A speck shifts at the fluid horizon where the sand meets the
hard blueness of the sky. It is likely a wild dog, another desert
straggler that pads dolefully just out of view of the caravanserai
as we traverse the dry expanse.
We’re in Western India, as far west as you can go without
the Indian Security Force (ISF) taking an unhealthy interest.
For two weeks I’ll follow my guide Amit through the Thar Desert
of Rajasthan, from Jaisalmer to Bikaner. It’s not far, but two
weeks should be enough to shake off the touts and shoestring
westerners. Beyond the tourist havelis and noise, into the atomic
testing-ground wilderness with food, water and an Indian guide.
A respite from the numbers; into the heart of the tribal villages,
which Gandhi said is the real India.
The rocking motion characteristic of the camel’s gait is hypnotic
and sleep-inducing, but my reveries are fuelled by more chemical
means. The opium ball I ingested a couple of hours earlier removes
my mind from its earthly anchor and lets it trail off into happy,
woolly meandering. I smile as the beast grunts and farts, dropping
warm loaves of shit into the sand below.
Choosing The Camel
The camel’s name is Baghanar, the scruffy, tubercular guide
tells me. The beast is immense. Amit tugs violently on the twine
attached to rough wooden pegs pierced through the camel’s nostrils.
I wince; it’s brutal, yet the beast rises to his knees, then
to his feet in an absurd ballet of limbs and arse and neck.
On his feet Baghanar transforms into the embodiment of tranquility.
Amit shows why the camel is suitable to my purpose. I nod sagely
as teeth are bared, feet tapped and flanks slapped, as if I
know everything there is to know about camels. “Strong teeth,
sahib,” says Amit. “Please to be looking at feet. Also rump.”
It’s obvious that I am a city boy and don’t know anything, but
the game is played and we negotiate a price for food, guide
Departing its gates at dawn, Jaisalmer is ridiculously romantic.
Rose light bathes the city, transmuting its ancient sandstone
structures to gold, arisen from the sand out of the Arabian
Nights. The magic of the desert, clichéd and jaded by a thousand
tourist guides, comes alive in the chill morning air. Swaddled
in coarse blankets I crane my neck to see Jaisalmer recede into
the glimmering mirages, long after it disappears into the sky.
Time evaporates. The plodding, endless rocking defies weariness.
The background noise that permeates every waking moment in India
fades. My mind empties. Days melt into simple, familiar patterns;
breakfast on lentils and chapattis, trek, lunch (same as breakfast),
trek, supper (same as breakfast), camp. The days are repetitive
and free from thought, except the low-level buzzing of ideas
which, released from importance and ego by opium, remain merely
amusing diversions. The camel-men use opium to make the crossings
easier. They have for centuries; it makes bearable the infinite
sadness of the desert.
Appearing like a dinosaur’s nest, a watermelon patch provides
a chance to barter for hooch, illicit whisky concocted by a
canny tribal woman; a Jat. She sits, splendid in bright red
sari and heavily bejewelled, surrounded by broken shells of
watermelons. Amit, my tongue, argues amiably with her. She shields
her face from me as we sit together, although she clearly is
Women from the desert tribes traditionally own the wealth
of the family; she must be wearing four or five pounds of gold,
and has ivory bangles the entire length of her arms. Price agreed,
we open the filthy bottle and sip the sour, sun-heated liquor.
I notice the label on the bottle, “Thumps Up,” a misspelling
of the popular brand of soda, and chuckle. Amit and the woman
laugh, thinking I have become inebriated with one small drink.
She becomes bolder, and makes a bawdy gesture, thrusting a finger
between a circle made with her thumb and forefinger. I smile,
comprehending, as she cackles.
At supper, I gaze into the fire, lost in time. Suddenly loud
voices cut through the darkness as people emerge from the gloom
into the dancing light of the fire. More wanderers, three men
- rough and dust-crusted from the sand. I tense, remembering
abruptly that I am the foreigner here. But Amit tells me these
people are his friends, and have brought more whisky and food.
“Desert peoples all brothers,” he reminds me. I had forgotten
the rules; to offer water and food to a guest, no matter who
A great shout, then the watermelon woman bursts through the
flames. The others have all snatched up rough instruments and
are playing a simple, insistent, rhythmic tune, clapping and
yelling. One of the men saws a one-string fiddle with a bow
that seems rendered from a large twig. Another wails, tuneless.
The woman writhes and gyrates and sings in a dreadful voice,
enticing me to join her. Ah; I get the joke; it is Amit, dressed
in a sari. I stagger to my feet, drunk on hooch and opium and
I too leap the flames and shout and dance. Everyone laughs,
the tunes crescendo into frenzy; then, as the fire slowly dies,
the songs become lachrymose and quiet.
The silence of the desert resounds. Without the polluting
city glare the stars are so numerous that I marvel at the heavens
for hours. I am not used to total, perfect quiet, and I flounder,
briefly, as the expanse of infinite, cold universe opens above
me. I remember Paul Bowles’ words from another desert; the sky
being a shelter from the frozen universe, and breathe again,
reduced in stature to another speck on the sand.
Sunrise. Baghanar is bad-tempered and troublesome. This delights
Amit and the three men from the fire, who have stayed with us.
They laugh at my dismal attempts to control him from the saddle
as he tries to bite my legs.
Out here there is no cure for sepsis or poisoned wounds.
Baghanar’s head swivels around again, teeth snapping as my
leg twitches away. I land a straight-arm punch hard-square on
the beast’s nose. The laughing stops. Baghanar shakes his head,
snorts, then settles into a gentle trot. The men cheer raucously,
gallop up alongside and yell words of approval.
Mid-afternoon we have a race, which I lose. The camel-men
rush past me and one of them slaps Baghanar’s rump hard with
his rope. Braying angrily, the beast jolts forward. I panic
as the ground rushes past. Camels run with an awkward lollop,
and I am likely to be ejected from the tiny saddle. I cling
on; he runs out of steam and settles down.
More laughing. The absence of the city and society erodes
the barriers of race and caste between the camel-men and me.
We are brotherly, though not brothers. We smoke cigarettes in
Through my feet I feel the warmth of Baghanar and the coarse
furze of his flanks. His heavy, musty smell is comforting and
familiar. I’m wearing camel-man clothes; a rudimentary cotton
shirt and jodhpurs, barefoot. Dreamily I imagine myself as Lawrence
of Arabia, emerging through the desert shimmer in a turban,
bronzed and lean, white-clad.
We encounter a party of four Americans and their guides. Amit
and our three fellow-travelers become more formal, and that
night, following the sari dance which they trot out once more
to get a little baksheesh from the newcomers, they huddle together
with the other Indians. I am not included. One of the Americans
has brought along a ghetto-blaster and plays a Grateful Dead
CD loudly, which drowns out the simple folk songs of the camel-men.
“Turn that bloody noise off, can’t you?” I mutter. “Hey man,”
drawls Jeff, a hippie from Chicago, “you should listen to this.
It’s real music.” An argument ensues, and I stamp off, outnumbered
and defeated, into the dark to get away from all of them, Americans
and Indians alike, and sit out my final evening with the camels.
Amit waves as he steers Baghanar and his own camel back into
the sand. I stand on the burning black tarmac, set down at my
destination of Bikaner, and give a namaste in thanks. Any city
would look terrible after the cleansing of the wilderness. Bikaner
appears soulless; a suitable place for my re-entry into the
world. Heavy trucks blare their horns, rickshaws pull up and
their drivers try to drum up business. The camel-man has disappeared
into the mirage. I turn, pull on my backpack, and walk up the
seething street in search of the bus stand.
Stewart M. Wood
is all about the undergarments.