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Rural India: Tales of children of the desert…

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[This is the second in a series – The Rest of My Family – of pieces that Akshatha Shetty will write for Cafe Dissensus about experience of traveling across rural India. The series will feature photographs by Piyush Goswami.]

By Akshatha Shetty & Piyush Goswami 

Once we set foot in the sleepy town of Pushkar, we couldn’t help but be immersed in its sights, sounds, and smells. The desert glowed with the hues of sunrise and the entire landscape soon transformed into a flurry of activity right before our eyes.

 As we took a stroll amidst the ensuing interaction of man, beast, and nature, the Pushkar Camel Fair lured us into its charismatic ambience. Appropriating the gypsy lifestyle, most of the villagers, who grow up travelling from one fair to the other all their lives, treasure their ancient history and beliefs.

One look at the mela, and you realize that while there is a complete chaos here, there’s also an element of mystery in its existence. Lined with thorny shrubs, the narrow winding paths in the fairground lead travelers and wanderers into the colorful world of the mela.

The entire arena bears semblance to an elaborate fantasy. The still air is laden with a strong scent of burning wood; smoke from choolahs and kaunns (bonfire) rises and engulfs the entire ground in a haze.

And, in the middle of the desert, as the bellowing groan of hobbled camels and the clattering of their sturdy hooves fill the air with a symphony of sounds, you hear them loud and clear. Occasionally, breaking into fits of giggles, their mischievous eyes follow you at every step; their little feet leaving trails on sand. As you get closer, you begin to realize that the children roaming about freely in the grounds have adopted, over the years, a lifestyle fraught with many perils.

This is a story of those tiny tots whose futures, though uncertain and grim, are shrouded in mystery.


 Photo-Credit: Piyush Goswami

With pale rubbery skin and hair entangled in a mesh of dirt and sand, Ram looks like any other slum kid. His tattered clothes and disheveled appearance beg for sympathy. He is forced to be one of the bread winners of his family. Therefore, he has a task at hand.

Ram has identified his next potential target. He lingers on for a while and we almost catch a glimpse of contempt in his eyes. Carrying a wicker basket filled with dung, he walks towards a gentleman, changing his demeanor slightly, and narrates his disheartening story – one that he has practised a few times…


 Photo-Credit: Piyush Goswami

“Hello. I have no home and I haven’t eaten in days. Please give me some money. My brother and I are very hungry.”

When the gentleman politely refuses, Ram becomes more insistent and says in a voice cracking with emotion, “My mother and father died a long time ago. We are two brothers who have no home and no one to go to. Most of the days, we sleep hungry. It is very difficult for us. If our parents were alive, our lives probably would have been different. I just need Rs 10. Please spare me some money.” The gentleman eventually caves in and gives him some money while Ram walks away with a big smile.

Meanwhile, an old villager, who is passing by, tells us that these children are liars and all they care about is making a quick buck. For a meager sum of Rs 5 or Rs 10, they are willing to claim that their parents are dead. It is interesting to see how the mela opens up avenues for underprivileged folks to make easy money.


Photo-Credit: Piyush Goswami 

As tourists venture bravely into the arena, we usually see hordes of kids running towards the baffled lot screaming and demanding, “Money, money, money, Rs 10, chocolate, biscuit.” It is quite an amusing sight. Sometimes, the naughty ones walk up to you and ask, “Pen hai? Saabun hai? Nahin hai? Toh Paise de do!” (Do you have a pen? Soap? No? Okay, then give me some money)

While some of the children travel with the villagers all round the year hopping from one fair to another, the others live in the neighboring slum areas. These kids cannot afford to go to school but they are quite happy doing what they do. When they are not hassling tourists, the kids are often seen collecting camel or cow dung, which is dried and later sold to herders and villagers as fuel.

In most of the cases, the parents train their children to swindle unassuming travelers all the time in a bid to earn a living. Slowly, the kids pick up the tricks of the trade and no longer do they need their parents to remind them that they have a job to accomplish. Over the years, they tweak the tricks and their acts get more dramatic. Either they are trained to recite sad stories or they are dolled up to earn money. And, this has set a dangerous trend. Young boys and girls are dressed in traditional Rajasthani attires or some outrageous costume and sent to the fair by their parents. Faces smeared in cheap makeup, the children are seen strutting in style all over the mela. What better way to catch the attention of the photographers, after all?


 Photo-Credit: Piyush Goswami

One afternoon, as we walk toward an uphill stretch dotted with herds of camels and horses, we are stopped by a beautiful young girl. Ringed with kohl, her eyes are a light creamy amber and her dusky skin glimmers in the pale winter sun. In a sweet voice she says, “Oh babu, mera ek photo le lo.” (Oh babu, please take a photograph) and quickly follow it with a “Photo le liya, ab paise do.” (You clicked my photograph. Now, you have to pay me) A little while later, she is seen smoking a cigarette with great panache and style as a group of photographers surround her. She feels fabulous and she cherishes all the attention she receives. Ironic as it may seem, her job is to wake up, look gorgeous, and get to work every day.

In their naïveté, the children have gradually mastered the art of manipulation and condescension. Many of them walk around in bright turbans and traditional instruments like Ravanhatta, whilst negotiating deals like “Do gaane ke Rs 15” (Rupees 15 for two songs) with customers.


 Photo-Credit: Piyush Goswami

Moreover, a vagabond life comes naturally to most of the toddlers. For instance, 11-year-old Nimani has been travelling for almost eight months in a year with her family ever since she was born. We spend a lot of time with her family during the mela. Dressed in a salwar suit with bright pink ghoonghat (veil) on her head, one evening, she goes about explaining in animated gestures that some camels are more aggressive than the others. However, half way through the conversation, something catches her eye.

Main ek minute main wapas aati hoon. Aap log yahin pe ruko.” (I will be back in a minute. You guys wait here.)

And, off she goes, straightening her veil and carrying an empty pot in her hand, to a group of tourists, yelling:  “Money Money Money Photo Photo.” A few minutes later, she comes back with a triumphant smile, “Aaj maine bohat paise kama liye.” (Today, I earned a decent sum)

Considering how most of the villagers lead a nomadic life or are primarily wanderers who travel throughout the year, the children are left with no choice but to assume roles assigned to them by their elderly folks. Stricken with poverty, these families don’t have anyone else to take care of their children back in the villages.


Photo-Credit: Piyush Goswami 

Their economic condition is a curse to them. As the dreaded realization of being born without the right to hope dawns on them, the right to dream becomes a luxury. And, as our minds drift with thoughts about these children and their ways of life, we are overcome with helplessness and grief. And, when we make our way to the busy market, a little girl walks up to us and asks us with all sincerity, “Mujhe apne saath leke jaaoge apna desh? (Will you take me away to your country?)…

Given a choice, none of these children would want to lead lives of misery and deceit. While their hearts long for a world where people don’t have to live a life of despair or sufferance, they are not unaware about the gaps between wishful thinking and their current reality. It is a battle of survival for them. At such a young age, these little dreamers have resigned themselves to fate and given up all hopes for a better life: one that doesn’t require them to portray a character; one that doesn’t require them to lurk in the shadows of hardship; one that makes them aspire to have an identity.

[‘The Rest of My Family’: The central drive behind our endeavor and our journey is to travel around the country and find the face of modern India, or the multitude of different faces of 21st century India. Primarily, this journey and this series are a reality check on India’s rural side. It is our attempt to show how we all face similar issues that stem from societal norms, selfishness, and greed. The idea is to have a soulful experience and connect with every individual we meet with sincerity and open-mindedness. To not just incessantly travel through places as tourists, but to make a family and a home everywhere we go. Our aim is to re-discover our connection with the rest of our human family through our travels and introduce the people we meet to those members of our family with whom we are already connected.]

Akshatha Shetty: After two years of trying to fit in the corporate world, I realized that I never really belonged there. And that is how my tryst with writing began. Over a period of time, I understood that not only was I fascinated with the art of writing but it had also become my medium of expression. I joined The New Indian Express, Bangalore, as a Sub-Editor/Reporter in 2010. Undoubtedly, this field has provided me with a platform to not only voice my opinions but also to connect with people at a deeper level. I enjoy writing on art and culture primarily because it is one of the most powerful and pure media of communication we have today. I strongly believe that art is essential for our existence. It makes us believe that there is more to life and gives us hope.

Piyush Goswami: In 2010, I decided to dedicate my life to thought/philosophy and to understand the different media of expression. I wanted to try and live a life, where work is life and life is work. This was after having gone through an engineering college and later tasting the bitterness of the corporate world for two years. Soon, I realized that I didn’t belong where I found myself to be. Khalil Gibran very aptly puts it: ‘They deem me mad because I won’t sell my days for gold, and I deem them mad because they think my days are for sale.’ Growing up, I always saw people debating and fighting over what is right and wrong. That stuck with me. Today, comprehending life seems to be at the crux of my being. To live, experience, understand, evolve and express is what I try to do through different media of art and expression.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License. Once a piece is published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday, we will retain exclusive copyright for a period of 15 days, from the date of publication. Within this period, the piece cannot be re-published elsewhere even in an adapted and modified form.Thereafter, it must be acknowledged that the piece was first published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday. Failing to comply with this and any unauthorized republication/reproduction of the piece will invite legal measures and will be liable to prosecution.


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