Yellow

Everything is yellow. Jaisalmer yellow. Every building, ornate, simple, big, small, ostentatiously carved or not, they all have that mellow setting-sun-on- corn- fields color. Jaiselmer yellow stone.
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Even the dust haze has that hue.
Interestingly, many local homes have a marking of marriages of a family member painted outside their homes.
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The cost of everything is quoted in USD.
“How much for ironing a saree?”
“Ten USD”
“Umm, okay”

A large population of locals speak a smattering of English. Many speak English with a heavy European accent. It may be a smattering, but they learned it from the tourists. It’s the only English they’ve heard. It’s their natural switch-to-English accent.

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The woman at Kuldhara who tells us the Zalim/Salim Singh story at the surreal 84 abandoned villages in ruins speaks in a heavy local dialect. But the English words she throws in have soft t’s and d’s.
The story is loosely like this. At least one variation is: These were 84 Paliwal brahmin villages.
The village was established in 1291 by the Paliwal Brahmins, who were a very prosperous clan known for their business acumen and agricultural knowledge.
One night on the day of rakshabandhan in 1825 all the people in Kuldhara and nearby 83 villages vanished in dark (that is why some of the Paliwal Brahmins do not celebrate this festival).
One of the brahmin girls is spotted at the water baoli by Z/Salim Singh, the prime minister of Jaisalmer. He is smitten by her beauty and wants her hand in marriage. He threatens to levy huge taxes on the villages if they don’t agree to the the marriage proposal.
When the village people hear of this, every person from all the eighty four villages abandons their home and disappears overnight, to save the girl and their clan from being dishonored.
The villages are now in ruins. The silence playing through acres of broken mud and bricks is eerie and disturbing.
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We find a group of women restoring a clay house to bring alive what these abandoned homes looked like when they were alive with people.
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We talk of local jewellery and colorful odhnis.
They tell us the man I was sitting chatting with was the father-in-law. They dared not whisper in front of him. Talking to him was impossible to imagine.
They wave goodbye’s, smilingly, but wordlessly. The old man was around there somewhere I surmise.

The road to Samm stretches into an eternity of yellow.
It now rains in Jaisalmer. The desert is dotted with green.
We feel cheated. It seems unfair. The Kutch is more sand desert in comparison.
Thar’s shifting sands come up suddenly. So do the tented mini arenas where we watch local performances and sample local fare later in the night.

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The sand dunes are smaller than the ones at the Dubai desert safari. The sand, however, is grainier and finer. The desert looks yellow in the fading light.
The bestie doesn’t want a camel ride into the deeper dunes. She meditates on the sunset.
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I sit across Michael Jackson- yes, that’s the camel’s name- and feel his tummy rumble. His owner tells me Michael gets hungry around sunset.
Poor baby. He’s gentle and posey, when it’s time for a picture.
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The sands are awash with a sunset yellow. It is an experience to remember.
What jars is the groups of tourists, rowdy men racing camel carts and making a general nuisance of themselves.
The accented local boy trying to sell us beer says dismissively- “North Indian men think they can do anything they want just because they paid for a ride. They are such hooligans.”
These ones are.
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An old man with a beautifully shaded pugree and Rajput moustaches comes sits besides Michael, the bestie and me.
He holds two flutes he calls the ‘algohzaa’. He wants to play them for us, but we hesitate.
He says to us- People don’t want to hear this any more. Sunnyay aap. Listen to it. We are a dying species”
I ask him why people don’t want to…
” Because they want newer things. Because they worry we may hassle them for money. Because they don’t trust a stranger sitting with them. Because the world has changed and my art and way of life has been eaten up by development.”

We ask him to play his algozaa. The lights have come up in the tented cities. Most people are leaving the dunes.
He begins with a slow tune that moves deeper into high notes. It sounds divine amidst the sunset on the pale sand.
We ask him to play another tune. His algozaa sets the dunes afire.

We talk as we leave the dunes. He says none of the next generation have learned to play this two-fluted instrument. “There are no patrons left for finer things any more” he says sadly.
I tell him I don’t see the dunes last too long either. It rains here now!
He looks contemplative, his wise ancient eyes glowing in the sunset. Then he says haltingly- “The lure of money is making us wretchedly poor. We have sold our soul to the devil of money” Quietly, he melts into the night.

I see the moon rising across the deepening shadows in the sand dunes. It is a stunningly unreal setting- yellow-orange full moon rising from behind mysterious darkened sand dunes stretching into Pakistan and beyond.
I go back to another surreal moon-experience I shared with Aaron, my director. We called it a moon karma, that stunning full moon setting behind Ulluru. *
The bestie and I are reluctant to leave. We feel specially fortunate to be a part of this mystical, beautiful, eternal drama that must have unfolded every month since forever.

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Chivalry Is Not Dead

There’s no garam chai available on this train. 
The bestie mentions this aloud and the young officer sharing our cabin of four makes a call. “Garam chai at the next station. Yes. Two cups.”
A shared background steeped in life spent in the forces is such an immediate adhesive. It is a bonding hard to describe.
We tell him he shouldn’t bother about the chai.
He says it’s nothing.
And  offers us mithais for breakfast. They are from back home. Pure desi ghee.

In the train with arid shrubs and dusty plains rushing by, he talks of artisans and weavers and where to source interesting traditional ware and what to see in the back of beyond.

Ramdevra is a two minute pitstop.
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It’s where they have chai ready for us. Piping hot. Less sugar. Ginger.
Priceless.
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The train starts before we’ve been served chai. We urge the chai bearer to get off. He refuses.”Madam, I will get off at the next stop. You must enjoy the chai”
The bestie and I look at each other and smile. This will bea memory of unexpected gifts:
Two Borosil glasses all steamed up against windowpanes that look out to vast expanses of sand.
One thermos pouring steaming hot chai.

Chivalry is not dead.
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The Night Train To Jaisalmer

I’ve seen a bit of Rajasthan. Loosely translated that would be the luxury- tours way, not the best way to do it.

This time it’s different:
It starts with an interesting work assignment.
The bestie and I are traveling together.
We’ve dumped planes for trains.
The places we’re traveling to are both on, and off the beaten track.
She’s the tour incharge. I just get to enjoy the vacation.
We can do stupid things and laugh about it.

And that’s how this journey started.
Day 1
We have the reservation printout with us. It clearly says our berth numbers.
The train halts for exactly two minutes. We both drag our bags and make a dash for it.
Relief. The chart outside the  assigned AC 2 bogey has our names on it.
It says berth 1 and 2 coupe.
Hmm. Interesting. But tricky.Coupes have bolts inside. You can be stuck in a dangerous place because each coupe has four berths.
The bestie knocks on the locked coupe.
A scared looking young mom opens the class coupehis makes it safe- three women to the coupe.

Bestie and I look around.
Nice!
Definitely a really good train- AC 2 is generally not so opulent and spacious.
The upholstery is clean. The ugly distinctly pungent ‘train’ smell is missing. There are framed pictures in the corridor outside. And best of all, the bedding looks great.
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Bestie and I settle in. We talk of the big earthquake this afternoon, of a friend who married into a palace, of shopping for handwoven textiles and cotton carpets, of Rajasthani food and what we planned to eat while in Jaiselmer…
And then we have dinner.
It’s been years since I’ve eaten a home-packed meal in a train. I feel ten again as we open the boxed food It’s still warm from the packing.
We’ve forgotten the paper plates, so we spread out an old newspaper.
The bestie has packed some yummy typicall train- fare for dinner. Paneer, sukhae aalu and parathas.
We’re sitting cross-legged with the dinner between us.
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We eat and talk and laugh and eat and discuss spouses and kids and eat and laugh recounting incidents about how silly we were when we were younger.
We talk some more about how comfortable this bogey is.
I wonder why I haven’t been this comfortable in an AC 2 before. Bestie wonders right back.
We put away the bags and start settling in for the night.

And then the ticket collector comes in.
He looks at our tickets and nods his head in a way only Indians can.
Does it mean a good thing? Should we be worried?
And then he says: This is the 1st class coupe. You are booked in an AC 2. Bestie and I look at each other.
The cookie crumbles.
The penny jingles.
The opulence is explained.
We both giggle at how some things never change- we had stayed silly and we were okay.

She has a tennis elbow so I move the bags to the end of the corridor.
She wraps it up- We’d never book a coupe since it’s taking too many chances, but while this lasted, it was too good to be true.
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