Republic Day 2001. Its a date that remains etched in our minds. That morning, out of boredom, I had turned on the television and recalled the days when the only fare available on Republic Day was the parade on Janpath. I half-expected to see glimpses of it again - the same old, tiresome spectacle of cultural floats with folks twirling around in simulated, rustic joie de vivre juxtaposed with military tanks, guns and grim columns of soldiers on horseback. Instead I was transfixed in horror at the news that poured in from Bhuj, Ahmedabad and all over. Gujarat had been hit by a devastating earthquake.
What happened that morning and how it shattered so many lives needs no recounting. It's been revisited so many times by others, and unfortunately more horrifying man-made tragedies have overtaken Gujarat since. The disastrous consequences of Godhra and its aftermath continue to haunt us all. It so dominates our imagination of Gujarat today that for me its that much more important to hold on to what I saw there in the aftermath of the earthquake. Like thousands of other ordinary Indians I had rushed to Gujarat to lend a helping hand. And in the two weeks spent there I got to see up close, many dimensions of our innate, if imperfect, humanity. In the shadow of the mind-numbing twists and turns of the Best Bakery trial, this basic human impulse has become a virtue worth celebrating.
Water, rather the lack of it, has always dominated the landscape and politics of Gujarat. Sooner or later, conversation would turn towards it. As supplies dwindled, attitudes have hardened. Over the years, I had heard of how the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the ubiquitous foreign hand were depriving Gujarat of its rightful water from faraway Narmada. I expected to hear more of this in the next few days - for I was headed for a relief camp run by the Andolan in Balasar, Rapar taluka, right on the edge of that vast, inhospitable salt-pan called the Rann of Kutch.
When I woke up it was not yet dawn. As our train trundled on, the night was melting away at a lazy pace. Yet all that the dim light revealed were nebulous shrubs close to the tracks, the rest enveloped in darkness. Nervously I gathered my thoughts and braced myself to catch my first glimpse of Kutch. Having spent a couple of days watching the heart-rending scenes from Bhuj on television, I had constructed a surreal, deathly landscape in my mind. Instead what I saw was rather listless and tame. This could have been any other trip. Well, almost ... the men argued loudly with the chaiwalla about the high price of his tepid fare. And as men are wont to, they ponderously speculated on the reasons for the train running late. But despite the banter and smiles one could detect an edginess in their voices. The Kutchi businessmen from Mumbai, who like me had spent the night uncomfortably wedged between berths on the floor, waited in silent apprehension. Today they were going to find out if their ancestral homes had survived the quake.
Earlier, I had made the long, tiresome journey from Visakhapatnam on the eastern coast to Baroda. Between slothful bouts of slumber and bad food I chatted with Telugu engineers returning to their jobs at industrial plants in the outer reaches of peninsular Gujarat. They seemed indifferent to the impact of the quake as their own homes and jobs had not been affected. They casually talked of how during the previous year their industrial plants had sucked out all the groundwater after the nearby reservoirs meant for Rajkot had been drained. And then they mused about quitting their jobs and joining the beeline to middle-class Andhra's nirvana - a software job in the US.
Others were making even longer journeys. My friend Shankar was on vacation from his job in America and was lending a hand. The previous evening we had met in Baroda, swapped notes and complained about the noisome pollution. Now we were on the last leg of our journey, to Samakhiyali, the nearest railhead to our relief camp. For company we had with us a petrochemical engineer who was taking time off from his job in Mumbai because he just had to come. Taciturn, with salt-n-pepper hair and a keen, penetrating expression he looked like a younger, slimmer and sterner version of Amitav Ghosh. He shared more than a striking resemblance to the writer, in fact; like the protagonist in Ghosh's recent epic offering The Glass Palace he was called Rajkumar. For the briefest of moments I imagined that this was indeed Amitav traveling incognito. The coincidence of names seemed to give credence to my wild imagination. The next morning when Rajkumar and I were bumping along in the back of an army truck, I wondered aloud that others must have pointed out the resemblance to him. "Amitav Ghosh? Never heard of him!" was his withering reply.
On arrival, while I looked around for familiar faces, we were greeted by a bunch of engineering students from Chennai. Young and net-savvy, they had brought along their laptops in the hope that they would leverage the internet to let the world know what was needed. Instead, having arrived at this remote corner of Kutch, they had dumped their gizmos and were now cheerfully hefting heavy sacks of atta, potatoes and gud. Enroute we had also run into a volunteer team from an organisation in Kanchipuram that was also headed to our camp. Sixteen boys and girls had made a long journey, for many their first trip this far up north. Most of them hardly comprehended anything other than Tamil, and many of them felt a bit like fish out of water in these unfamiliar surroundings. But over the next week or so they quietly contributed an immense amount of the hard, physical labour required to keeping the camp running. In their normal lives, the wage-workers from Kanchi and engineering students from Chennai would belong to vastly different worlds, and probably never meet. But for these brief, few days far away from home, the vertical cleavage in caste and class was forgotten.
Here was an interesting turn of events. The Andolan had been opposing the Sardar Sarovar, the dam touted as the lifeline for the water-starved villages of Kutch. But their own perilous existence in the shadow of an ever-rising dam had politically awakened and sensitised people in the Narmada Valley to pain and deprivation elsewhere. With the experience of long years of rallies and dharnas, Nimadi farmers had honed their organisational skills and developed much ingenuity in running large operations with meagre resources. So on hearing of the disaster that had befallen Gujarat, they cobbled together some goods that would help and rushed in. And now these farmers who had fought the establishment tooth-and-nail in opposing the dam were running a relief camp right here in Kutch. Although this region is not in the Sardar Sarovar's command area, the pro-dam sentiment is strong. Still, contrary to my apprehensions there was no hostility from the locals. As the days passed one could sense the emergence of a friendship that transcended the issues that could have separated them.
In the chaotic early days, too many eager beavers had arrived from all over India to help, but many did not know where to go. The Balasar camp came about primarily because it had been left out by other relief efforts. Although Kutch is surprisingly well connected by roads (at least in comparison with most of the country) relief efforts had clustered around the centres of Bhuj, Bacchau and Rapar. So when this advance team had arrived with their supplies, a local Gandhian organisation had sensibly directed them to Balasar which was on the edge of the vast Rann. In this rural area, the timing of the quake had been a factor in the low death rate - most were outdoors going about their chores when the quake struck at around eight in the morning. But almost all houses were destroyed and the already poor villagers were now staring at possible destitution.
While our team quickly exhausted the few supplies it had brought with them, a fortuitous combination of events made our camp a conduit for supplies that trickled in from the rest of the country. A curious dimension of the relief efforts was the business of "adopting" villages. Soon adoption was assimilated into the corporate lexicon, giving the impression that corporations were more interested in loudly announcing their social responsibility than in providing actual relief. Every tent provided by them was emblazoned with corporate logos and in the towns of Kutch, the sign-painters found unexpected employment. Profiteering corporations were not the only ones fishing in these troubled waters; political parties and assorted babas were also in the fray. Rapar taluka had been "adopted" by the Government of Haryana and their much larger establishment had pitched itself a stone's throw from ours. The Haryana camp was awash with relief material that continued to pour in, but they needed a helping hand in ensuring that these goods were properly distributed. Thus a sort of synergy was established that for some has grown into genuine friendship.
All of the folks in their camp were Government employees, and for most of them this was akin to a punishment posting. But there were genuine exceptions, two block development officers (BDOs, given our tendency to acronymise everything) unlike the others, had chosen to come here. These BDOs - Rishi Dangi and Ashok Garg - were warm, friendly gentlemen; curious, incongruous specimens amidst a bunch of unfeeling, disgruntled clerks, tehsildars, peons and drivers. They worked really hard and were genuinely driven by a desire to help. Working alongside them over a few days I understood that it was men like them who redeemed our otherwise corrupt and unresponsive system of governance. And what more, they did not annoy us with the insufferable sarkari hubris that all the minions amply exhibited. The affable BDO sahebs were the ones who ran the show and working with them also gave me striking insight into the insular, sarkari mind.
Often some of us would ride with the Haryana folks to different villages and help in distributing the aid. For the first few days I was treated shabbily by puny clerks who had nothing but disdain for "these NGOwallas". Perhaps they didn't realise that for our crowd consisting of activists and professionals, being called an NGOwalla was the ultimate insult! I was even rebuked for daring to sit in the front seat of the van, an honour reserved for their saheb. But when the BDOs befriended me, the babu's finely tuned antennae sniffed out this new equation in an instant, and a new pecking order rapidly established itself. Suddenly I was being unctuously fawned upon and to my utter embarrassment was not allowed to even bend down to pick up anything. In sharp contrast with the easy camaraderie of our voluntary camp, the acuteness of bureaucratic power here was very un-nerving.
However from then on things worked out on an even keel with them and I even began to enjoy their robust Haryanvi humour. Their garrulous Sardar jeep-driver was the funniest of the lot. Apparently he had doped himself and driven like a maniac all the way from Haryana to Kutch while everyone sat still with their hearts in their mouths. However this natural propensity for a good laugh was coupled with an undercurrent of contempt for the people and the land of Kutch. They boasted of the beauty and fertility of their own mitti. In their eyes, much used to Green Revolution lushness, the dust-lands of Kutch were worth nothing.
Kutch is indeed a harsh place to live in. Being the desert, the summers are oppressively hot and winter nights are equally unforgiving. During our time there in February, the days were pleasant but by evening the mercury would steadily plummet and the nights were uncomfortably cold. In our camp the ones who turned in early would corner the best spots to sleep in. The rest of us bundled up and deposited ourselves in various formations so as to best avoid the inevitable chill that would steadily creep in through the tent-flap that formed our door. Tents and blankets were the most desperately needed articles, especially here at the very western edge of Kutch where the major relief efforts never arrived. While we had a tent to sleep in, the villagers themselves had no choice but to make do as best as they could. With their houses in shambles, most had no choice but to sleep outdoors - in a tent if they managed to get one - and spend the miserably cold nights contemplating the uncertain morning that was to come. Even those lucky ones whose homes had withstood the quake did not dare sleep indoors for many days.
The stuff that made its way into this far-off corner of India was also very revealing. Undoubtedly people gave whatever they could out of a real felt empathy. Apart from very welcome goods like blankets, fuel and sacks of atta, pulses, potatoes and tins of cooking oil, useful in tiding over the immediate crisis, we had a real problem on our hands. There were mounds and hillocks of used clothes that poured in with a relentless regularity. Tousled, frayed, discoloured and discarded garments of every imaginable cut and fabric invaded Kutch. That the people had no use for these old, useless clothes did not seem to matter, or perhaps their kindly contributors in urban India did not know this. It was as if a gigantic machine was at work, sucking in every available useless raiment and routing it westward.
But the truth was simpler. At a stroke, many urban Indians had cleansed both their closets and conscience. The quake was a perfect excuse to get rid of unwanted stuff. In some places, people refused to accept such junk from their beaming donors who were crushed and angered at an outright rejection of their benevolence. Occasionally, it took a bit of coaxing and sternness on our part in explaining to people that there was such a thing as honour that the Kutchi had to hold on to. In one instance, a bunch of traders and their children from Ajmer found fiendish glee in chucking things out of the back of the truck at their supposed recipients. One could not fathom what prompted a bunch of men to spend days collecting relief material, drive for two days and nights, only to fling them at people in a most demeaning manner. Similar things happened in Latur, I was told. A self-respecting Kutchi fumed at this spectacle and stood apart from the crowd - they are making beggars out of us, he said.
And the possibility was very real. An intervention of this sort could be for the worse, and thinking men worried about its ability to forever destroy the values and self-respect of a people. Some seven decades ago, in the aftermath of the catastrophic Bihar earthquake, Gandhi had remarked at a public meeting in Motihari on March, 15 1934, "The relief committees have the money, and either beggars or workers will take it. And I want no beggars. It would be deplorable if this earthquake turned us into mendicants." But hopefully things would turn out differently here in Kutch. After all, these stoic people were used to trials and tribulations occurring with a remarkable regularity. Perhaps in Kutch, as the writer Randhir Khare recently observed in an elegant travelogue, we would witness the 'triumph of the spirit'.
Kutchis are surely a hardy people. With geography and the environment conspiring against them, an unending string of catastrophes (droughts, famines, earthquakes, and yes, even floods) and often despotic rulers as their historic lot, the people of Kutch necessarily had to be innovative and enterprising to merely survive. Like all hardy people, they made the best of this poor state of affairs and soldiered on. But in the midst of poverty and want, there is also a quiet elegance. We had wandered in after a terrible disaster had hit the land and were not privy to a normal view of their life.
We were not welcomed into their houses, for often there were no houses standing. But in the ruins that lay around us, amidst the shattered remains of so many lives, one would be constantly surprised with snatches of beauty. The houses had necessarily been bare and simple, but like many other communities around the world, people here used an intrinsic human aesthetic to enliven their otherwise hard, dull lives. Inside their houses, corners and alcoves were often lovingly decorated in mud relief, occasionally encrusted with pieces of mirror and coloured glass, all of which imparted an unusual beauty to articles and places of quotidian use. Walking around Balasar I once came across an abandoned, decaying cart which looked ordinary in all respects, except for its wheels, which seemed to burst alive with a strikingly pretty floral pattern chiseled into the wood in the centre. Some peasant had lavished a lot of time and love on it.
Many decades ago, the recently-deceased writer and pioneering art critic Mulk Raj Anand had remarked in an essay entitled Beauty as a Way of Life in the Kutch Villages that "It is quite likely that the plastic and pictorial values of the Kutch village houses are rooted in the traditional belief that each village is a kind of microcosm in a bigger macrocosm. This concept cannot, of course, survive in the world where the back-lash of the agro-industrial incursions into even secluded Kutch is inevitable."
It was after about ten days in this remote area that I visited Rapar, the nearest taluka town. For me it was a surprising and revealing experience. After a few days in this dry ruralscape, the shoddy, small-town jumble of Rapar was a real shock. Strolling down the lanes and streets, I quickly found the rooting pigs and heaps of filth repulsive; it was only then that it dawned on me that the villages we had visited, despite their broken, tumbled-down look were actually very clean. Of course dust was ubiquitous and knowing that it was futile to fight it, the average Kutchi had made his peace with it. But the villages and homesteads were quite clean and orderly. In fact it was the heaps of plastic and packaging material that drifted in with us aid-givers that was threatening to become a real problem.
All of this is not to romanticise the Kutchi experience. I could never imagine trading places with one of them. Kutch is still very poor and an extremely feudal land, caste being an inescapable accompaniment to the miserable climate. Even in the middle of this terrible crisis, a casual, uninformed observer like me could not but help notice the insidiousness of caste. The darbar (village headman, often of Rajput stock) was the boss, and in many villages we saw these headmen throw their weight around and assert their power over others. Since we were an itinerant lot that had landed there in a time of crisis, all we could do was to swallow our anger and live with this reality of their life.
In an attempt to streamline distribution of the material and ensure fair conduct, often we would arrive at a village the previous evening and conduct a meeting. In concordance with representatives of the different castes we would make an elementary head-count of families and individuals. These lists were used the next day during the distribution of goods as the government census figures were outdated (at that time) and in any event they were hard to come by. Strikingly we would find that often families that belonged to lower castes and lived outside the village, or sometimes in the fields, would not be considered by the locals as `belonging' to their village. Sometimes it appeared names were deliberately left out to settle scores. And where such feudal values prevailed, the status of women could not be expected to be any better.
But there was also genuine warmth from the locals. After a few days, a real relationship was struck and some of the residents of Balasar put aside their personal grief and plunged headlong in helping distribute aid. Often in the many hours that we spent distributing material in villages, we would be plied with hot chai. During a long, tiring day the heady milky-sweet concoction helped quell our hunger until the evening when the only meal of the day was served at our camp. Later I would wonder if someone had deprived his family of their day's ration of milk to provide for us outsiders. On another occasion, after I made a call home from one of the phone booths, the owner waved away my payment. He knew why we were there, and it was his way of saying 'thank you'.
When I think of my days in Kutch, I have two vivid memories. One is of a shockingly beautiful Rabari girl, some seven years of age. Dressed from head to toe in the traditional black with a smattering of silver trinkets for jewelry she had the most riveting eyes. Outsiders are always a curiosity and one got used to being gawked at. But somehow when I glanced around, her frank stare had left me strangely unsettled, and haunted me for a long time.
The other memory is from a trip to the Harappan excavation site of Dholavira. As our time at the camp was nearing an end, we had exhausted most of the supplies that could be distributed and had lots of time on hand. So a few of us decided to make a trip here. For company on this trip, we had Vinay, a soft-spoken folk balladeer who along with his partner were among the handful who could craft and meld a social message into a grippingly powerful poem or song. Having spent years working with the migratory herdsmen of Kutch, he was a veritable treasure-house of local knowledge and lore. As our jeep headed towards the Rann, Vinay chatted with us about life in this arid land. Suddenly the sightings of chinkari and the ubiquitous chloropsis that flitted in and out of the scrub were that much more enjoyable.
Situated on an island in the Great Rann, Dholavira represents the southern outreaches of the Harappan civilisation. First excavated in 1967, it is one of the largest urban sites of the Indus civilisation within territorial India. The Rann is an immense, endless salt-pan, a thick layer of salt deposit left behind by the retreat of an ancient sea. It is shared with Pakistan and the border lay somewhere in the middle of this vast no-man's land. Patrolling of this border was sparse as it is only the truly hardy (or perhaps the fool-hardy) intruder who would try to sneak into India across this unforgiving landscape where he would in any case be easily detectable. The weather-beaten and wind-whipped salt cracked up in gigantic sheets and flaked and crumbled into myriad shards and shapes. Absurdly, the whiteness all around us reminded me of one winter when I was in Boston and the river had frozen. Gingerly venturing across the frozen waters was an eerie, exhilarating and positively hazardous experience. Here in Kutch, the deep deposits of salt posed no such danger of falling through the cracks, but even a few minutes of walking around on this immense, barren whiteness filled one with a strange desolation.
At first sight Dholavira was uninspiring, a bunch of low, slowly undulating mounds and hillocks. The Government, with its penchant for rules, had put up signs with stern warnings. Littering and trash was sensibly prohibited and with bureaucratic obduracy photography was not allowed. But like everywhere else, Indians observed these rules more in their violation. Scraps of plastic wrappers and assorted urban refuse dotted the area and as the Nepali gurkha on guard moaned, gaggles of tourists arrived in buses and raucously posed for illicit family pictures. The guard was an employee of the Archaeological Survey of India and proudly doubled up as our tour guide. He walked us around the sprawling site and pointed to distinguishing features of the exposed brick-work and water channels.
After some prodding, he shyly talked about his own problems. I wondered at the absurdity of poverty in our subcontinent. This hill-dweller from Nepal was driven to seek employment in the far outer edges of this unfamiliar land. And in a place stricken by both poverty and cultural insularity, he was hated for being an outsider with a coveted Government job. In the midst of such wide-spread distress, his plight struck me as being particularly unfair. It was some two weeks after the quake when we visited Dholavira, but no official had as yet bothered to check on the well-being of their employee here. And the locals in the adjacent villages refused to share their relief material with him. Go get it from your government, you don't belong to our village, they snarled.
However the true import and absurdity of all this really hit home many months later. When the Tehelka scam broke, I was reminded of this proud and honourable man. When we left Dholavira, I had tried to give him a few rupees. But he flatly refused to accept it leaving me wondering if I had been clumsy in my tipping. He who was paid a pittance of a salary said that showing us around was part of his job. This while the fixers in Delhi raked in crores on shady defence deals, for buying arms that would defend us from the menacing bogeyman who lived on the other side of the Rann of Kutch.