
“Yes sir, I do.”
“I want to record you, but it is too late tonight and we are just too tired, let’s do it tomorrow.”
The walk was much more arduous today than yesterday; tonight was all about making our way through a patch of crisscrossed hedges and bushes, and that too in the darkness of night. There were a lot of barbed sticks and brush strewn around the ground. One needed the utmost care walking through.
I felt a barbed shrub sticking up my kurta. It took me a minute or so to get free again. Then I saw Dilip caught up very badly in another bush. I stopped to hold the light so he could free himself. It took us several minutes to secure his freedom.
Bhagat did not know or suspect that the two of us had stopped somewhere. The camel contingent had gone ahead and we hurried to catch up. But soon, we found ourselves standing in a large empty field. There was no sign of the camel. We threw torch lights all around, called Bhagat’s name out loud, but all to no avail. After a little erratic stomping around, we realised we were lost.
Dilip was getting agitated; he was going about in different directions calling out Bhagat’s name.
I had been in similar situations before. “Dilip, let’s not move far from where we are right now, that would make it even more difficult,” I told him. “Besides, I am just too tired right now to even think clearly... Let’s sit down and rest for a while.”
“Sir, you sit down ...”
“What will you do?”
“I will look for their tracks.”
“Tracks? Do you believe we will find any tracks in this darkness? Many animals pass through here, how will we know which ones are from our group?”
Dilip continued searching for tracks using his torchlight.
“I think they must have gone in that direction,” I said pointing towards a dune.
Dilip was quite disturbed and agitated. “You know, I think we should sit down for 10 minutes so that at least our brains start working,” I told him as I walked closer to the path I thought they must have taken and squatted down.
“You take a rest sir,” Dilip shot back.
I sat quietly for a few minutes.
“Here they are!”Dilip suddenly exclaimed.
“Tracks ... camel tracks!”
I got up and started searching with my torch too. These were deep marks in the sand, at a distance resembling the gait of a camel. And they were going in the direction I had pointed to earlier. But we had proof now. Besides the camel, there were also marks of a man walking a stride. These tracks were definitely them.
Thus we did our first bit of desert tracking that night. As we turned the corner around the dune we saw a large campfire alight in the field up ahead. We had found them.
It was midnight; we had covered some 20km since Lunio. There was no question of recording Bhagat singing tonight; exhaustion had taken over.
At six in the morning, just as the sun was rising, Dilip called out my name: “Amar Saheb, we have to leave early today as we have a lot of distance to cover.”
There was no time for tea.
We left the camp before 7am. The day stop was to be made at a village called Singharo.
After zigzagging through the dunes for about an hour, we came onto hard ground covered by Devi bush. There was a village nearby called Thare Jo Tar. I was asked to conceal my camera since people of the village could object to the filming.
We cross a road soon after. Without warning, a big concrete building appears out of nowhere. It has a cell phone tower and power supply lines going across it too. It was almost as if civilisation had made a stake at the heart of the desert.
“Wow! What is this?” I ask Dilip.
“That is the office of the coal wallas,” he replies.
“Oh, okay, we are now in the Thar coal area,” I nodded in acknowledgment.
It all felt strangely alien to me. That world of air conditioned and hermetically sealed buildings seemed unfamiliar. Had two days of walking and breathing the sand been enough to put me back a millennium? Or was it that what mattered was which part of the road you walked on?
“Do you think this coal would do any good for the people here? So many villages will get dislocated due to this activity,” I asked Dilip.
“But sir, these people have gotten so much money for their land,” Dilip answered.
A wad of cash is what it all seems to be about.
After crossing that building, we came onto a paved road. “Wow!” I exclaimed in excitement. “Will we be walking on the road from here on?”
No one had a definite answer.
They did not let the cattle on to the road at first, as they were afraid that they might fall. But walking on the pucca road was so much better after that soft, boggy sand.
“Look, it is taking at least half the energy as it did in the sand,” I remarked to Dilip.
“Yes it is,” he answered perfunctorily.
We walked along that road for another hour and a half before we reached Singharo around 9.30am. The GPS showed that we had covered a distance of nearly 10km.
First order of the day was food. The first item on the food list was tea, which had been skipped in the morning. For lunch, Bhagat made rice which had tiny bits of onion here and there, and too much oil. After lunch, they got to making rotis; the plan was to make them all now so that we don’t have to make it at night when everyone would be extremely tired.
We left Singharo at around 1.30pm after a nice four-hour break.
“Do you still migrate in years of good harvest?” I asked Bhagat.
“Yes, after we harvest our crop, we save it and then go to Sindh to harvest the wheat crop there,” he answered.
Apparently, Sindh and Thar were two separate entities for them.
“How long do you stay there?”
“We cut the wheat crop and get a share from the harvest. Our animals get all leftovers of the crop. Then in June, when the time comes for the next monsoon, we return to Thar with what we earned in Sindh and prepare our land.”
“Why don’t you stay there ... why go back and forth?”
“When the rainy season starts in Sindh, it becomes very muddy and slippery for our animals so we have to return anyway. And Thar is our home ... it shall always remain our home.”
“And if there is no rain, what happens then?”
“Then we rely on whatever we had saved the previous year or brought with us from Sindh. If there is no rain, we start going back when it starts becoming difficult to find food here. August or September, usually.”
“Like what happened last year?”
“Yes, people started leaving in September “
We were walking on the road where we saw passersby every now and then. Most people wanted to know who I was. I still hadn’t quite blended in. One person shook hands with Dilip, before pointing towards me and asking, “Is he a soldier?” Dilip said yes and kept walking. I couldn’t hold my chuckle.
Around 3.00pm, we got off the road and back into the kucha. It was up and down the dunes again.
A little while later, we heard that Bhagat had fallen ill. “I have a bad headache and nausea,” he complained. We stopped to allow Bhagat to sit down for a while; but prolonged rests weren’t really allowed in the journey. We started walking again soon after.
In about an hour’s time, we were back on the road. But Bhagat was looking really sick. At a village up ahead, Poonam decided to water the cattle again as the water at Singharo had been too brackish and they did not drink well. This gives Bhagat a chance to have medicine, but it is clear by now that he needs serious medical help. We now had to find a doctor for Bhagat.
Dilip took to his phone to seek help. 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.
We found out that there was a doctor (actually a compounder) in the next village, and also got his cell number. The next village, Bhamnio Bheel, was a 20-minute walk. Dilip and Bhagat went inside the doctor’s clinic while we waited outside. They came out with Bhagat beaming; he had become instantly better after getting two shots administered.
We were now walking past installations of Thar underground gasification project. These were large industrial sheds along with residential quarters. A few workers were out on their evening walks on the road. A strong wind had picked up and was gradually becoming stronger.
A few kilometres up the road we veered off into the kucha again. We were in the Chahro region of the Thar, here the dunes are not very high and have big fields between them. The day soon turned into dusk and then to night. Wind coming from the north-west became more vicious and cooler. Dilip walking behind me murmured something.
“What?” I asked without turning my head.
“Sir, we have to stop someplace now. It is getting very cold.”
I hadn’t realised that those I was walking with did not have even light jackets.
“Bhagat, what is the plan?” I asked, going up to him.
“Are you cold, saheb?”
“Well, I am not that bad, but these kids must be in bad shape.” Thus we passed the blame around and made a collective decision of making an early stop that evening. It was just short of 9pm.
A bonfire was set up, and everyone gathered around it. Bhagat was not eating anything tonight; he had already gone to sleep. We had prepared the roti at noon. There was no curry. Sattoo had a bag full of gur (clumps of brown sugar), that was the entire menu. I took a small clump and a roti. I could not eat much, only enough to keep the nightmares away.
The next morning, Bhagat was in a more cheery mood. “It’s a good thing I did not eat anything last night ... actually, it was the water at Singharo yesterday, it was really bad and got me sick.” He now had a culprit.
I had been maintaining a twitter log of the journey, now I let it go public. I sent out emails, called friends throughout the day. And got cyber-busy as well, all the while walking the Thar.
We left Chelar for Jhanjir around 3pm.
Dilip had already explained the importance of Jhanjir in the journey: “There is no water available after Jhanjir until Nabisar, which is on the border of Thar and the barrage land. We will give water to the cattle in the morning at Jhanjir and then walk until we cross into the barrage land.”
“This distance is around 25km,” I looked on GPS map, “So we are to cover nearly a whole day of walking in just one leg, and there is no stopping, no food, no water on the way?”
“This part of the desert is called Kas. It must be crossed during the daytime, because it isn’t safe at night.”
It was an easy four hour walk, there was a pucca road all the way. Although the sun had been harsh earlier on, it had now started to wane. The desert scenery was just perfect. An artistic beauty had crept out of harshness. Withered trees and shrubs, barbed vines securing the essence of life, ready to jump back to vitality with the slightest hint of rain. Was I going to find the meaning of life here? So many great religions had sprung from the desert, after all.
As I walked, I could not help but realise a great sense of freedom. There were no walls here, no hedges or boundaries. You could walk till where your feet could carry you. The great agony of pain that had to be overcome to experience this freedom was the price you had to pay. All my friends, everyone who thought I was going in for a massively torturous journey had no idea of this barter.
We stopped for the day at 6.30pm, on the slope of a sand dune next to the road.
“We will finally get a chance to record you,” I excitedly said to Bhagat.
The kohli woman began brewing tea, but suddenly, she called the group over and they started a serious and animated discussion. Then everyone suddenly went quiet.
After a brief interval, Bhagat started reciting something that seemed like poetry. He pointed in different directions and said the same words over and over again. Then he went silent momentarily, before suddenly getting up and bringing the camel over to where our luggage had been kept.
“What’s happening, boss?” I asked Bhagat.
“We have to leave here, saheb.”
“Sir, this place is not good for us at this time ... There is danger here, so we have to leave.”
I started helping with loading cargo on the camel. Nobody was talking much. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry. Once we started moving, I got closer to Dilip and asked what had transpired.
“First, the old woman, Radha, saw someone on a motorcycle. He came from the Chelar side, stopped on the road and looked towards us and then went back,” Dilip whispered. “Then, I reported that a jeep stopped on the side of the road a short while ago, and that the people sitting inside looked shady to me. When we asked Bhagat, he too said that he did not feel comfortable sitting at that place.”
Dilip was walking next to me but his tones were very hushed.
“We call this a bad shugoon,” he continued, “we then asked Bhagat to recite a manter (spell) and check if our apprehensions were true. Bhagat then read the manter. He asked the earth, the trees, the creatures in the forest and the wind what they thought. And from all of them, he did not get a good shugoon. So we had to leave that place,” Bhagat’s voice trembled as he whispered.
All of our contingent looked pale and scared. They moved as if they were on the run, trying to find cover in the bushes so that no one could see them from the road. “So where are we going? Are we going to cross a few dunes and then stay somewhere else?” I asked Bhagat.
“No, they will know when we light our campfire. We have to get close to Jhanjir, they can’t dare come there.”
“And what do we do in the morning?”
“During daylight time we are safe, they won’t dare come close.”
A little while later I remarked to Dilip, “I have never known Thar to be like this... Tharis running away at night like scared animals.”
“Thar has changed a lot recently,” he replied, “This is not the same Thar anymore. With the roads, dacoits from Sindh can come in, loot anyone they want, no one can do anything. ... Also there has been a drought for the last two years, people are being affected very badly. We are hearing all sorts of things that never happened before.”
Soon we were atop a sand dune right adjacent to the village of Jhanjir. The group regained some confidence and were talking in their normal voices again. A debate now ensued. Where exactly do we camp? Where will we be safe from the evil forces? Dilip was of the view that we go into town and ask someone to give us shelter for the night. I still thought that the threat was more perceived than real.
“Look, we are very safe on this dune. We are right next to town they can’t dare come here. And besides, the way we are situated no one can see us from the road. ... We should just camp right here”
The people grew quiet. They were still unsure. Then finally Dilip asked Bhagat. And he replied “I feel okay. This shugoon for this place feels okay to me.”
So we camped. Nothing had really changed in the Thar, as shugoon still worked better than the senses.
Then the next debate started. What do we do till the morning, and when do we start off?
Dilip said, “We should start very early in the morning, I say 4am, so that we get to Nabisar by 1pm.”
Seeing activity on the dune, a little while later, a man from one of the adjacent houses in the village came up to see what was going on. He got to talking with our group and assured us that that the area was totally safe and that nothing untoward happens on that road to Chelar at anytime of the day. This greatly assuaged the tension in our group.
The next morning everyone was up before the crack of dawn. We had the usual black tea. My contingency food, dates and channa (roasted grams), were still there. I distributed them amongst our group, as we would not get another morsel to eat till at least the afternoon. We left the camp at around 6:30am.
It was a sunny day, a bit on the warmer side. The road going to Nabisar was under construction, there was also the cleared path for the water pipeline. However, we were avoiding all man-made tracks. That psychological bug from last night was still there.
After about four hours of walking, the urge to stop for a short while and take rest started to perk up. However, stopping in Kas was out of the question. “There is no water here,” Dilip would say. But one could have stopped and taken rest without water. “There is no shade here to take rest under,” Bhagat would say. Availability of shade did not stop us previously from just sitting and taking a break. But this was Kas. And the age old mantra was that you don’t stop in Kas. The old Thar was still here.
By 12:30pm, after six hours of continuous walking, I was just dog tired. Seeing that the cattle were lagging far behind, I just sat down in the sand. There was no shade in at least a mile around. Looking at me, Bhagat too sat down but left the camel standing up. When finally the cattle got near, in another 15 minutes, I would get up and start going again. This was a good way to take a break.
Then I heard Sattoo talking on the phone. Some talk of food was going on.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“I was talking to family in Kunri. They are bringing us food via motorcycle,” he replied.
Kunri was the next town after Nabisar, which was the final destination for the cattle. Part of their family was already there, so there was hope that we’d finally get some food to eat in an hour or so. It was that hope that sustained us.
Two more hours passed.
“What’s happening now, boss?” I asked Sattoo.
“Sir, they are on their way, they should be here soon.”
We had been walking for eight hours now, with no food or water during this time.
Around 3pm, the wait ended. A motorcycle made its way towards us from the Nabisar direction. I was sitting under the shade of a Devi bush waiting for the cattle to catch up. Seeing the loaded camel and the cattle, the motorcycle stopped. It was indeed our food.
We were back on the road in about half an hour. And there was still another hour before I got my first glimpse of the barrage area.
And what a glimpse it was.
We were finally there. The moment of triumph had arrived. People smiled but there was no major jubilation. This triumph was only for me, not for the group that I was with. For them one phase of the hardship was ending, but another phase was starting.
As we entered the rural township of Nabisar, the thoughts in my mind began to change. My fantastic journey was coming to an end. I would no longer be the free roving spirit of the desert; the timelessness was getting time bound. Civilisation was going to put major curbs on my freedom. And I did not like it.
By the time we got to the main bazaar, it was all over. I was back to being another rat in the race. My head began to fill with different portions of the labyrinth. In about an hour’s time, having said good bye to my party, I was in a taxi back to Mithi. I had to get back to my car and see if it was at all possible to drive back home tonight.
It took two hours for the taxi to get to Mithi. By that time I was a tired and exhausted man. There was no question of driving home that evening. The first thing to be done was to take a bath, after six days, and shave. And, of course, I had still been wearing that shalwar kameez since the first day when Dilip had reprimanded me for not wearing a shalwar kameez. I spent that night in Mithi.
The next day, I drove home in my car covering a distance of 360km in some six odd hours, at an average speed of 60 km/hr. I couldn’t help but contrast this to the 170kms that I walked in some six odd days.
There is a Pakistan that moves at 60km/hr and another one that travels at 3km/hr. A difference of over 20 times. And unfortunately, the Pakistan moving at 3km/hr still comprises some 60-70 per cent of our population. And unless we pay attention to this divide nothing can ever truly change.
The twitter log of this journey can be found at @thar_pk. The writer tweets @aavargi. He can also be reached over email: [email protected]
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 17th, 2015
On a mobile phone? Get the Dawn Mobile App: Apple Store | Google Play