The cost of everything is quoted in USD.
“How much for ironing a saree?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.