We left Pokhran's part fort, part hotel in the morning, having said our goodbyes to Daulat Singh. Daulat Singh managed the hotel part, the government sold pink tickets for visitors to other portions within the red walls.
Daulat Singh has a slight limp, a sciatica problem, aggravated by the steep stairs and many levels he must negotiate daily. His crutch is a Slazenger hockey stick, which he holds upside down. It eases the pain and is the best use of a hockey stick I’ve seen an Indian make in some time.
Lifting the Slazenger slightly to point, Daulat Singh said: “You need to take the road toward where the Pokhran blast took place, towards Khetolai, turn left at the Odaniya Chacha railway crossing. Daevo Khan knows, of course.” Odaniya
isn’t some important uncle. It is a sensibly named railway station that serves two villages: Odaniya and Chacha. In the neighbourhood, there are many similar examples: Thaiyat Hamira, Bhadriya Lathi. All part of Jodhpur Jaisalmer.
The last time I went to Daevo Khan’s village was during the disorienting downpour of last year’s monsoon. Even Daevo had a hard time navigating the swamps and ponds that covered the tracks that led to Keraliya. In early October, though, there was water where it was supposed to be: in brimming ponds, where livestock slaked years of thirst.
It was all the greenery that caused difficulty. Rajasthan became unrecognisable last year. The fields were full of jowar and bajra. The shrubs were having orgies on the sand. There were trees exploding out of dunes. This was fantastic, overall. But not when you’re trying to find the way to a village and the navigator remembers the route differently.
His memories don’t have the colour green in them. Daevo regularly took wrong turns to reach his house, and from what I gathered, this was happening to everyone. Everyone was getting lost. We reached, eventually. If I have the address correctly, it is:
<b1>Village Keraliya, Post Lathi, Tehsil Pokhran, Dist Jaisalmer, Rajasthan 345023. India. Keraliya has 200 families (Mixed. 80 Rajput plus other Hindus, Muslims and Manganiyars); 5,000 heads of livestock; a tubewell 4 km away for drinking water; a sleepy school, where broken English is taught; no health centre; no roads leading to it (which is odd for a village that has existed from the time of the princely states); 564 votes.
How to bite/drink a bullet, make adjustments
There is a sweet formality about Keraliya. Any conversation with a Manganiyar in which a Rajput was present demonstrated this. Everybody was a
(patron, master). Every conversation ended with “I am happy to be a part of this community. I am happy with my jajmaan.” There was no artifice in the statement. Just a sweet, practiced, perfected formality. Sundry jajmaans arrived at Daevo’s home that evening.
After elaborate introductions (I was a famous writer, Himanshu, the top photographer in India) we returned to the music. I naively asked Daevo why he wasn’t pouring his new guests a drink. He replied with charm and unbearable guilelessness. Addressing them rather than me, he said that the Rajputs had not brought their tumblers.
Oooops. Le grand faux pas! One of the Rajputs produced his wallet shortly afterward, waved a couple of bills. These were taken, and bottles of cold beer appeared. If a drink was consumed straight from the bottle, there could be no objections. (On technical grounds. Bullet beer was not around when the rules were made, and the bottle wasn’t assigned a caste/community.)
This singing and drinking was taking place one day after Allahabad High Court suggested a three way split of some land several thousands of km away. The court had emphasised certain technical grounds. In the desert, everybody makes adjustments. They ration baths, drinking water. In happy times, like now, these are easy adjustments. The Manganiyars do it as effortlessly as when they adjust scale before a performance.
Seating, even on the slope of a dune, is adjusted jajmaan downwards. As is the service of liquor. Some folk need to carry their glasses. Others needn’t. They are given little steel bowls, to be used for the daal later in the evening, and patiently wait their turn to be asked. They drink what is poured neat.
They see is no indignity in this. Just the setting aside of ego for the sake of survival, peace. The Rajputs make their adjustments as well. Bhagwan Singh tells me that their community were actually afraid of the Manganiyars.
“If you didn’t invite them to perform, or didn’t give them what they demanded, they would create one hell of a racket in public. It was better to just give in. But that’s changed.” What did he have to pay, for a family function now? “Varies, but say twenty thousand rupees.” Daevo steps in: “The payment is up to us. I’ve asked for a camel. Or a set of gold earrings. He’s said: I don’t have a camel. I don’t have earrings. Slipped a ring out from his finger and said, ‘will this do?’ and we’ve said yes.”
This is a man who (with his fellow musicians), has opened theatre festivals in Dublin and Sydney, performed at the Barbican in London, and played at New York’s Lincoln Center in November last year. We are talking at a place of great importance. This is Keraliya’s ‘Kotdee’; meeting place. An open congregation area where all communities sit to discuss the affairs of their world, and congregate for festivals and marriages.
Seating is designated. The Rajputs used to be in the enclosed area, complete with hukka facilities, but that section is crumbling. Now they sit to one side of the platform outside. The others, the Swamis, Suthars (carpenters), Bhils, Muslims and Manganiyars, arrange themselves thereafter like they’ve always done.
The Kotdee has been around for more than 200 years, according to oral history. It is a magnificent apology for a fort. Attached to the original hall is a single 15-foot cylindrical mud-brick structure. With slits for guns and holes for cannons. Innocent of strategy. Built by the founder of the village, an ancestor of Bhagwan Singh’s called Raj Singh.
(Formal introductions to members of this family must include a “Thakur ki potey ka pota” or something similar.) The grounds of the Kotdee is where, perhaps a hundred years back, a strong man called Achal Singh extended the boundaries of not just Keraliya, but won ground for the Bhatis of the erstwhile Jaisalmer State.
<b2>The story goes that some people from the contiguous, but slightly more prosperous, Sanawada village in the state of Jodhpur (of the Rathores) threw down a rash challenge when Keraliya villagers asked them to donate a little land.
Sanawada elders laughed. Saw a one-and-a-half quintal chunk of sandstone lying on the grounds of the Kotdee and said: “One of you carry this across the border towards our village. The land is yours till the spot where you drop it. Take our village if you can.”
Achal Singh volunteered, and kept walking, stone and all. He was dangerously close to Sanawada when one of the elders slapped him hard on the back saying, “Well done,” saving his village in the process. Achal Singh dropped the stone. The borders were “adjusted.”
One entity refuses to make any adjustments, however. This is the State. The Kotdee is a small but proud structure. In glorious disrepair. Instead of a restoration, the MLA LADS scheme allotted money to build a new ‘sarvajan sabha’.
This is a dysfunctional concrete ‘hall’ with shut (rusting) iron windows that has been built right next to the original Kotdee. It isn’t used, but it represents architectural irony of the highest order. So scrawled on a tin board was a little boast: it said the sabha was made operational in 2007, at a cost of Rs 2.3 lakh.
Why didn’t they just spend the money on repairs to the old structure?
“The yojana only covered the building of new structures,” said Bhagwan Singh, knowledgeably. “The scheme did not allow repairs.”
Somewhat overwhelmed by the hospitality extended to us, I made what I thought was a grand gesture: I would cook a meal of Jangli Maas for the extended family that had descended upon Daevo’s house. Haakam Khan and his two assistants had arrived earlier on a tractor straight from their farm, stopping only to pick up their kamachas, dholaks and harmoniums. Others were just around.
Those who know me, know that I’m a slight show-off about my ability to cook. Also, I enjoy cooking. So the gesture wasn’t that grand after all. In fact, I would like the access to Daevo’s kitchen. Daevo, generously, agreed. Jangli Maas requires very few ingredients and very little prep or supervision, so we were set.
On the dune, one of the hangers on had smoked up. He seemed very interested to know how Daevo and I had become such good friends that I could cook in his home. He inhaled deeply and popped a loaded question, in English:
“You see Daevo Khan kitchen?”
“No, not yet...”
“You see bathroom?”
“No... I haven’t...”
Now I thought the guy was having me on. I became uncomfortable. “No, I...”
“Then what you have seen my work? I am contractor. I make Daevo house.”
“Oh! It is excellent. Very nice. Very good!” (Daevo’s new concrete and sandstone house is yet to be completed, but the family uses it. It is, indeed, excellent.)
Subhaan was the proverbial village idiot. Always there, inquisitive, but saying nothing. And constantly being shooed away because guests had arrived. To this, Subhaan had only one response: he would break into a disarming gap-toothed smile. It was contagious. It would buy him time.
<b4>The dirt and drivel on his long blue shirt (the same colour as the boys’ school uniform, though he didn’t have the khaki shorts) led me to ask where he lived and who his parents were.
I never got any clear answers. He lived “there.” His parents were “somewhere here.” He has been this way since an “illness at infancy.” Or, “No, no. He was born like this. Has never spoken.” And then to Subhaan: Chalo, chalo...! There was only one way to get rid of Subhaan. You had to show him a cell phone. Then, he ran away in fear. From high dunes around Keraliya, you can spot the hut clusters that mark villages miles away. But these are hard to see. Much easier, says Daevo, if you look out for the cellphone tower:
“See that tower? That is Lathi.”
“BEFORE SAFETY. ALWAYS, BEFORE SAFETY.”
Bhanwar Singh, the ex-BSF man and perfect gentleman, asked for permission. I would not blame him for broaching the subject. Bottles of it were being emptied before his eyes. He was being asked to fetch the occasional mixer from the car. To the top of a high dune, over which presided a 200-year-old temple with occult, secular slants to it. The village had been built around the temple.
It is a place of worship to which there isn’t one road. In fact, there isn’t a road at all. You make your own way. Now, in front of the temple sat a bunch of exceptionally talented musicians. Some of whom were pouring drinks, and some of whom were tuning up. The sun was threatening to set. Bhanwar Singh is not to be blamed. He hesitantly asked: “Can I take two drinks after 8’o clock?” He was to drive us back to Pokhran Fort, whenever the evening ended, so I wouldn’t commit.
At Daevo’s house, where we moved after dark, it seemed cruel not to allow the man a drop or two. The musicians had warmed up by now. Out in the open verandah, it was a multi-star night.
Bhanwar Singh got his wish. Time came for dinner. He would not wake up. Daevo tried, failed and solved the problem. He would drive us back, Bhanwar Singh would be co-pilot. Sleeping partner. Daevo drove fast. Bhanwar Singh didn’t like this. Each time the needle went beyond 80, it would prick him into a state of consciousness. “This is my car. My responshibilty. (hic)”
Daevo: “You are a senior person. How can I let you drive past midnight?
“Then drive properly. It is my responshibilty.”
Daevo: “Am I driving fast? I swear on you, my father, and your father. I am not driving fast.”
“Please don’t disrespect my late father.”
Daevo: “Ok. Sorry. Sorry. Just look at the meter (as he covered it)... Am I driving fast?”
“I am not a tonga driver. I got my license in 1973. I know when you are driving fast.” Bhanwar Singh was interested only in ‘safety first.’
“Before safety! Always, before safety!” he said, with finality and as much authority as you can muster when you’ve been relegated to a passenger seat in a desert rally.
This story appeared in the Brunch Quarterly, the new lifestyle magazine from Hindustan Times. Out on stands now.
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